Having proved himself, time and again, to be an artist of prowess and ideas, a musician with a questing jazz sensibility and deep roots in the AfroCuban tradition, Havana-born pianist Robert Fonseca releases Yesun, his ninth solo album, on 18 October.
“Yesun is the album I’ve always wanted to make,” says Fonseca of a record that combines everything from jazz and classical music to rap, funk, reggaeton and electronica, ripping up the rulebook along the way. “All my influences are here. All the sounds and vibes that make me who I am.”
It’s a trio album whose 12 original tracks are bolstered by Fonseca’s regular bandmates, drummer Raúl Herrera and longtime double bassist Yandy Martínez Rodriguez. Guests include Grammy-winning American saxophonist Joe Lovano, lauded French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, Grammy-nominated Cuban rapper/singer Danay Suarez and famed Cuban bolero diva, Mercedes Cortés.
Yesun follows on from 2016’s ABUC (“***** Incandescent Cuban contrasts” – The Guardian), which told the story of Cuban music past, present and future with a cast of over 30 guests. More streamlined but no less ambitious, Yesun also delves into the music of Fonseca’s homeland – music as kaleidoscopic as Cuba itself –but keeps its sights set firmly on the future, weaving in electronic beats, spoken word, retro-modern keyboards, Fonseca’s own sonorous vocals and more.
Breaking moulds. Setting precedents. Knocking down boundaries.
“Yesun presents a Cuba without borders,” says Fonseca. “I’m building bridges between my AfroCuban traditions and other styles of music and doing some of the crazy things I love doing live. I’m bringing in ideas I’ve absorbed over many years of touring the world. I’m taking Cuban music forward.”
While still comparatively young for one approaching maestro status, Fonseca has been at the forefront of the renaissance in Cuban music for nearly three decades. Having made his live solo debut aged 15 at the 1990 Jazz Plaza Festival in Havana, he graduated with a Masters degree in composition from the capital’s respected Instituto Superior de Arte, determined to become a point of reference.
A Cuban Chopin. Havana’s own Herbie Hancock. A maker of music so recognisable that anyone who heard it would know it as Roberto Fonseca.
Fonseca had already released three solo albums when, in the early 2000s, he joined the legendary Buena Vista Social Club, replacing the ailing Ruben Gonzalez (1919 – 2003) then touring with Buena Vista alumni, crooner Ibrahim Ferrer (1927 – 2005) then with singer Omara Portuondo. His solo catalogue expanded: 2007’s landmark Zamazu proved him a performer/composer in his own right. 2012’s Grammy-nominated Yo matching tradition with experimentation on tracks that featured guests including Fatoumata Diawara, the Malian singing star with whom Fonseca subsequently embarked on an acclaimed live collaboration.
In 2016, the year of ABUC’s release, he was the Artistic Director of the inaugural Jazz Plaza Festival in Santiago de Cuba.
In 2019, this year of Yesun, Fonseca received the prestigious Ordre des Arts Letters (Order of Arts and Letters) from the French Ministry of Culture.
Fonseca’s goals remain the same: “I’m always trying to be a better musician, so wherever I am, I’m practicing and composing, composing and practicing,” he says. “I like experimenting, breaking new ground.”
Yesun is a wordplay title symbolising water. Water drawn from the well of AfroCuban history and given with a modern, forward-looking twist. For in the same way that water, the giver of life, has vast reach and shape-shifting power, so does Fonseca’s music flow from ancient to modern, embracing challenges, prompting growth. Opening a channel for young musicians in Cuba, who take inspiration from his cross-genre adventures and wild success abroad.
This is an album that’s unmistakeably Fonseca. There’s the acute sense of form, rhythm and melody. The wealth of ideas. The compositions with something to say. There’s more space, too, in Fonseca’s solos, agile and delicate here, percussive and muscular there, imbued with thought, lyricism and purpose.
“When you’re young you want to say everything, so you play too many notes. Now that I’m more confident in my playing I’ve realised that the best way to communicate with as many people as possible is to give them room to understand you.”
Album opener ‘La llamada’ (‘The Call’) sends listeners tumbling into Fonseca’s next musical chapter. A tale of friendship as a lifeline, the track features propulsive piano, clever tempo changes and the celestial voices of Barcelona-based Cuban female quartet Gema 4. “They are such open minded musicians,” says Fonseca. “What they do with the human voice is fantastic.”
‘Kachucha’ pulses with Afro-centric pride, blending compulsive rhythms – rumba, mambo, cha cha – with deep baritone vocalese representing that coming from the belly of a slave ship. The soaring, liberating trumpet of Ibrahim Maalouf precedes a vibrant tumbao as Fonseca intones ‘Ah de Cuba yo soy’ (‘Ah, I am from Cuba’) and Mercédes Cortes and Yipsi Li sing of life and gratitude, very possibly addressing their beloved island.
‘Cadenas’ is out of the gate prog-rock style before a tempo shift brings in a cha-cha vibe, sung exhortations to break free from mental chains and some truth-spitting spoken words from Danay Suarez: “She’s telling of the need to prioritise spirituality over material things, and how important it is to fight for one’s soul.”
‘Por Ti’ is a masterclass in classical composition, in sustained lyrical invention, from one steeped in the genre: “60 per cent of my sound comes from classical influences. Mozart, Chopin, Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Scriabin, Grieg, Bela Bartok,” says Fonseca. “I hope when people hear this tune that tears will fall from their eyes. That they will know me.”
‘Aggua’ is a call to party that combines mambo and rumba with hip-hop, reggaeton and electronica and very possibly, divine blessings. ‘Motown’ showcases the trio’s remarkable telepathy and includes a fiery Moog solo that recalls 1970s-era Headhunters and fuses it with something daring and new. ‘Stone of Hope’ finds Fonseca singing softly, bossa nova-style, over a looping bassline that calls to mind the yambú form of Cuban rumba.
“So much of the album is Cuban music,” he says. “Not the clichéd Cuba of maracas and cigars but the deep stuff. The modern edgy stuff. The music of my Cuba.”
The rousing Cuban street choir on ‘Vivo’ comprises the voices of Fonseca, Herrera and Martinez, their chants recorded as if standing on a corner in the barrio, beats scattering, riffs falling and Joe Lovano’s saxophone declaiming around them. ‘OO’ is a psychedelic jazz-funk excursion without any discernible Cuban elements: “So it’s my most rebellious track,” Fonseca says with a grin.
‘Mambo pa la Nina’ is a crazy happy mambo fuelled by modern electronica, a vintage-sounding Moog and a Hammond organ with metaphorical grit: “I’ve loved these analogue sounds forever. I grew up listening to people like Herbie (Hancock) and Joe Zawinul pouring their knowledge of harmony into their keyboards, finding that mix of softness, strength and spirituality.”
‘Ocha’ sees Fonseca pouring water on his AfroCuban roots and subverting more clichés in the process. ‘No soy de esos’ is a poignant instrumental that marks Fonseca out as musician (and a man) of sensitivity and substance. Album closer ‘Clave’, which samples rumba icon Carlos Embale, is a funky paean to the basic pattern that underpins AfroCuban music, and the vast possibilities it enables.
Yesun, then. An album by a Cuban virtuoso determined to make music his way, and modernise Cuban music in the process.
“My culture is strong and varied enough for me to use sounds in a different way. To take risks and mix things up. To go forward, always forward, without ever forgetting my roots.”
“Yesun is me,” says Roberto Fonseca. “Yesun is who I am.”