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Success didn't knock on his door by random luck. Roberto Fonseca has worked hard to earn his reputation as one of the most renowned and skillful Cuban jazz pianists of his generation.
The 38 year-old musician started playing drums when he was four years old and played at the International Jazz Festival of Havana when he was 15. Fonseca began his solo career when he was 24 and to date he has released seven studio albums and one live record.
He has also played with some of the most illustrious Cuban musicians of all times. Fonseca was a member of the prestigious Ibrahim Ferrer's Orchestra and also toured extensively with Omara Portuondo, from the famous Buena Vista Social Club.
Yo is the title of his latest studio album, where he invited African stars like singers Fatoumata Diawara, Assane Mboup and Faudel Amil; as well as musicians like Baba Sissoko (tamani, ngoni and calabass) and Sekou Kouyate (kora) to pay homage to his heritage, particularly to Gnawa music and culture.
Some days before he started a tour around Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Hong Kong, Fonseca talked about the conception and feelings that surround the compositions of Yo, the aspects of Gnawa culture he admires the most and gave some clues about his next recording.
All About Jazz: Please tell me more about the gestation of your album Yo.
Roberto Fonseca: I wanted to create an album that was different from the rest of my repertoire. I've always liked African influences and my music has always been linked to Afro-Cuban sounds. I wanted to do a personal record that would not fit in the World Music category or just for one kind of audience. I wanted an album in which people could feel and listen most of my influences. My band and I wanted to step away from the cliché that if you are Cuban and want to be well known you have to play "tumbaos" and that type of rhythms.
AAJ: What was your emotional state in the period of time you composed most of the themes included in Yo?
RF: The album is full of melancholy. When I wrote many of the themes I had just went through a very difficult time. The music was my escape and relief. Even though I had gone through a very rough time the album doesn't make you feel like slitting your wrists. There is a positive energy around it to persevere and keep on living. I consider myself a romantic musician and want to compose melodies that help the audience to get in touch with their deepest feelings and the human condition.
AAJ: Can I ask what were you going through at that period of your life?
RF: There is a misconception to think that musicians enjoy life and have fun all the time, it's not like that. My family and I were going through a very unpleasant time.
AAJ: To me and some other people I know your melody "80's" sounds like a cheerful song...
RF: It's not joyful at all. It's a melancholic Afro-Cuban fusion, but within a festive ambience, like a Cuban Santoral (patron saint) party.
AAJ: Please give our readers a quick tour around the emotions and stories behind some of the most significant themes of Yo.
RF: "Mi Negra Ave Maria" (My Black Hail Mary) is dedicated to all mothers and grandmothers. My mother is my greatest influence and I'm very grateful with her. She gave me the right to be born. She has always been with me, along with my father. "7 Rayos" (7 Rays) is a statement of the kind of musician I am. It mixes electronic sounds, with groove and the voice of Nicolas Guillén, our national poet. "Gnawa Stop" is very blue and helps us to enter into trance when we play live; I composed it to express the power of music. "JMF" is dedicated to two good French friends, who have always supported me and go to many of my shows abroad. I call them "uncle" and "aunt"; their names are Jean Marie and Françoise.
AAJ: What is the meaning of "Chabani" and what is the story behind that melody?
RF: Chabani is the last name of a friend of mine who's from Algeria. Pousik Chabani introduced me to Gnawa music. It's a very interesting culture. It sounds very familiar to me, very close to Cuban music. Coincidentally, I was planning to do an album that showed my African influences, so I dedicated him one song.
AAJ: Which aspects of Gnawa culture do you find more interesting or attractive?
RF: I love the state of trance they enter with a simple bass or gimbri melody when they repeat it, creating something like a loop. It's very beautiful and intense.
AAJ: Talking about Gnawa music and culture. You have many guests in this album like the Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara, Assane Mboup of Senegal's Orchestra Baobab and Faudel Amil from Algeria. Please give me more details about those collaborations and the recording of the album.
RF: I didn't choose them because they were very famous, I admire their talent. They are artists, not just musicians. Hopefully, they accepted my invitation and they liked the project. It was the first time I invited musicians from Africa to record with me. The result was magnificent; they showed a great respect for my music and arrangements. In my concerts, I use their recorded voice and the audience likes them very much. We recorded the album in just one night in Paris.
I love jazz because it mixes intellect and emotion in a very spontaneous way.
I was first exposed to jazz by liberating a Coltrane and a Pharoah Sanders record from a friend in NYC and listening to them over and over until I got it.
My advice to new listeners is you have to take the time to listen to some jazz tunes a number of times until it starts to make sense.