Roberto Fonseca

Photo © Jorge Guiro

When pianist Roberto Fonseca plays, the music seeps from every pore in his body, at times on stage he stands and hammers the piano as if it were a percussion instrument or he grabs a drum and transforms his group into a comparsa – the Cuban carnival groups that parade the streets once a year – and gets the audiences dancing euphorically.

YO, Fonseca’s new album, continues this party like never before.  Recognized as a major influence on modern Cuban jazz, and jazz in general, he proves that his horizons are not limited by the subtleties of jazz, nor to just the Caribbean.

That he has chosen to title it simply ‘yo’, ‘I’ , or ‘me’  in Spanish, and to pose shirtless on his album cover, his hands open facing up the sky, is not unimportant. The naked torso, without a hat, nor jewellery, evokes rebirth.

 “This album unveils the beginning of a new phase more than the closure of an old one,” explains Fonseca.  “On YO, I want to delve deep into my roots in light of my experiences and show the diversity of my musical universe, all these ideas which I had put aside, unable to use until now.” 

If the new compositions revisit themes such as love and spirituality that have already nourished his work, this time Fonseca draws from a rich musical palette full of contrasts.  In place of his usual jazz quintet, on YO he develops a concept of a union between electro, analogue and African, Hammond organs, n’goni, congas, kora and the talking drum, combined together in a synthesis of Afro Cuban groove and Griot tradition. 

Since he was a teenager listening to Herbie Hancock & the Headhunter’s jazz funk, Roberto has had an interest in old school keyboards like the Hammond B-3, Moog, as well as the Fender Rhodes.  “At festivals, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to observe and learn from many musicians who play the Hammond.  I have played it live a number of times but this is the first time I’ve used it on a recording.” 

Fonseca’s relationship with Africa and the Yoruban culture in particular, play an integral part in his family heritage.  He was raised in the San Miguel del Padrón neighbourhood in Havana, and it was his grandmother who passed on the Santería faith.  On this album Roberto has deepened this connection to the mother continent by working with African musicians.  “It has always been a dream of mine to explore what my compositions could offer if interpreted by African musicians of my generation.  It is an honour to have Baba Sissoko, Sekou Kouyate and Fatoumata Diawara on board, they are all such talented musicians who are so generous with their music.”

A total of fifteen musicians, instrumentalists and singers, participated in the production of YO. In addition to the aforementioned Africans and the Cubans Ramsés Rodríguez and Joel Hierrezuelo, two close collaborators of Fonseca’s for  many years, the album also counts on the versatility of the bassist Étienne M'Bappé and of guitarist Munir Hossn.  Contributing vocals to the project’s richness are the Algerian star Faudel, the Senegalese singer Assane Mboup of Orchestra Baobab, and the spoken word artist Mike Ladd. Gilles Peterson, a friend of Fonseca’s since they met on the Havana Cultura project, brings his expertise to the co-production of two tracks.

Gathered together in spring of 2011 at the Meudon studios in Paris, the team finished the recording in one week. Fonseca is the first to admit that the fluidity of the sessions is to be credited to his manager and co-producer Daniel Florestano, who guided him in selecting the right people. Among them is the Californian producer Mikael Eldridge, aka Count, who proved to be one of the most decisive. A true goldsmith of sound known for his work with DJ Shadow, Radiohead and the Rolling Stones, Count has spared no effort for his first non-Anglo-Saxon release. If the recording of the tracks took less time than expected, its post-production - mixing, mastering, additional programming and remixes - took place over several weeks. “I continue to be surprised with every listen and a lot of it comes from Count. His mastery of sound and space, his intelligence of the psychology of each song, are impressive. He is a great creator, and his contribution has been decisive”.

The record opens with a party, a little bit like the endings of Roberto Fonseca’s concerts... Surely one of the most powerful themes, 80s, refers to a time when people danced without worrying about labels, to music of inclusive virtues such as disco, the decade preceding the fall of the Berlin Wall and the "Special Period" in Cuba. Illustrating the influence of percussion on his way of playing, Fonseca alternates piano and Hammond in order to develop his story: “I generally compose by telling a story, like a movie. There I imagine that a comparsa, a carnival group, arrives in front of my place while I’m working on my piano. I continue to play, I join the party, the drums continue on their journey and I get back to my exercises, therefore this classic coda!”

From the Black Americas, “Bibisa,” transports us to Africa. A composition by Baba Sissoko, the track sees Fonseca’s piano talking with Fatoumata Diawara's voice, and a duo of African strings performed by Baba Sissoko (n’goni) and Sekou Kouyate (kora). “It’s an organic and spiritual theme, which imagines a small group of people gathered underneath a tree to talk,” explains Fonseca. “But when really listening, you realize that the clave (the rhythmic pattern on which Cuban popular music is organised) is there from the beginning and that the whole piece plays on this contrast between this Cuban leitmotiv and the noticeably African elements. This is the project of the album: to touch the African roots without forgetting where I come from, without forgetting Cuba.”

It is precisely to this source that “Mi Negra Ave Maria” takes us, a melody composed by the four hands of Fonseca and his mother, Mercedes Cortés. As on his previous records, the pianist uses her to invoke positive energies that have accompanied him since his birth. Constructed on the piano-bass-drums format, the piece gains even more in vitality thanks to the improvised poem by Mike Ladd, “Obatala's Daughter.” “Gilles Peterson, who co-produced this track, introduced me to Mike Ladd. Honestly, I initially thought that the piece was already rich enough in its instrumental version and that a voice was not necessary. I did not imagine at all the joy that Mike was going to achieve as he recited the text little by little. My English is not very good and I did not understand at all what he was saying, but it was evident that his words were elevating the spiritual dimension.”

If all the faithful of the Yoruba religion are the children of the goddess Obatala, Chango or its equivalent, “7 Rayos,” is the divinity that Fonseca is personally attached to. Inhabited by this god of war, music and justice, the track “7 Rayos” progresses on a nearly continuous line of bass and a martial rhythm, around which different elements gravitate - kora, tamani, choir, electronic programming - providing a narrative dimension and the impression of a voyage. “I wanted to produce a fairly minimalist theme, which expresses my feelings about the African roots of Cuban culture. So I choose to integrate an excerpt from a vinyl where the great poet Nicolas Guillén pays tribute to the Yoruba.”

“El soñador está cansado” is another composition of Fonseca’s, and the second title on which Gilles Peterson participated in the production. It begins with a piano solo, then adopts a soul-funk turn with Fonseca at the Fender Rhodes. “A song dedicated to all the romantics, which speaks of disillusionment in love. But also a nod to the vintage sound of the new English soul, and to the talent of people like Peterson, who bring a special flavour. The challenge was to combine it with very distinct elements of Cuban and African percussion.”

“Chabani” is the family name of an Algerian friend of Fonseca who introduced him to the rich culture and music of the Maghreb.  The melismas of the singer Faudel reflect straightaway a vision of Algier, la blanche, whilst the tamani, or talking drum, of Baba Sissoko makes sparks fly.

The Gnawa tradition is introduced in the piece “Gnawa Stop.”  A composition by percussionist Joel Hierrezuelo, as the title highlights it demonstrates the similarity between Gnawa and Afro-Cuban rhythms. Constructed in two stages, a first one in which the instruments find their place, and a second one where they enter a common tempo, this piece gradually leads the listener into a state of trance, its repetitive rhythmic pattern giving the impression that can last all night, and perhaps never stop.

“El Mayor” is Luis Jesús Valdés Cortés, Roberto’s older brother and the main person responsible for Fonseca's passion for American funk. This interlude, where crackling radio sounds are superimposed on the lines of a piano, refers to the time spent by Luis Jesús working on his technique as a self-taught pianist, and also to the radio waves that brought new sounds to Cuba.

“JMF” are the initials of two people who have joined the circle of Fonseca’s close friends in recent years. A tribute to the great figures of Cuban music, the song is inspired by island traditions and flows into an electronic variation of a montuno on Hammond organ and electric kora. “I did not think Sekou Kouyate could produce such a sound with his kora”, explains Fonseca. “The way it blends with the other instruments is sensational and I know that we will repeat this experience.”

After this breakaway in Afro-Cuban rock territory follows the calm air of “Asi es la vida,” a bluesy ballad carried by a melody and a piano solo of great serenity: it says that we must never lose hope. “The musicians too often forget that silence is full of music and that it can mean more than a profusion of notes.”

“Quien soy yo,” even in its title, is one of the manifests of the album. Under its seeming simplicity, the theme draws from different styles of Cuban music to deconstruct and recompose the elements in a unique structure. To this already rich arrangement comes the vocal power of Assane Mboup, one of the singers of the legendary Orchestra Baobab, and the Brazilian riffs of Munir Hossni’s samba on the cavaquinho. “This theme speaks of love and positive vibrations. It brings together three of the most important musical forces, joined by Mother Earth, AFRICA.”

As if to close the circle, Fonseca mobilizes Hammond B-3, Fender Rhodes, and Moog in a jazz-funk hymn, a dizzying chase between the rhythm sections of Étienne M'Bappé, Joel Hierrezuelo and Ramsés Rodriguez, the composer. “’Rachel’ is the name of one of Ramsés’ daughters. He had recorded a first version in a Cuban vein, but I immediately thought on listening to the piece that it could be adapted to this legendary style.”

To those people who are still wondering who is Roberto Fonseca and to all those who thought they knew him, the Cuban musician replies: YO. An epic at the crossroads of jazz, traditional music and soul; a crossing of both sides of the shores of the Atlantic; an album which presents a new artist, not because he has changed but because his art still contains many surprises.

Yannis Ruel

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