At the 57th Grammy Awards pre-telecast, Associate Director of Duke Performances Eric Oberstein, (T ’07) won the Best Latin Jazz Album Grammy for his work as producer on the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra album The Offense of the Drum. He stood smiling on the stage with the album’s contingent and Orchestra’s director, famed jazz musician Arturo O’Farrill, who accepted the award.
“We were somewhere in the middle of the pack, and when we heard our name it was pretty remarkable,” Oberstein said.
This was his second time at the Grammys, as one of the Orchestra’s earlier albums was nominated for a Grammy in 2011, but did not win.
“This time, all of the other nominees were incredibly strong,” Oberstein said. “The Latin jazz community is a small but mighty community. We’re all working as friends and collaborators, and it was really great to see other nominees get recognized.”
This victory makes him the only Duke employee, including faculty, who has won a Grammy award. In October of last year, he and the Orchestra also won a Latin Grammy for their effort Final Night at Birdland.
“I don’t feel particularly notable,” he said. “I feel like a regular Duke alum.”
Latin jazz, the genre Oberstein and the Orchestra work in, is a mixture of American jazz music and Cuban music that sprung partly from famed 1947 collaborations between American jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo.
Oberstein is half-Cuban, and he said he grew up with Cuban music “in the blood.”
“My family was always playing music and we would have these family parties in Queens at my great aunt’s house where they would be playing all sorts of styles of Cuban music and all sorts of music across Latin America,” he said. “We were taught to appreciate and respect the music from Cuba.”
At Duke, he was a member of Duke’s Afro Cuban Jazz ensemble and wrote his thesis on Cuban music following the Soviet collapse.
Oberstein has been involved with the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra since 2007 in various capacities, first as an intern, and later as creative director. Now he moonlights from his day job at Duke Performances as a producer for the group—a position he describes as a “labor of love.”
“This is a passion project for me; it grows out of my free time and it’s music that I love and my heritage,” he said. “To work with these artists I admire as colleagues—that is the beautiful part of it for me.”
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Director of Duke Performances Aaron Greenwald said he thinks that Oberstein’s two jobs complement each other.
“Being an able performing arts presenter and working as a producer allows you to keep on your feet,” Greenwald said. “We’re really proud of him… I really appreciate the work and the incredible intelligence that he brings to his job here.”
Oberstein and O’Farrill worked on the album for several years before releasing it in May 2014 as the collective’s fourth record.
“The concept of the album is that the drum—especially in Latin jazz and Latin music—holds significance. It’s the beat that emanates from all of us,” Oberstein said. “We see the drum as a powerful instrument.”
The title of the album was inspired by a historical moment when drum circles were banned from New York City public parks. The “offense” refers to the drum’s resistance to being silenced.
The album itself features over 30 types of percussion instruments and is meant to represent the depth and variety of Latin jazz music. Oberstein said that the majority of tracks came from concerts the Orchestra would hold with different performers and features the most successful of these collaborations. The artists on The Offense are eclectic and range from jazz pianist and Harvard professor Vijay Lyer (“Mad Hatter”) to spoken word artist Chilo (“They Came”).
“Arturo is very much about both honoring and preserving the origins of the music at this time but pushing the music forward and commissioning new pieces and really exploring what the music can be,” Oberstein said.
One of the collaborators on the album is another Duke alum, saxophonist Todd Bashore (T ’94), who arranged the last track on the album, “Iko Iko”.
“It was originally for a concert at Symphony Space titled CubaNOLA, which explored the rhythmic relationship between Cuban music and music from New Orleans,” Bashore said.
This is the second album he has been involved with that has won a Grammy. Bashore was an alto sax chair on O’Farrill’s legendary father’s band before it dissolved several years ago and was replaced by the Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra.
“He’s an unbelievable saxophonist,” Oberstein said. “And we got to bond over love for Latin jazz and our love for Duke basketball.”
Oberstein and O’Farrill are currently working on their sixth album, which is tentatively titled The Conversation Continued. The two were recording in Cuba for the project during Christmas when President Barrack Obama announced that his administration was going to begin normalizing relations with Cuba.
“I landed in Cuba during the morning of the historic announcement,” Oberstein said. “Being a producer engaged in this music, this was surreal and remarkable.”