Roberto Fonseca’s Cuban / African fusion

By Don Macica

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To call Roberto Fonseca’s music jazz is to severely limit the breadth of his talent and vision. He is, to be sure, a superbly inventive pianist whose playing is both rhapsodic and percussive, bringing to mind Chucho Valdes and McCoy Tyner. He is thoroughly schooled in the Cuban son of his Havana birthplace, so much so that he’s been in the orbit of the Buena Vista Social Club for over a decade and co-produced Ibrahim Ferrer’s final album of boleros in 2005. When el maestro Rubén Gonzales passed, he took over the piano bench in BVSC. He will soon tour Europe with la gran dama de música cubana Omara Portuondo. Along the way he’s released at least 8 albums of his own, ranging from solo piano to 2007’s ambitious Zamazu, which brought together over 20 musicians from Cuba, Spain, Argentina and Brazil.

At the same time, though, he’s been very active in a variety of genres, working with hip-hop and dance music artists, composing film scores and developing an aesthetic sensibility that reaches beyond music alone. And while the complicated relationship between Cuba and the U.S. for a long time kept him away from these shores, he spent the better part of two decades touring the rest of the world and keeping his eyes and ears open every step of the way, wholly absorbing African sounds and European classical music, integrating it into what was already a heady brew of jazz, hip-hop, electronica and Afro-Cuban tradition.

On his latest CD, Yo, Africa comes to the fore. Recorded in Paris, the record is steeped in the African communities that live there, which includes the remarkable Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara. This project used 15 musicians from Cuba, Africa, the U.S. and elsewhere to create an intricate multicultural mosaic of sound. There is no overt hip-hop per se on the album, but the production brings to mind a layered cut-and-paste aesthetic influenced by both that and dub reggae. Arabic chant, Malian grooves and Moroccan rhythms are on equal footing with Cuban son, spoken word poetry and sampled radio transmissions.

The lead track, 80’s, is an encapsulation of that era, all percussive piano, funky bass, synth runs and percolating rhythms. On Bibisa, which features Fatoumata on vocals, ngoni, kora and piano circle each other like beboppers jamming on stage at Birdland. 7 Rayos gradually builds layers of tension through West African guitar, batá drums, sampled voices and spare piano until Algerian singer Faudel Amil burst through near the end. JMF sounds like a lost Arsenio Rodriguez song given a rocked up arrangement that recalls guitarist Marc Ribot’s Los Cubanos Postizos project. It’s quickly followed by the simple trio ballad Asi es la Vida, which is then followed by a song that could have been a golden age Buena Vista favorite except for the heavily processed Arabic vocals. The album concludes much the way it began, with a rapid-fire funk workout that features Fonseca on Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ.

Through it all is Fonseca’s gorgeous piano and. Yo is, in the best sense of the term, a fusion album on par with the similarly global-minded artists of that era: Weather Report, their Cuban counterpart Irakere and the irrepressible master of jazz and funk, Herbie Hancock. This fusion, though, is never calculated in a “2 parts this, 1 part that” fashion. Instead, it reads as thoroughly authentic, that Fonseca sees it all as one beautiful mosaic. It sounds for all the world like 21st century folklore.

Yo has been out for almost two years, but Fonseca has just embarked on a brief 8 city U.S. tour that will bring him to Chicago. His last visit here a year ago was a sly double bill of sorts. He both played in and opened for Buena Vista Social Club at Symphony Center, but I believe his show at Mayne Stage is his first ever Chicago appearance in an intimate venue. He will appear with his trio of drummer Ramsés Dinamita and bassist Yandy Martínez, but you can expect at least a few of the African guests to show up via electronic sampling.

Roberto Fonseca, Mayne Stage, Wednesday October 22, 7:00 PM. Tickets at

About the author: Don Macica is a marketing consultant to the performing arts community and a contributing writer to several online publications. When not traveling, he lives a stone’s throw from Lake Michigan in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood. He is the author of Border Radio, a blog about music, migration and cultural exchange.

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