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Roberto Fonseca: A Life in the Spirit



Cuban Pianist, Composer Roberto Fonseca
Cuban Pianist, Composer Roberto Fonseca

The considerable talent of Cuban pianist, Roberto Fonseca has now 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, invisible force that compels him to make music.

Roberto Fonseca worships at the altar of spirituality. It is this that drives the voice of his music. He appears to deny all else. But he is blest with sublime technique. This is certainly something that he does not take for granted, yet he understates it—both in the 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. He shares his life with them and together they make music that lets audiences in, to experience that journey that they take together.

His 2009 recording, Akokan, which translates as “From the Heart,” which features—among 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 with me about what makes him the person that he can be rather than the musician that he is.

Roberto Fonseca at Jazz in Marciac, France
Roberto Fonseca at Jazz in Marciac, France

Raul da Gama: What is your earliest memory of discovering the wonder of music? Was there anyone, I mean, anyone apart from your mother who was in, say 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.

RDG: 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.

RDG: Tell me something about you mother? I heard her now on two of your records. What a beautiful voice! I imagine she is a beautiful person—loving and caring… 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.

RDG: 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 your 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.

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

RF: Oh Yes.

RDG: 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 oneself is a very different discipline and experience. I found this part of myself on the street, in the jams and in the night clubs.

RDG: Of the great classical composers, who inspired you the most? 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.

RDG: 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, you know… 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 [or Brazilian,] 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 batá 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 [or becomes totally] 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.

RDG: Tell me something about the various music inflections of Cuba… Santiago… Camaguey… Guantanamo… Have you heard the acappela group of Cuban-Haitian-origin, Desandann? Given that your mother is such a singer and a powerful influence on you, have you ever thought of a vocal record—with Desandann or with someone else?

RF: I think that a vocal album is very important and that would be very nice [for me] in order to know the work of Desandann better. I will look for their music.

RDG: Are you religious? Are you ‘sentir’? How much of an influence has Santeria rituals been a part of your life… your 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.

RDG: 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 4 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.

RDG: Let’s talk about Zamazu. 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.

RDG: 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.

RDG: 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 [of the] story, 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.

RDG: 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.

RDG: The great South African musician, Abdullah Ibrahim said recently that every time he makes a record, there is always something there that points in the direction of his next venture… So his solo record Senzo led to his big band venture that followed, called Bombella… Does this kind of thing happen in your creative process too? I mean is there something in Zamazu that points to Akokan?

RF: Albums are the same as sons. You have to take care of them, and help them grow up. It is in the process that some anecdotes and small and large life stories take place. All this makes up their lives… gives them the character that shapes their lives. In the same way, every album is born of the experiences we have [some of which just come to mind when recording]. For me making a record is like reliving a part of my life…also many aspects and mysteries of my life are also explained [in my records] there.

RDG: You have said that Akokan is different… very spiritual and a moving experience for you… Normally we would play the record at this point and let it soak in, but because I can’t, why don’t you try to relive the experience of making the record?

RF: The experience was very interesting and also very complicated because I was composing a lot. In fact for this album Akokan I had written enough music for perhaps even two whole albums. It was so difficult when we were finishing the production because I had to edit the track list… Every track I had leave out from the selection was like abandoning a son.

But the experience was very intense and beautiful. We recorded in EGREM Studios in Havana. [This is a historic venue in Cuba; even Nat King Cole recorded there too]. Most of Cuba’s great musicians—past and present—like my old friend Ibrahim Ferrer—have recorded there. While I was in the studio I could feel all these strong vibrations. It felt like some strange magic, being surrounded by wood and soaking in the spirituality from that place. Then there was the feeling of how your friends helped color the music… The atmosphere was familiar throughout and perfect for creating a record. That was for me like touching Heaven through music.

RDG: Again, it is your mother who opens the record… And also the beautiful vocals of Mayra Andrade… They are truly beautiful. How did you find her and are you going to be doing more with her vocals in the future?

RF: I heard of Mayra through her albums, and I was immediately floored by the natural way she expresses her feelings and how she touches people in her live shows. That’s the reason I thought that we would do something else together. So I reached out to her.

RDG: What prompted you to have a song with English vocals on Akokan? Did Raul come up with the idea…Did he compose specially for the project?

RF: Not really, I think that Raul Midon had already written the song. It is just that I have wanted to do something with him always and here it seems that everything was in the right place at the right time.

The fact that it is in English is deliberate. I believe that the English language is a very melodic language, and at the same time the music that I try to do is melodic too. It seemed like a perfect fit here too.

Learning about Raul’s music was very important, and I found very interesting that he composed this song, with this title, because all of us deserve a second chance in our lives.

RDG: So is there something here that points to the next record? Can you say when that will be and if you know what you have in mind, and when will that be out?

RF: I am still thinking about the shape of it, but this I can say: The next album will have more vocals in it. Maybe I will sing some tracks, we are still working on that. It also looks like the direction we will go is deeper into the mysterious and surprising world of my Afro-Cuban culture. Of course, I am always close to those actual sonorities and the next one will be no exception. The rest is a surprise.

RDG: Tell me something about your experience with the Buena Vista Social Club and Ibrahim Ferrer? Something that is not in Wim Wenders’ and Ry Cooder’s film?

RF: Ah! My dear friend Ibrahim… he gave me so much of himself. He taught me to give freely of myself. You know, Ibrahim Ferrer, on stage and off stage as well, was someone unique. He always felt compelled to satisfy all his beloved friends. He always had to make people happy. He constantly gave of himself and the way he treated and cared for me and taught me about connecting with people was important. I will never forget that.

He never thought of himself as a superstar, and that’s one of the reasons his name became so huge. He was like this on the stage too. He was really simple in his real life. God blesses him.

RDG: Describe the influence that Omara Portuondo has had on your career and what that means to you.

RF: Omara is one of the biggest Cuban singers. Not only did she take me under her wing like a mother, she also inspired me through the way she made me feel secure. Musically she is beautiful. The way she plays with melody will always be a source of inspiration for me. There are not so many singers in the world that can do that.

RDG: Brazil and Cuba are in the absolute forefront of the music of the 21st Century. How do you account for that? I have a theory. I believe that Brazilian and Cuban artists have discovered a new connection between their African roots, their colonial past and the new Europe… Care to comment?

RF: Yes, you’re right. But you know, I always believe that when you don’t forget where you come from, and you are really connected spiritually to your folk music, you will always be welcomed wherever you go.

Our traditional music is linked to emotions and passion for life and all the gratitude that we give for all blessings that we received through life on Earth…through land, sea and air… and you know that you can feel that with music. This willingness to live, surrounded by love is reflected in all bands that take music in a very serious way. You know what I mean…

RDG: Yes I could not agree more. Moving on, If you had the opportunity to travel anywhere tomorrow, where would you go? What place on earth beckons you musically?

RF: I would really like to go to Nigeria [this is the heart of Yoruba culture] and also to Egypt. There is something here that is exerting a strong pull on me. You know, I really feel the strength of that land, its culture and its legacy to the civilizations of the world.

RDG: Now is your chance… Say anything you want to about your music…

RF: Okay, here goes… I try to stimulate some feelings that in some people are asleep; I don’t want to be seen as a musician that worries about being technically great or being gifted…all that stuff you know.

With love, passion and willpower, I try to draw listeners to me and my music. This is how I and my listeners feel too. I believe that they want and do see me as a romantic musician who decided to use the piano as a tool to connect the material world with the soul… and to do it through music. That’s what makes me want to live everyday and I am sure that others do too.

RDG: Thank you for the opportunity to connect with you. Your music does mean a lot…

RF: Thank you for dedicating the time and space to my music. Thank you for entering into my world…

YouTube Video – Roberto Fonseca at Jazz in Marciac 2016

Based in Milton, Ontario, Canada, Raul is a poet, musician and an accomplished critic whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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