Durham’s Eric Oberstein has had an eventful few months: Sure, he took home a Grammy on Sunday night for his work as the producer on an album by longtime friend and collaborator Arturo O’Farrill. But he’s just returned from a trip to Cuba to record his next album with O’Farrill, too—all while holding down his fulltime position as associate director of Duke Performances.

“This past weekend was fun and surreal, but it’s the icing on the cake. We do it because we love the music. Me being in the studio with these artists, that’s the cake for me,” Oberstein says. “It’s been a wild couple months. We’ve been doing a pretty good batting average.”

This isn’t the first time Oberstein has won a Grammy. In November, he and company took home the Latin Grammy for Final Night at Birdland by Arturo O’Farrill & The Chico O’Farrill Afro Cuban Jazz Orchestra. And on Sunday, he nabbed the Grammy for The Offense of the Drum by Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in the Best Latin Jazz Album category. (Read our October feature about the albums here.)

During the recent Los Angeles weekend, Oberstein attempted to absorb all he could of the Grammy spectacle. He attended a lifetime awards ceremony and several nominee receptions before finally stepping onstage himself, at Sunday’s pre-telecast, to receive the Best Latin Jazz award from director John Waters.

“The wildest experience was when they called our name,” he says. “You have one of those moments where you ascend the stairs and think, ‘Wow, I’m about to shake John Waters’ hand.’ ”

While Oberstein says running into celebrities like Neil Patrick Harris and Chick Corea was cool, he was equally fascinated by his peek behind the scenes at how the ceremonies work, given his gig as an arts presenter.

“After you win, they take you through this whole labyrinth of press rooms and photo shoots. It’s amazing how it’s all choreographed,” Oberstein says. “I’m a huge nut for logistics. Between the pre-telecast, and the telecast in the Staples Center next door, it’s quite the operation.”

Though he was seated “in the nosebleed seats” for the live show, Oberstein appreciated the range of performances, from the intensity and pyrotechnics of AC/DC to Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett singing jazz: “This year they seemed to be championing a lot of sensitive artists. There was no shortage of gospel choirs when you needed them for backup.”


Oberstein isn’t resting on his laurels, or Grammys. The next album with O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra is already recorded, awaiting only mixing and mastering. The group cut the record, provisionally titled The Conversation Continues, in Havana’s Abdala Studios in December. Oberstein arrived there on the same morning that the U.S. announced its reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Composers and arrangers on this joint Cuban-American project include Michele Rosewoman, Dafnis Prieto, Bobby Carcasses, Alexis Bosch, Zack

O’Farrill and Michel Herrera.

“We’re looking for a release by summer,” he says. “We think it’s really timely and we want to get it out there.”

As public indifference toward the Grammys continues to grow (Nielsen ratings dropped by 13 percent this year for the show’s lowest viewership since 2009), Oberstein believes that having a seat at the table of American music still holds currency.

“When they eliminated our category in 2011, that was a big deal. To have that platform taken away, Latinos contributing to jazz, that was painful,” Oberstein says. “I’m obviously thrilled that the category was restored, but we can’t say the same for a lot of other categories that were cut and never restored.”

Of all the Grammy celebs he rubbed elbows with, Oberstein gets most pumped talking about someone who didn’t win—a fellow nominee who shared his flight back to RDU: Alice Gerrard, the octogenarian nominated for Best Folk Album for Follow the Music, produced by Hiss Golden Messenger’s Mike Taylor.

“I thought it was super cool to see her representing Durham,” Oberstein says. “I’m just thrilled that there’s a community of folks here who are doing this work. It’s just exciting.”