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Roberto Fonseca: A Life in the Spirit

By Published: March 10, 2010
AAJ: Moving to Cuba... there is something about Cuba—which, like my homeland, Brazil—has such a profound effect on the rest of the world... What do you think it is? Santeria worship? The fact that Africa is embedded in both countries must account for something... Can you talk a bit about what this means for you?

RF: Mother Earth always has surprises for us, and she will never stop surprising us. And also thanks to the African legacy, our cultures are very important for a musician who feels Cuban, but does not forget where he comes from.

Spirituality is central to all Afro-Cuban music. Here the material world is very connected to the spiritual world. This is why percussion has a very important role. We use percussion in order to make emotive rhythms and they have a strong spirituality.

They are like the tabla drums from India, everything is learnt in a very personal way. Similarly, there are no books anywhere that teach how to play the bata drums. For me, I believe that music should always have a spiritual rhythm, even if there aren't any percussion instruments being played. This spiritual rhythm, is like an internal heartbeat.

There is another side to all this and that is giving yourself up completely to the music so that you feel it completely... It enters your body and you give yourself entirely to the music. What I see and feel in these Afro-Cuban Santeria congregations, is that all spiritual strength, devotion and rhythmic energy equals music from the deepest part of the human being. It doesn't matter if it you beat a can with a stick; when music comes from your heart it can move the whole world.

AAJ: Are you religious? How much of an influence has Santeria rituals been a part of your life and music?

RF: I am very religious and very spiritual as well. When I compose and play music I try to bring everybody into [a space] in the world where there are no wars, no evil...nothing malevolent... in short, nothing that can adversely affect humanity.

It is the same feeling as when I am in the Afro-Cuban Santeria worship congregation... This is a place, a zone of complete peace. It takes you on that trip to another dimension. I try to do the same with music... take the audience to that dimension, so that the entire listening audience is transported there—at least for the one or two hours' duration of the concert—to that special peaceful place... There the audience experiences what is like to depart from all the confusion that surrounds us.

AAJ: Let's talk about your music... Please describe the journey that brought you to Akokan?

RF: Akokan is the result of all my experiences, I've always said that music is my life and that my life is music. This is the most personal album that I've ever done and I am really happy in the way it was recorded, very natural, almost like a [descarga] jam... It was recorded only in four days, and everyone was there at once, always playing together.

We are not trying to correct our mistakes because everybody makes mistakes, and one of these mistakes will bring you something good, and you will learn from it. I think that this is a way to be very sincere with all people who listen to the music.

AAJ: Let's talk about Zamazu (Biscoito Fino, 2007). It is an unusual record that is moving but in a different way. You set the scene with a short religious chant by your mother, but then the record veers into the profane, so to speak? Do you feel the same way?

RF: I think that all people should be 70% of goodness and 30% not-so-good. All of us are human beings after all.

AAJ: I know it is difficult to put a finger on personal relationships, but how would you describe your important musical collaboration with Javier Zalba, who has been associated with you—musically—for more than a decade?

RF: You're right. But all I can say is this: It is a great pleasure for me to count Zalba as my friend for all these years. Actually I owe him a lot, and I have been always grateful for having him for sticking with me throughout... sharing the good and the not-so-good experiences with me too. But this is it... When music joins people it is very difficult to be separated again.

AAJ: How much of the music that you play is his? Or, do you write and he arranges? Or do you exchange ideas that turn into the music that you play?

RF: We work on music in this way: I paint the broad strokes of the picture... and everybody in the band helps me add the shades and colors. It always happens like this, and that's the reason we are all so together.

AAJ: Zalba does not play much on either of your last two records? Obviously his presence must be also spiritual... much deeper in the creative process than merely instrumental? His clarinet playing adds a huge tonal dimension to the music... How do you feel about this?

RF: As I suggested earlier, Zalba is a godsend and so is working with him. He is one of the best musicians from Cuba and his goodness, and his way of thinking completes my music, in a very strong sense. He is an important part of my sound... He is an important reason why my music is so appreciated all over the world.

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