Roberto Fonseca: A Life in the Spirit

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Recognition for the considerable talent of Cuban pianist, Roberto Fonseca has spread far and wide, and if there was another dimension to enter, it would be the one that qualifies an artist to greatness. However, Fonseca fights shy of any attention that distracts from his music. A deeply spiritual person, who just happens to express himself through his art, he prefers to defer to the mysterious and invisible force that compels him to make music.

Fonseca worships at the altar of spirituality, and it is this that drives the voice of his music—he appears to deny all else. He is blessed with sublime technique—something that he does not take for granted, yet he remains understated both in his manner of speaking, as well in his playing. It appears that almost everything is guided by his omnipresent mother—a sort of Mother Earth. His musical associates are also important factors in his life. With them he shares his life, and together they make music that lets audiences in to experience the journey that they take together.

Akokan (Justin Time, 2009), which translates as "From the Heart," features, amongst other songs, a definitive version of the classic Cuban lullaby, "Drume Negrita." While the record is destined for a blockbuster reception among fans of music, Fonseca was gracious about its qualities, preferring instead to talk about what makes him the person that he can be, rather than the musician that he is.

All About Jazz: What is your earliest memory of discovering the wonder of music? Was there anyone, say in Grade School who got you to love music?

Roberto Fonseca: My mother... Everything comes from my mum. It goes way back to when she used to cook and she would sing me that melody from Romeo and Juliet [sings]... I learnt how to love music from then. It was always my mum. She gave me the opportunity to grow and to feel love, when transmitting it through music.

I also remember my first musical "job." It was as the drummer for a band doing covers of Beatles songs. They were a clear influence.

AAJ: Did you know at a very young age that you were going to make the pursuit of music your life's dream?

RF: I have always loved music and wanted to play. But I'd never known when my dream would become true. Speaking of school and when I was a student, I was very nervous, and there was a time when I didn't want to study anymore. But one day (I don't know when exactly) it "hit" me. I remembered a lesson from my mother: that music is the best thing can happen to the human being, for the fact that it can transmit [my] every mood. This was exciting. I also found that when I played music I could make people happier.

AAJ: Tell me something about you mother? I've heard her on two of your records—what a beautiful voice! How profound was her influence on your life?

RF: My mother is like a goddess who lives on Earth. I owe her everything that I am. I dedicate my whole life to her. She has been my source of inspiration and the wellspring of energy for my whole career. I am also very grateful with my father Roberto Fonseca, [a drummer of considerable repute in Cuba] who is also very close to me and with whom I am very close as well.

AAJ: Did your mother actually teach you? I am sure that she must have been a good teacher... Does she still simply fire your imagination?

RF: Oh yes she did... Still does. I am still learning from her. I really appreciate everything that she has taught me, especially interpretation, and also how important it is to tell, in a very sincere manner, your every thought and channel [them] through music... Not only that, my mother also taught me—more importantly—how all this is so important also for the everyday life that I lead.

AAJ: Is your mother then the first person (other than your band) to listen to what you create?

RF: Oh Yes.

AAJ: What was it like at Instituto Superior de Arte? You have said elsewhere that you were a "bad student," but obviously you learned a lot there? Who was your biggest influence at music school?

RF: I studied at Instituto Superior de Arte for just one year. It was a period when I started to really work with music. I was constantly searching and I tried hard to look for my language and my own style. I learnt lots of things from that school, where I studied classical music. There is a certain way in which all classical music is taught. You learn—because the courses are very structured—to employ a strict discipline. Every musician...every student of this music works on and must learn every aspect of playing music... everything concerning techniques and everything concerning correct interpretation. But getting to know one's self is a very different discipline and experience. I found this part of myself on the street, in the jams and in the night clubs.

AAJ: Of the great classical composers, who inspired you the most and which periods in classical music do you like the best?

RF: I continue to be inspired by Bach, Wagner, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky... All are great technicians and also very emotional and spiritual... And, without a doubt, I love best the period of the Romantics—all of it.

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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