Roberto Fonseca’s Nostalgic Truth

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“This is not an album for dancing,” Fonseca says about his new recording, La Gran Diversión. “But if you want to move, to dance, you’re welcome.”

(Photo: Alejandro Azcuy)

Ever the trouper, Roberto Fonseca was gamely persevering amid the frequent breakdowns on a late-summer Zoom call from his home in infrastructure-challenged Havana, Cuba. On the cusp of a European tour and the release of an album, La Gran Diversión (3ème bureau), the pianist spoke with the urgency of a man who had looked himself in the eye and decided to face the forces that shaped him.

“I said, ‘You know what? I’m 48,’” he explained. “I need to tell the truth about my life.’”

If the sounds on the album are any indication, Fonseca’s truth encompasses a powerful nostalgia for a time before his time: that of the brassy big bands, like those of Benny Moré and Mario Bauzá, whose heyday was in and around the 1950s.

A brassy swagger suffuses much of the album — most seductively, perhaps, on “Maní Mambo,” a hyperkinetic gem powered by wailing trumpets (Roberto García and Thommy Lowry Garcia) and primal growls (Dutch singer Clarence Bekker) atop pulsating percussion (Andrés Coayo and Inor Sotolongo).

“This is not an album for dancing,” Fonseca said. “But if you want to move, to dance, you’re welcome.”

Equally powerful, but occupying a far more restrained sound world, is “Mercedes.” A tribute to his mother, from whom it takes its title, the tune draws on the tradition of lyrical Chopin preludes. In it, Fonseca, a self-described romantic and well-schooled musician with a master’s in composition from the Instituto Superior de Arte, employs a spare melody that sings as harmonies subtly shift below it.

The tune, he said, recalls a turning point in his life when his mother convinced a schoolmaster to allow a wayward Roberto, then a teenager tempted by extra-musical distractions, to continue his studies. The tune lingers lovingly on the melody before swelling to a finale in which his mother’s voice, which introduced the piece, takes it out — bringing a kind of emotional closure to Fonseca in the process.

“I spent three days playing the last part in a loop,” he recalled. “I was so tortured, I was so emotional, I was so excited to find it. Almost every time I play that song, tears come out from my eyes.”

His thoughts drifted back to his days growing up in San Miguel del Padrón, a district of strivers on the southeastern outskirts of Havana: “My family was not a rich family. We had some struggles. But my parents never showed me this kind of thing. And when you grow up and you realize what your parents did for you, the minimum you can do is a song for them.”

For all the emotion inspiring Fonseca, his intellect also drives his creativity. “Sal Al Malecón,” one of the few pieces without a vocal element, presents an innovative rhythmic strategy, combining the 6/8 meter common to Afro-Cuban religious ritual with the 4/4 meter common to traditional Cuban music. Guided by Fonseca’s preternatural sense of time, the synthesis is executed to disarming effect.

“This isn’t just playing for playing’s sake,” he said. “I’m doing research. I want to create something new.”

Fonseca may not be playing for playing’s sake, but his pianism remains impressive. “Oscar Please Stop,” a flag-waver of dazzling dexterity and sublime musicality in the Oscar Peterson tradition, evokes Peterson’s spirit filtered through Cuban style. Performing it reminds Fonseca of the first time he heard the legendarily pianist.

“I was in shock,” he recalled. “I said to my mom, ‘I’m going to quit playing piano because I never will play like Oscar Peterson.’ She said, ‘Don’t worry. You will study and get there.’”

In violinist Regina Carter’s opinion, he may be on the way. “He’s killer on piano,” said Carter, who, on La Gran Diversión, brings her Charanga chops to bear in sharp-edged counterpoint to Fonseca’s cutting attack on “Kinka Mache.” “He’s very soulful, really knows the instrument. He’s a beautiful player.”

Carter first played with Fonseca in 2016, when he was the musical director for singer Omara Portuondo of Buena Vista Social Club. An association with that celebrated group, in which Fonseca made a splash in his mid-20s by replacing its ailing longtime pianist Rubén González, both raised his profile and, in some quarters, cemented a reputation that he regards as unduly limiting.

“I don’t want to be Buena Vista Social Club, Part 2,” he said. “I don’t want to be a copy of anyone.”

That seems unlikely, according to Marysol Quevedo, a professor at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and an expert on the Cuban music scene. Despite hardships, she said, the artistic environment in Havana is vibrant, and Fonseca is among its most forward-looking players, even as he respects tradition.

“It’s not like the Buena Vista Social Club myth, frozen in time,” she said, noting that he plays to packed houses by feeding a hunger for an “integrated” sound that fuses Afro-Cuban with jazz and popular elements.

And, she added, he thrives while confronting societal problems. Dicey internet connections, for example, demand that information be exchanged on flash drives. More daunting, perhaps, are culture crackdowns, like the notorious Decree 349 of 2018, which calls for greater government control over artists. While Quevedo said that enforcement of the decree is difficult and may be “on pause,” it looms as a reminder of the threats to creative freedom.

Navigating these waters “takes a special kind of personality,” she said, adding that only an artist with a “healthy and nuanced relationship to the state and the cultural institutions inside it” will be granted permission to tour outside Cuba, as Fonseca will when he plays France, Norway and Sweden in the fall.

Meanwhile, Fonseca the trouper marches on, finding expression — and maybe a bit of refuge — in the music.

“Now, in Cuba, we are having a special time,” he said, invoking what Quevedo called the “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” euphemism for times that are harder than the government lets on.

“They are trying to change some stuff. To be honest, really honest, I’m just trying to be out of anything and everything that gives me some sort of bad or sad feeling.” DB



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May 2024
Stefon Harris
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