Interview: Roberto Fonseca – “Crazy and Romantic” Cubanism (December 2019)

It’s always surprising to consider the number of remarkable musicians born and bred in Cuba. The Caribbean island is a non-stop forge of brilliant artists, but some of them are even more brilliant than the others.

Roberto Fonseca is one of those; a pianist and composer, who has grown up to become an image of the contemporary Cubania and a symbol for his generation back home. Thanks to his sound, aiming to rediscover the link between West Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, his popularity has germinated all over the world and, little by little, he’s carving out a place for himself among the greatest of Cuban music, next to his mentors of the Buena Vista Social Club.

On the eve of the last show of the first leg of the tour dedicated to his new release (Yesun), we met with Roberto and his trademark hat in London and spoke about Cubania, his music guides and his relationship with music. But we started with his 20-year-long remarkable career and tried to understand how he cultivated it…

I’ve been changing a lot in these 20 years. The way I was thinking about music in the beginning was really different from what it is now. The way I play and compose has changed, but not my idea of making music. I always want to be original. I always want to be different… And then, I want to be real!

When you get older and you get more experienced, you know more people and you travel a lot more. So, you realise that things are different than how you used to think. Things that, when you were young, you thought were really good, in reality might be the opposite.  

When I was young, and I’m talking about myself now, I wanted to play, play, play a lot of notes. I picked up a lot of information and wanted to share it with others, to show them what I knew. But it’s been a few years now that things have changed. I have changed too. I started to pay more attention to silence, to give more importance to space in music. For me, as a musician, it’s very important to have space. Also, when you play with other musicians, when you have space, you can talk and interact with them. That’s because, even if I’m the face of almost all the projects I do, I don’t see myself as the most important member of those projects. We, all the musicians involved, are all part of a beautiful journey.”

There was a moment in Roberto Fonseca’s career when the change in his music perspective became clear to him…

“I feel that the Zamazu album changed me. At that time [ed. in 2007], I was also playing for the Buena Vista Social Club and taking a lot of lessons from Ibrahim Ferrer, from Cacháito, Rubén Gonzalez… and that was the period that changed my mind, because the more experience you get, the more you change your thoughts. It was a beautiful moment and, since then, I started to think about music in a different way.

Zamazu was a completely different album, and that was because of the influence and support I had from Ibrahim Ferrer. He made me think about music in a different way. When I was a teenager, I was always paying attention to other styles of music, like hip-hop, rock, funk, Latin-jazz, but traditional Cuban music wasn’t my thing at the time. However, after that, after I played with Ibrahim and the Buena Vista, I started to better understand traditional music, and that changed my life.”

However, Cuban tradition is far from being the only inspiration for his sound. That’s also reflected in his music listening.

African music influenced me a lot. Salif Keita in particular. Then Abdullah Ibrahim. Then, jazz is also really important for my sound. Miles Davis, for example, and Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Abbey Lincoln… It’s about the way those musicians think about music.

Miles Davis was really great, because he always found his own voice and kept it. There was the same thing with Arsenio Rodriguez in Cuba. They were both musicians who found their own voice and preserved it that way. Bola de Nieve was another one of them. Those people have really influenced me. I have to say that there are many musicians who influenced me, because I’m passionate about many styles, and I always try to bring all of them into my music.

Today, I’m really open when I listen to music. I can go from classical to trap, and jazz to reggaeton, depending on my mood. It’s all about the sound and the mood. I really like the diversity of sound, and that comes from my family; they made me like that and pull me into different styles. For example, one day I can listen to soul or hip-hop singers from the States, and the next one, to Afro-Cuban music. I can listen to Led Zeppelin or James Blake. The problem that I have, which actually is not a problem at all, is that I listen to every kind of music.”

Moving the conversation to the present day, we inevitably ended up talking about Roberto’s latest album, Yesun, released in October, and offering a new angle on his music and life.

Yesun is my passport; it’s my I.D. It’s an album that says who I am. In the album, I try to share something different with people and to share that in a different way. Also, in my previous albums, I always wanted to share something. ABUC was about sharing Cuban music, while Yo was about my African influences. Yesun is about myself and all my influences. This is me; this is what I have been listening to and what I listen to today. This is what I have in my mind and what I want to share with people. The way it came out is really beautiful to me. I met a lot of people who said to me that I was right, that it was the most important album that I have done so far.

This is the Roberto Fonseca who I want you to listen to. It’s the guy who doesn’t care about any brand or about categorising the music he plays. It’s about a guy who just wants to play his music and wants to share it. Maybe it’s a bit risky, but that’s a risk that I wanted to take, because I like to take risks.”

‘Yesun’, as a word, was another way in which Roberto expressed himself. It’s a sort of compound term between ‘Yemoja’ and ‘Oshun’ (the deities of motherhood and the river in the Yoruba pantheon), which is also a reference to his spirituality.

As I said, the album represents my world. Sometimes, I want to be original, and I really like to play with words. It happened before with a song that I dedicated to Ibrahim Ferrer, called ‘El Niejo’, which puts together ‘niño’ and ‘viejo’ in the title, which means ‘the child’ and ‘the old man’ in Spanish. Same for another song titled ‘Elengò’, which is ‘eleguà’ with ‘achangò’ together, but there are other examples, and ‘Yesun’ is one of them.

I’m not a singer. When you’re not a singer, you have some limitations when you want to express yourself. My songs are usually only about music; they’re instrumental. While, when you add lyrics to your music, maybe people find it easier to listen to you and understand the meanings of your songs. At the same time, when you make instrumental music and you are able to express things like your spirituality in your very own and personal way, people understand that; they understand that it’s a meaningful thing to you.

There are many musicians who perform just for show. They pretend to be a character; they act when they play. Then, when you see them in real life, they look like totally different people. While, my Afro-Cuban tradition, the one that I bring on stage, is really personal. I like to share it, but I don’t want to show it off. It’s my own thing.”  

The uniqueness of Yesun doesn’t only manifest itself in its music qualities and inspiration, but it’s also indicated by the fact that it was a “first time” for many things. For example, it was the first album Roberto Fonseca recorded in a trio formation.

This was the first time that I recorded as a trio, and it was the first time I was singing. Actually, it was also the first time that I could do everything I wanted to do in an album without caring too much about the effects.  

Anyway, playing in a trio is really difficult. I used to play in big bands, like quintets or sextets, even with orchestras, and when you play with different elements, you can ask people to play a specific part, and then you have a lot of space for yourself. But when you’re playing as a trio, you have to be able to compensate for all those musicians, combine and put together as many parts as possible to make the music sound fresh. If you want to sound more rock, you have to play more and louder. You need to be really creative, because you need to sound different; you can’t use the same phrases twice. There are some styles of music, like pop or reggaeton, where people like it when songs sound the same. While in jazz, it’s about creativity. That’s why playing jazz music as a trio is one of the most difficult things.”

Today, Roberto Fonseca is one of the most inspired Cuban musicians of his generation. He has played all over the world and collaborated with some of the greatest artists, but his status also brings responsibilities that he’s more than willing to carry on. 

My intention in the last few years is to bring Cuban culture with me wherever I play, and not only when I play. I feel like being an ambassador of Cuba, so it’s not only about music. That’s because I see that there are many clichés about my country, and that’s a shame. I know where those clichés are coming from. Usually, they’re coming from people who want those clichés to stay because of marketing and popularity. Especially nowadays, when it all comes down to social media, when it’s all about likes, views and followers. So, that’s why I want to show people a different Cuba. I want to show them that Cuba is not only about the past and the present, but Cuba looks at the future too. That’s why, for me, it’s really important that people understand what I say during my concerts. That’s why I want people to understand the experience of the Cuban people and the fact that we are not all the same, even if we are all really musical people.”

We wanted to understand the secret behind the musicality in Cuban people, and Roberto had a spot-on explanation.

Cuba is a music factory, but it’s not only that. It’s about the fact that we have something beautiful, because we receive a classical music education. When you put together the classical music background, which gives you the basics and skills to play every style, with the rhythms that we have, which come from Africa or Latin America or Spain, that’s how you create Cuban music.”

We also seized the moment to ask him for some Cuban music tips…

Today, Cuba is more open. There are different scenes, and that’s really good for Cuban music. We also have different venues where musicians can play, so they have more opportunities.

There’s a guy who is really killing it. His name is Cimafunk. Then you have Equis Alfonso, Carlos Miyares, who’s a saxophone player, and another saxophone player who played with me, called Javier Zalba. Then, there’s a really popular female singer called Eme Alfonso. You also have really funky group called Toques del Rio and Buena Fe too.

I mean, you have plenty of different types of music, and I have only mentioned a few names, but there are plenty more. Now, I hope that my other friends that I haven’t mentioned won’t be jealous.”

The last gig of the first leg of his tour was fast approaching, so it was also time to find out more about Roberto’s plans for the future… because 2020 is already looking pretty busy for the pianist.

After the gig tomorrow, we take a break, because I have another show on 1st January with the Metropole Orkest in Germany, where they’re going to play my music. Then, we re-start with the Yesun tour in February or March in the US, and we have another 18 concerts coming up.

I also have music ready for another album, which is probably coming out in 2021 or 2022. It’s also about what kind of album I’m going to do. Which project I’m going to release first. Because I’m also working with a DJ called Joe Claussell, who’s fantastic!  

Then, we have the Chicago Symphony Orchestra project, and we will continue with the Yesun Tour. Maybe we will also take part in the celebration for the 90 years of Omara Portuondo.”

We spoke extensively about his music and his “professional life”, so we couldn’t help but close our chat by moving to a slightly more personal level, asking him who Roberto Fonseca is…

I’m a crazy romantic Cuban, who likes to share his music with people.