Roberto Fonseca, one of the most brilliant young jazz musicians to come out of Cuba, was surrounded by music and musicians from birth. His father, Roberto Fonseca Senior, had been a drummer. His mother, Mercedes Cortes Alfaro, is a singer who was once a dancer in Havana's Tropicana Club, and she sings on her son's most recent solo album, Zamazu (2007). She was previously married to the legendary jazz pianist Chucho Valdés. Fonseca's two older half-brothers are the drummer Emilio Valdés and the pianist Jesús "Chuchito" Valdés Jr. "When I was younger I was a really bad student," Fonseca admits, somewhat unconvincingly (Fonseca holds a master's degree in composition from Cuba's prestigious Instituto Superior de Arte and he has been a music professor). "I didn't do my homework, my parents always had to be pushing me, until the day when I realised music was really my thing. Then I got more serious not completely serious, but a bit more serious about music."
He started out playing drums when he was four years old. He played his first professional gig with a Beatles cover band (he was Ringo). He switched to piano and stuck with it, astonishing crowds with his virtuosity at Havana's "Jazz Plaza" Festival in 1991. He was 15 years old. His first album, En El Comienzo, which he recorded with Javier Zalba and the group Temperamento, was named Cuba's Best Jazz Album in 1999. He followed up with two solo records (Tiene Que Ver and Elengo), and then, in 2001, he went to Japan to record No Limit: Afro Cuban Jazz, which has gone on to become a cult classic. His following has been getting a lot bigger with Zamazu, his latest offering. In the words of one reviewer, "Zamazu is a deftly varied and well-sequenced set that leaves a strong impression of who Fonseca is and promises plenty for the future."
Fonseca made his first international appearances in 2001, touring with the Buena Vista group as a backup pianist for the great Rubén González. When González died in 2003, Fonseca took over for him as accompanist for Ibrahim Ferrer, Cuba's greatest living bolero singer and another Buena Vista star. Fonseca played on what would become Ferrer's last tour, and he co-produced Ferrer's "Mi sueño," a collection of traditional boleros released after Ferrer's death in 2005.
Fonseca's work with González and Ferrer was undeniably important to him and his career. It allowed him to share the stage with other Cuban music legends such as Cachaíto López, Guajiro Mirabal and Manuel Galbán, and he played more than 400 concert dates with them around the world. Still, to call Roberto Fonseca a traditionalist is to miss the point. Sure, you hear elements of Cuban son in his playing which is usually labelled as jazz but you can also hear plenty of Afro-Cuban soul and funk. And he rocks the house.
Yo, Fonseca's 2012 album, proves that his horizons are not limited by the subtleties of jazz, nor to just the Caribbean. If the new compositions revisit themes such as love and spirituality that have already nourished his work, this time Fonseca draws from a rich musical palette full of contrasts. In place of his usual jazz quintet, on YO he develops a concept of a union between electro, analogue and African, Hammond organs, n'goni, congas, kora and the talking drum, combined together in a synthesis of Afro Cuban groove and Griot tradition.
Fonseca's relationship with Africa and the Yoruban culture in particular, play an integral part in his family heritage. He was raised in the San Miguel del Padrón neighbourhood in Havana, and it was his grandmother who passed on the santería faith. On this album Roberto has deepened this connection to the mother continent by working with African musicians.
"It has always been a dream of mine to explore what my compositions could offer if interpreted by African musicians of my generation. It is an honour to have Baba Sissoko, Sekou Kouyate and Fatoumata Diawara on board, they are all such talented musicians who are so generous with their music."
A total of fifteen musicians, instrumentalists and singers, participated in the production of YO. In addition to the aforementioned Africans and the Cubans Ramsés Rodríguez and Joel Hierrezuelo, two close collaborators of Fonseca's for many years, tha album also counts on the versatility of the bassist Étienne M'Bappé and of guitarist Munir Hossn. Contributing vocals to the project's richness are the Algerian star Faudel, the Senegalese singer Assane Mboup of Orchestra Baobab, and the spoken word artist Mike Ladd. Gilles Peterson, a friend of Fonseca's since they met on the Havana Cultura project, brings his expertise to the co-production of two tracks.
To those people who are still wondering who is Roberto Fonseca and to all those who thought they knew him, the Cuban musician replies: YO, an epic at the crossroads of jazz, traditional music and soul; a crossing of both sides of the shores of the Atlantic; an album which presents a new artist, not because he has changed but because his art still contains many surprises.
Copyright photos 1-3: Carlos Pericas