Gonzalo Rubalcaba
Dongfeng Liu
China Afro Cuba

Release Date: August 9, 2024
UPC Code: 880956240725
Availability: Worldwide
Selection #: ZM 202407

1. JASMINE 4:46
Chinese Trad.
Chinese Trad.
Weng Ching-hsi

Chinese Trad.
He Zhanhao, Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg
Scott LaFaro
Xian Xinghai

Chinese Trad.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba piano
Dongfeng Liu piano
Maestro Dongfeng Liu is back. And this time he brought a friend, mentor, and genius collaborator in Gonzalo Rubalcaba. In his 2018 ZOHO release China Caribe, Liu explored the music of China and the Caribbean, a remarkable opus that awakened many not only to a new sound but fresh way of thinking. There is an often-overlooked history of Chinese immigrants coming to the Americas, including Cuba, stretching back to the nineteenth century. Liu’s musical initiatives are vintage and at the vanguard. China Afro Cuba is indeed music at the frontline of composition and harmony but also interchange and friendship.

There is an ancient Chinese saying, “Lofty mountains and flowing water meet a kindred spirit -- and colorful clouds chasing the moon meet a bosom friend.” It comes from a philosophical text written some 2,000 years ago. Liu believes the symbolism of this line represents his musical friendship with Rubalcaba. Indeed, Rubalcaba is one the greatest artists of his generation. What may seem like an unusual pairing – Cuban and Chinese musicians – is anything but. They flow together as kindred spirits. “We are two pianists having an exploratory and innovative musical conversation. We’ve made a non-traditional interpretation of traditional music,” says Liu.

Jasmine is a Chinese folk song which originates from the Qianlong period of the Qing Dynasty (1736 – 1795). It’s well-known and interpreted widely in China. In this rendition, Liu invokes two versions to play the high and low parts simultaneously with slightly differing melodies, incorporating Bach-style polyphony. Rubalcaba enters with a well-performed Cuban son which may seem jarring, as if cultures colliding. Both artists rely on their significant jazz vocabulary to navigate as they would in a live performance, eventually returning to the main melody, which ends with gentle and lingering lines.

Kangding Love Song is a veritable funk with alacrity. The groove sounds as if Jaco Pastorious is part of the session, moving up and down his Fretless fender bass. This is a Sichuan folk song with quite a story. In fact, NASA played it in the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989, as the piece had previously been dubbed one of the ten most representative folk songs in the world. It has also been performed by the likes of Placido Domingo and Timi Zhuo. This rendition showcases Liu and Rubalcaba utilizing their canon playing technique. “The music expresses the good mood you might find among young lovers,” said Liu.

The Moon Represents My Heart is a quintessential Chinese pop song which was reinterpreted in 1977 by Teresa Teng. It became one of the most popular songs among the Chinese community. Liu and Rubalcaba deliver a touching, searing, and moving performance. It’s pop song meets jazz ballad.

Lofty Mountains and Flowing Water is one of the most well-known numbers in China’s history. The original song is about Boya, a master of the guqin, which is a seven-string zither-like instrument played since antiquity. Boya believes that he and his music are misunderstood. But that’s until he meets Zhong Ziqi who readily understands the essence of Boya’s music. They became friends, partners, and confidantes. When Zhong Ziqi died, Boya destroyed his instrument and never played it again. He believed nobody would ever be able to understand his music. It’s quite fitting that Liu and Rubalcaba chose this piece because it’s inspired by such a storied musical friendship. It begins with the piano emulating the playing method of the guqin, which evolves into a middle section of chacha with fierce and fascinating improvisation. The piece returns to a calm and tranquil place. It’s the environment conducive for having a conversation among close friends. “Praise the preciousness of confidants,” concludes Liu.

The Butterfly Lovers fuses modernity with tradition, as it integrates elements of folk opera with Chinese and Western cultures. The piece invokes the familiar Over the Rainbow followed by the traditional Chinese melody, but not without bringing in a rhythm which typifies Afro Cuban music. E.P. Harburg’s lyrics from the song made famous by The Wizard of Oz are about some of the same themes as this Chinese number: flying, harmony, and love. The interplay between Liu and Rubalcaba is a highlight of the entire album, as they toggle gracefully between through-performances, improvisation, intricate rhythms, and marvelous polyphony.

Gloria’s Steps might make you think you’re on shuffle mode and landed on a Bill Evans album. Composed by bassist Scott LaFaro, this piece is synonymous with Evans and his trio. That two genius pianists have reinterpreted such a beloved work reveals the lineage of their mutual ideas and inspiration.

Ode to the Yellow River is from the second movement of “Yellow River Cantata,” composed by Xian Xinghai in 1939 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. It’s about the yearning for a better and more peaceful life. Liu and Rubalcaba adapted the piece with a 6/8 meter. They played several chords in the prelude as an allusion to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” while incorporating elements from China’s northern Shaanxi folk music. That’s a wordy way to say – no borders! That is, the music draws upon eclectic and unusual inspirations. In Liu and Rubalcaba’s solos, you hear a jam session of inventiveness, as the two friends take turns to share their ideas, sensibilities, and modalities.

Colorful Clouds Chasing the Moon might prompt astute listeners to remember Liu’s performance of this number on China Caribe. However, this version features the rhythm of Timba with Rubalcaba’s incandescent playing. There is a pulsing and continual nature of the piece, which undoubtedly sends the message that while the album may be concluding, the music never stops.

China Afro Cuba is a marvelous mashup of contemporary Cuban and traditional Chinese music. Liu and Rubalcaba have imagined a world without boundaries and infinite possibilities. The result is hopping and popping joy! It’s impossible not to smile and dance along to this gorgeous music. With orchestras at their fingertips, these two remarkable artists have created a piano duet album with breathtaking tones, timbres, contrast and cadence. Let their music be an example of what can happen when friends come together with both talent and tenderheartedness.

Kabir Sehgal

Producers: Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Joachim “Jochen” Becker, Kabir Sehgal.
Recorded at Criteria Studios, Miami, FL in February 2024. Recording Engineer, Mixing, Mastering: Carlos Alvarez.
Mixing Engineer: Mario Garcia Haya – EME Producciones, Santo Domingo. Photography: Joao Gonzalez.
Art Direction and Package Design: Al Gold. Liner Notes: Kabir Sehgal.
Executive producer: Joachim “Jochen” Becker.

Gonzalo Rubalcaba appears courtesy of 5Passion Records.
Dongfeng Liu thanks Steinway & Sons pianos.


Publishers: Public Domain (1 – 4, 8); EMI Feist Catalog Inc., Crc Jianian Publishing (5); Orpheum Music (6); Xian Xinghai (7).