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Don’t Change My Name is a three-movement opera that conjures the spirit of an enslaved princess to honor the rich Arará tradition in Cuba.


Don’t Change My Name is a new opera for a live ensemble (piano, bass, drums, Batá and Arará percussion, horns, electric guitar, marimba) and 12-member choir that honors the rich yet often unheralded Arará tradition.

This compelling work draws inspiration from the life of Florentina Zulueta, who later became a champion for the Arará community in Cuba. Born in 1828 in Dahomey (now Benin), both her life and her name were never her own. As a little girl, she was first given the name “Tolo-Ño” while living in the Lucumí region (now Nigeria). While in Dahomey, she was forced into slavery and her name was once again changed to “Na-Tegué.” At 15, she was brought to Cuba, captured and sold to Julián de Zulueta y Amondo, a notorious slave owner in Perico, who branded her with a hot metal iron as his property and forever changed her name to Florentina Zulueta.

Divided into three acts (“Tolo-Ño,” “Na-Tegué,” and “Florentina”), each one charts the plight of her capture and enslavement. The Arará tradition grew out of this unspeakable plight, combining the sorrow of an entire displaced people from their West African homelands, with an inevitable release through music and dance in their newly adopted home of Cuba. The melody for each movement evolves, both in form as well as in Florentina’s narrative arc, while incorporating African rhythms, dance and chanting.

Arará is one of the least known traditions in Afro-Cuban music. Unlike Santería, Arará is an exclusive religion practiced in very few homes in the Matanzas region, rarely presented at live venues or public places. To experience it, you either need to be initiated into the religion, or invited to participate in an Arará ceremony. Don’t Change My Name will not only provide insight for the general public into this secluded culture, but also highlights this untapped music, both in its original form and fused with jazz and other elements, instruments, and influences never experienced before in the Arará tradition.

Cuban-born pianist and composer Elio Villafranca serves as the librettist, composer and performer of the operatic suite. Classically trained in piano, percussion, and composition at the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana, Cuba, since coming to the U.S. in 1995, Villafranca has been at the forefront of today’s musicians whose work fuses classical and jazz with traditional music from the African diaspora. Based in New York City, in addition to touring, he is also a jazz faculty member at The Juilliard School of Music, Manhattan School of Music, New York University, and Temple University in Philadelphia.

In collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center, public performances of the work are scheduled for the 2022-2023 season at either the Appel Room or Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, where Villafranca is scheduled each year to present new works. Support is requested for the recording and production costs of Don’t Change My Name prior to a live performance of the work.

Project Media

Troubled Waters
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Features: Elio Villafranca

This sample of “Troubled Waters” begins with Cinque in chains and being forced onto a ship. The music charts his journey at sea and at 4:31, he leads an heroic revolt and assumes control over the Cuban schooner La Amistad. The song heard at the beginning comes from the Gangá religion in Sierra Leone (Cinque’s birthplace), which I recorded in Matanzas, Cuba. This is where Florentina Zulueta, the titular character of my newest suite Don’t Change My Name, lived as a slave but ultimately became a leader of the Arará community. (Duration 5:00)

The Night at Bwa Kay Man
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Features: Elio Villafranca

“The Night at Bwa Kay Man” is inspired by the infamous night of August 14th, 1791 when Dutty Boukman, the Haitian Voodoo Mambo High Priest, presided over the religious ceremony at Bwa Kayman, which sparked the 1791 slave revolt in Saint Domingue. Through my research, I found the actual words (freedom, respect and love) Boukman shared with the free maroons who attended the ceremony. I drew from the poetic and beautiful way in which he spoke that night to create the melody and overall tone of the piece. (Duration: 4:00)

La Burla de Los Congos
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Features: Elio Villafranca

“La Burla de Los Congos” combines a song to Maluagda, which is a sacred figure in the Tambor Yuka tradition, and the incredible sense of humor the Congolese had in the midst of their suffering as slaves. During their celebrations, the Congolese people were known to find ways to make fun of themselves and their owner’s idiosyncrasies. I used one of the humorous tales of Juanseslao Barrios, a descendant of the Congo, that he heard from family members to inspire and compose the musical theme in this piece. (Duration 4:26)

Start and End Dates



New York, New York

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New York, New York


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