Roberto Fonseca: Back to explore the Afro-Cuban connection  

by Evan Milton

Cuban piano firebrand Roberto Fonseca returns to South Africa for 'SoundBite', two shows with SAMA winning jazz guitarist Jimmy Dludlu in support of the Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital.

Roberto Fonseca toured the world with Cuban music phenomenon, The Buena Vista Social Club, and, then, with one of its stars, Ibrahim Ferrer. His solo albums have seen him dubbed as "the most charismatic Cuban musician of his generation" and his latest release, "Yo",  sees the 36-year-old Havana native exploring the Afro-Cuban connection - and his Yoruba heritage. His first musical interest was the drums, often pointed to by critics as a reason for the percussive elements to his piano style. Following launch concerts across Europe, South Africa is the first African country to hear the album dedicated to this continent.
"Cuban people are very connected with the legacy of Africa," says Fonseca from his tour hotel somewhere in France. Despite the tinny line, Fonseca's voice exudes a sculpted self-confidence. It echoes the startling imagery for "Yo", rich with visual deconstructions of what it means to be a musical young lion exploring the Afro-Cuban connection in the 21st century.
"I use a lot of African elements, because our roots come from Africa, especially Nigeria and the Yoruba religion," he says. "I was really enjoying the photo sessions - the main thing was to express to people, in a simple way, what I am trying to say. It's why the album is called 'Yo', and it's why I am almost naked with a piano in my fingers. Before people have even heard the album, people have a lot of information about what is in there: the pictures needed to be strong, but natural and pure, and understanding that you can embrace this position."
Fonseca calls the new work "a way to discuss myself through music" and reports that the European shows are going well, judging from "the happy reaction of the people". This reception is not that surprising, given the diaspora of stars collected together to realise Fonseca's vision. Two Malian griots - "talking drum" master Baba Siccoko and kora virtuoso Seckou Kouyate - are joined by rising star Fatoumata Diawara, the Ivory Coast-born, Mali-raised and France-tutored "new voice of Mali".
"I was really happy about the album after we finished recording, but we needed a female voice; someone that was really special," says Fonseca. "We decided to call Fatoumata after her work with Oumou Sangare and Dee Dee Bridgewater. She did such a really great job that for me, now, the album has full completion."
Fonseca is a bold musical voice. He played at the Havana "Jazz Plaza" Festival at age 15, in 1991. By 1999, he had won the Cuba’s Best Jazz Album award (for "En El Comienzo" with the group Temperamento) and recorded his first solo album, "Tiene Que Ver", which melded urban influences like drum 'n bass and hip-hop with jazzy Afro-Cuban rhythms. By 2001, in addition to recording another solo work in Japan, he was touring with the Buena Vista Social Club, and recorded with Rubén González, Ibrahim Ferrer and other stars from that ground-breaking "world music" project.
"It was an amazing experience to work with them, and a rare opportunity to play Cuban music," he says. "Ibrahim Ferrer was very important for my life, and for my knowledge of music. When I was with him, I was always learning - it was like a living school of traditional music. After that, you have a kind of pressure if you do your own project - you have to prove your skills and your knowledge. But you also have to show to people how you can do your own music in a clear, pure way. The pressure is there, but it's good - I am doing what I love: playing music and sharing with people. Also, I like taking musical risks, that is why I always look for a way to play my own style."
After more than 400 shows with Buena Vista and Ferrer, Fonseca added elements of the classical music he had studied at Cuba’s Instituto Superior de Arte - where he graduated with a master's degree in composition - to record "Zamazu" (2007). The album produced the arresting "Llego Cachaito", featured in the soundtrack of the Will Smith / Charlize Theron film, "Hancock”.
That Fonseca will showcase "Yo" is a rare treat for local audiences. It is a chance to see a proven, but still eagerly experimental composer who is also a consummate performer. More importantly, to see such a musician as he unveils his most musically adventurous and socially conscious work.
"I really like to break rules in music; to go beyond the boundaries," he says. "For another person, if he was part of Buena Vista, then there is an easy way to get money or get famous by trying to play the same thing, or to cover it. But I call myself someone who looks at the future, and that is not my point. I really like to search for my way, and to express this through music."
Roberto Fonseca, playing piano and keyboards, leads a Cuban ensemble to Cape Town, playing alongside the 2012 South African Music Award winner for Jazz, Jimmy Dludlu, at the inaugural "SoundBite" series on Friday 1 June at St George's Cathedral ("corner" of Adderley St and St George's Mall, 7pm) and on Saturday 2 June at the City Hall (Grand Parade, 7pm). Tickets R300 from In support of Nelson Mandel Children's Hospital and in association with the City of Cape Town and the Cuban Embassy.

This piece by Evan Milton first appeared in the Cape Argus "Good Weekend" of 2012/05/19

Music journalist, Digital marketing strategist, SA Music Awards judge and radio DJ for Fine Music Radio.

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