Fonseca is one of the most exciting musicians in the new Cuban scene.
Robin Denselow 2012-03-12
Roberto Fonseca has moved on, once again. The Cuban pianist first came to international attention when he achieved the seemingly impossible by successfully taking over from the late and brilliant Ruben Gonzalez in the Buena Vista Social Club, but he has gone on to prove that he is not just a dazzling accompanist but a bravely original composer and performer capable of a startling variety of styles.
His previous solo sets have shown him moving away from Buena Vista-style material to a more adventurous approach, mixing his Cuban roots with themes from around the world. The trend continues here: he mixes jazz with global influences, especially from Africa, and Yo is remarkable for its variety, its confidence, and its sheer energy.
Opener 80’s was written by Fonseca and is an upbeat party dance piece in which he switches between piano and organ. It sets a tone, with furious percussion that is matched by his equally high-energy, stomping keyboard work, eventually giving way to a more lyrical theme.
He is naturally fascinated by Cuba’s links with Africa, and the album continues his collaborations with African artists. His Akokan album of 2009 featured the Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade, but this time round his favoured female vocalist is new Malian star Fatoumata Diawara.
Bibisa starts with Diawara's cool vocals matched against an insistent riff, but develops into a furious instrumental work-out with piano matched against traditional West African instruments: Baba Sissoko is on n’goni, and Sekou Kouyate on kora.
Elsewhere, there’s an appearance from the great Assane Mboup, one of the lead singers with the veteran Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab, who takes the lead on the cheerful, distinctively Cuban Quien Soy Yo.
There are North African influences on Chabani, with its blend of galloping hand percussion and jazzy piano with the chanting, drifting vocals of Faudel, while Gnawa Stop makes use of the hypnotic repeated rhythm patterns of the descendants of black Africans who were brought across the Sahara as slaves.
Then there are the surprises. El Mayor is a drifting piano piece matched against the crackle of a radio switching between different stations, while 7 Rayos pays homage to the religion of the Yoruba people who moved from Africa to Cuba with the slave trade. It mixes electronic programming with kora, and a clanking riff with piano and a recording of a great Cuban poet, the late Nicolás Guillén.
Braver still, there’s Mi Negra Ave Maria, a track co-produced by DJ Gilles Peterson, which starts like a slow, grand hymn and ends up with the energy of a furious gospel session, with an English language poem from Mike Ladd added.
By matching tradition with experiment, Fonseca has become one of the most exciting musicians in the new Cuban scene.