Cuba: Music of a 'New Era'

Roberto Fonseca
Lorenzo Duaso Polo

Roberto Fonseca

The music of Roberto Fonseca, Daymé Arocena and other artists traces "how Cuba was, how Cuba is and how Cuba will be.”

Roberto Fonseca describes new album, ABUC -- his first released on legendary jazz label Impulse! -- as one that “tells people how Cuba was, how Cuba is and how Cuba will be.”

The death of Fidel Castro has put Cuba’s history, and its future, more into focus than ever, adding to the global fascination with the country that has spiked since the renewal of U.S.-Cuban relations in December 2014.

Putting politics aside, but providing a soundtrack for the unfolding evolution of Cuba, Fonseca and other artists are carrying the mantle of the island’s rich and inclusive musical heritage forward, with new music that still contains elements from the nation's past.

“This record has given me an opportunity to really reflect about what it means to be a Cuban,” Fonseca, who lives in Havana, said in an interview earlier this month, before a performance at Barcelona’s Voll Damm International Jazz Festival. Like other Cuban musicians outside of exile stronghold Miami contacted by Billboard after Castro’s death, he had no public comment to make about the late Cuban leader. He calls his current interest in the history of Cuban music the result of a personal journey.

Over more than two years, even preceding the renewal of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Cuban reggaeton duo Gente de Zona (of “Bailando” fame) and other Cuban tropical dance-pop acts have made unprecedented appearances on Billboard’s Latin charts, with a sound that has international commercial appeal for young Spanish-speaking audiences.

But at the same time, Fonseca and others have looked inward while charting new ground for Cuban artists; they are exploring their Cuban roots and recording albums mostly made in Havana, yet released on foreign labels. (Fonseca, for example, is the first solo Cuban artist to have an album out on Impulse!, the label that brought the world John Coltrane’s jazz masterpiece A Love Surpreme.) The result is diverse new music with the kind of crossover appeal that made Cuban music so popular in the pre-Castro era, albeit with a sound for current times.

Twenty-three-year old Cuban soul singer Daymé Arocena, who guests on Fonseca’s album, made her impressive debut in 2015 with her album New Era. Arocena, whose powerful voice elicited gasps from the audience at her recent concert at the Barcelona Jazz Festival, will open for Canadian jazz quartet BADBADNOTGOOD at New York’s Highline Ballroom in January.

The saucy, scatting Afro-Cuban singer is a protegé of London-based DJ and producer Gilles Peterson, whose series of Havana Cultura compilations -- featuring artists like Fonseca, rapper/singer Danay Suarez and hip hop group Obsession -- have done much to seed a fresh approach to recording music in Cuba, with an emphasis on production values as well as on experimentation. A two-disc Havana Cultura anthology came out earlier this month on Peterson’s Brownswood Recordings. Arocena's second full length, called Cubafonia, will be out in March 2017.

Some other suggestions for a current Cuban soundcheck would include New York-based percussionist Pedrito Martinez’s Habana Dreams (Motéma Music), recorded in Cuba and released earlier this year; Afro-Cuban-electronic duo Ibeyi’s self-titled 2015 debut on XL, recorded in London; pianist Harold López-Nussa’s El Viaje on Mack Avenue; and the evocatively titled Grammy and Latin Grammy-winning Afro-Latin jazz record The Conversation Continues, from Arturo O’Farill.

On ABUC (Cuba spelled backwards), which came out on Nov. 17, Fonseca, a crack band and guests that include members of Cuba’s Orquesta Aragon and New Orlean’s Trombone Shorty, embrace Afro-Cuban jazz, mambo, danzon, son and bolero, accented with the soul and psychedelic rock that infuenced Cuban musicians in the 70s, as well as with rap and spoken word.

The virtuosic ability to perform a variety of styles has over decades been a calling card for Cuban musicians but frequently also their Achilles heel. In this case, Fonseca, who began his State-sponsored Cuban conservatory training at age eight, doesn’t miss with his inclusive classic-progressive sound. Rather than simply assembling a potpourri of contrasting tracks, he has a delivered a deeply felt, carefully constructed and timelessly hip record, meant to be heard straight through. The opener, a jamming version of soul-jazz pianist Ray Bryant’s “Cuban Chant,” sets the tone for what’s to come.

Fonseca has recorded nine solo records and numerous album collaborations, including many with members of the Buena Vista Social Club, with whom he toured the world after the death of pianist Ruben Gonzalez. At age 41, he cuts a cosmopolitan figure – ABUC’s album credits include a nod to French designer label Agnes B., which keeps him dressed in slim cut suits and porkpie hats, and he is managed by Barcelona’s Montuno Productions. Touring with old-guard Cuban music stars Buena Vista and Omara Portuondo over the past decade has undoubtedly boosted his career, but his previous solo albums have reached beyond Cuban music: His last LP was a collaboration with Malian artist Fatoumata Diawara.

“I’ve never been an opportunist,” he says. “It would have been easy for me to create a band called the Heirs of Buena Vista Social Club and keep playing the same way, because people liked it. But no, I didn’t do that. I took risks.”

Fonseca has been named director of the newly founded International Jazz Plaza Festival in Santiago, an extension of its venerable namesake festival in Havana that will take place December 15-18. Fonseca is a good choice, not only as an ambassador for Cuban music who’ll greet the expected international crowd, but as one who represents a new sort of 21st Century Cuban musician: One who is aware not only of the musical legacy he carries, but also of the importance of manning his own merch table -- as the artist demonstrated at the Barcelona concert, where, after a euphoric show before a packed house, he rushed to greet audience members and sign CDs directly after leaving the stage.

After playing Europan dates that continue through March 2017, a tour in support of ABUC is planned for  the United States. “I keep defending what I believe and what I do,” says Fonseca, noting that his music is not about stardom or what’s trending on social media.

“Cuban music can have a great future,” he adds. “It just depends on whether or not we take care of it.”