This recording, Yo by Roberto Fonseca appears to be his most visceral work of music so far. Despite having a high musical intellect and striving for a cerebral approach to music—which to a certain extent is true of this record as well—Mr. Fonseca appears to have stripped away all style, allowing the music to be stripped of its sentimentality; to be infused with a raw; almost naked emotion. It is clear that the pianist set out to make himself somewhat new. This is not only reflected in the album art, but more importantly, in the music itself. Its raw power in every chart and from chart to chart is reminiscent of Chucho Valdés’ monumental 1999 Blue Note release, Briyumba Palo Congo. The raw nature of the emotions of each melody—whether written by Mr. Fonseca, or as is the case music composed by other participants on this record, for this record—is so intense; so full of dramatic tension that reaching the end of each piece appears to be not only the dénouement of the song’s narrative, but also a distinctly cathartic moment in which the music does not simply dissolve, but retract as if being sucked back into the vortex of its own creation. Clearly this is not something that Roberto Fonseca intended to be; it simply happened because the pianist was in a sacred space; something each of the musicians were drawn into by the jali kunda that the West African contingent brought to the recording. It was somewhat of an easy fit for although Roberto Fonseca does not invoke the Orishas by employing the unique musical/liturgical language of Lucumí, his pianism seems to be doing just that.
Roberto Fonseca is and has always been a spiritual person. This is and has been reflected in his music in the past. He holds fast to his ancestors—near and far—with a deep sense of belonging. The musical figure that he invents in his songs—splayed-fingered chords, repeated minor inversions of the harmonies he plays, monumental crashing clusters of notes played or fisted on the keyboard represent the spiritual highs that a person might experience in praise and worship, for instance. On Yo the masterful producer Daniel Florestano did more than realise the musician’s vision; he also brought some of it to fruition, adding West African griots and Gnawa musicians who enable the trance-like direction that Mr. Fonseca’s music takes. This is clear from the outset even when titles are mysterious and almost innocuous—such as “80’s,” which ends in a form almost reminiscent of the sacred music of the Europeans. “Bibisa” carries on this jelili effect through the ethereal vocals of Fatoumata Diawara, which are refracted in Mr. Fonseca’s piano trills as he begins to converse also with the kora and the cavaquinho of that other musical wonder: the Brasilian, Munir Hossn. The effect is hypnotic.
Musical continuity is often an issue when a recording begins with such intensity and must continue through songs that are not necessarily thematically linked. But here Mr. Fonseca is an absolute master. His “Mi Negra Ave Maria” is worshipful to the extent that it is almost reverential. Obviously the influence of Mr. Fonseca’s mother is omnipresent, not the least because she has a hand in the composition, but the addition of spoken word by Mike Ladd is a stroke of genius. The musical highs throughout appear to be bordering on the celestial thereafter. “7 Rayos” with its poetry and funerary drums and harmonics that hark to some fantastic choral music, and the mesmerising “El Soñador Está Cansado” are easy to single out as examples, but even incidental music seems not so incidental after all. Consider “El Mayor” and “Rachel” for instance. And who would have thought that Roberto Fonseca would luck in on a stellar performance by the raï superstar, the phenomenal French-Algerian Faudel Belloua who floats as if he were a gliding condor, over the music of “Chabani” so named after a friend of the pianist. By now Mr. Fonseca’s recording is floating in a rarefied realm and it never really descends to earthly realms until its energy dissipates in the crashing remixes of “80’s” and “Bibisa”.
The musicians on this recording play their respective roles exceedingly well. Bassist Étienne M’Bappé is superb and almost melodic on both electric and acoustic basses especially on “JMF”. Percussionists Ramsés Rodriguez and Joel Hierrezuelo Balart play from vastly different palettes, but both eventually add sublime colour to the music. However the spotlight must dwell just a little longer on Baba Sissoko and his Tamanin or talking drum whose pitch is marvellously manipulated to mimic the tone and prosody of human speech. Notable performances also come from the Brasilian, Munir Hossn, who soars each time he has a window. Vocalists Faudel, Fatoumata Diawara and Assane Mboup; together with Mike Ladd and the poem of Cuban national poet Nicolas Guillén are absolutely astonishing. All these musicians eventually play into the hands of Roberto Fonseca, who draws each into his spiritual vortex that becomes his own rebirth in the form of Yo.
Track List: 80’s; Bibisa; Mi Negra Ave María; 7 Rayos; El Soñador Está Cansado; Chabani; Gnawa Stop; El Mayor; JMF; Así Es La Vida; Quien Soy Yo; Rachel; Bibisa Remix; 80’s Remix.
Personnel: Roberto Fonseca: piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond B3, Moog; Étienne M’Bappé: acoustic and electric basses; Ramsés Rodriguez: drums; Joel Hierrezuelo Balart: percussion, vocals; Baba Sissoko: n’goni, talking drum, vocals; Sekou Kouyate: kora, electric kora, vocals; Fatoumata Diawara; vocals (2, 13); Munir Hossn: guitars, cavaquinho; Faudel: vocals(6); Assane Mboup: vocals (11); Mike Ladd: spoken word, Nicolas Guillén: poetry( 4).