sat 20/07/2024

Roberto Fonseca, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

Roberto Fonseca, Barbican

Roberto Fonseca, Barbican

Cuban pianist explores his African roots and gets funky

Havana pianist goes global

The dazzling Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca delighted a packed Barbican last night – but part of the fun was seeing him negotiate the balance between more soulful, minimal playing and sheer technically brilliant extravagance. Is he more an heir to Chucho Valdez, the consummate sophisticated Havana Jazzer, or to Ruben Gonzalez, the more lyrical pianist of the Buena Vista Social Club, into whose shoes he had the tricky task of stepping for their live tours? 

The set lifted off with the driving beat of the self-penned “80s”, also the opening track of his new album Yo. It enabled the charismatic Fonseca to show both his rooted, more funky and rhythmical side, as well as his sinuous improv chops. The rest of the evening saw him on a trip not just through Cuban music, but taking side tours to Africa, and even Bulgaria and Morocco.

You could argue that the real dialectic (we’re talking about Cuba, so forgive the Marxist terminology) in Cuban music is between the east and the west of the island. Raw styles from the east like son and danzon tend to be polished up by the sophisticates in the capital, Havana. Ruben Gonzalez, incidentally, was from Cienfuegos, half way between the two. Havana-born Fonseca has made an excellent stab of blending the two, at the same time developing his own style, updating the music with other elements and modernist dashes of electronics.

The sense was that Fonseca has music hard-wired into every cell, pouring out of his body and soul

The other main ingredient is that Fonseca has been exploring the African connections of Cuban music with the highly rated singer he described as the “queen of the night” Fatoumata Diawara, as an impressive guest on “Bibisa,” a composition by Baba Sissoko, which saw Fonseca’s tinkling piano conversing with Diawara's voice, and a duo of African strings performed by Baba Sissoko (n’goni) and Sekou Kouyate on kora.

Elements from the Maghreb were introduced in “Chabani” and the encore “Gnawa Stop”, a song written by Joel Hierrezuelo. The Cuban percussion was a lynchpin of the show, although the most impressive musician was the world-class Javier Zalba, whose array of flutes and saxophones were lined up like weapons of choice to deploy with devastating effect.

Diawara’s presence pointed up an interesting problem for Fonseca – to have vocals or not? This was emphasised by the charming elegiac instrumental number “Llego Cachaito” written by Fonseca and the late Buena Vista bassist Cachaito Lopez as a tribute to Ibrahim Ferrer. Some of us found ourselves missing that heart-rending voice as a result.

Vocal elements were introduced by Fonseca on his vocoder, and by sampled choral voices from Bulgaria on the track “Bulgariam”, which ended up as with Fonseca repeating a simple organ chord sequence in some tricky time signature which the Cuban drummer Ramses Rodriguez effectively solo-ed to. At times like these, he echoed Herbie Hancock, his teen idol, who was always comfortable with electronics, rather than any Cuban forebears.

On one fast workout called “Latin” the band seemed to be channelling post-Weather Report jazz-rock, chucking probably too many notes around, but mostly the balance between restraint and expansive showing off was impressive. At any rate, the sense was that Fonseca has music hard-wired into every cell, pouring out of his body and soul. What is exciting also is the restless feeling that he still hasn’t reached any settled destination in a journey which is going to be fascinating to watch.

Roberto Fonseca is on tour

Watch a short promo for Roberto Fonseca's new album Yo

He still hasn’t reached any settled destination in a journey which is going to be fascinating to watch


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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