Pian­ist Roberto Fon­seca, with his el­e­gant fu­sion style, is seen as the fu­ture of Cuban mu­sic, writes Jane Cornwell

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

ROBERTO Fon­seca would rather be in Ha­vana, play­ing his baby grand in an airy room with open win­dows and a view of mango trees, than sit­ting in a ho­tel next to Paris Orly air­port in mid­win­ter. But such is the life of a tour­ing mu­si­cian — and the pian­ist, 38, isn’t com­plain­ing.

‘‘ I am do­ing what I love,’’ he says in heav­ily ac­cented English, wrap­ping his hands — clad in navy fin­ger­less gloves — around a cof­fee cup. ‘‘ Play­ing mu­sic and shar­ing it. Tak­ing risks and break­ing bound­aries. Search­ing for my own way.’’

The French, who adore this ta­lented Cubano and his el­e­gant yet street­wise brand of fu­sion, are right there with him. Ev­ery date on Fon­seca’s na­tional tour has sold out. This was al­ways a given in cities such as Angers and Paris, where Fon­seca guest-pro­grammed four nights of mu­sic at well-known jazz club Duc des Lom­bards, in­clud­ing his first ever solo recital with­out his long­time band: ‘‘ The stage set was a sofa and a fridge. Mi casa es su casa (‘My home is your home’).’’

Venues in pro­vin­cial towns like Belfort on the Swiss bor­der and Seignosse down on the coast near Spain have en­joyed full houses, too: ‘‘ Roberto is big in France,’’ says Fon­seca’s jovial tour man­ager Javier Moreno. ‘‘ Es­pe­cially with the ladies,’’ he adds, rib­bing him about his pin-up sta­tus.

Fon­seca flashes a smile, bats the quip away. ‘‘ I never be­lieve the hype,’’ he says. ‘‘ The mo­ment you start think­ing that you’re the great­est, you go down. But when peo­ple tell me that my mu­sic makes them feel some­thing they’ve never felt be­fore . . .’’ A pause. ‘‘ That is beau­ti­ful . . .’’

He ad­mits his pro­file in France has been en­hanced by his self-ap­pointed stylist, the Parisian de­signer Agnes B, whose leather By­b­los hats and sharp shirts and suits — along with the colour­ful bracelets of his Afro-Cuban San­te­ria re­li­gion — have long been Fon­seca’s sar­to­rial trade­mark.

‘‘ I’m not wear­ing her stuff to­day.’’ He glances down at his grey cardi­gan, woollen scarf, baggy jeans and train­ers. ‘‘ But I do most of the time.’’

But his mu­sic, of course, is the thing. An in­ven­tive blend of jazz, soul, funk, clas­si­cal mu­sic and the Cuban and Afro-Cuban rhythms of his coun­try, it’s a sound as in­ti­mate and melodic as it is bold, mus­cu­lar and con­stantly evolv­ing. Af­ter a string of solo al­bums and col­lab­o­ra­tions with the likes of Bri­tish DJ and pro­ducer Gilles Peter­son, Fon­seca em­barked on a new phase of his ca­reer with his cur­rent record­ing Yo (that’s ‘ I’ in Span­ish), on whose cover he ap­pears bare-chested, vul­ner­a­ble and, well, re­mark­ably buff.

Fea­tur­ing tra­di­tional West African in­stru­ments and sam­pled vo­cals from hip-hop MC Mike Ladd and Malian star Fa­toumata Di­awara, Yo sets out to trace Cuba’s African roots by match­ing tra­di­tion with ex­per­i­ment and in­clud­ing themes from across the world. Con­sid­ered by many to be his mas­ter­work, Yo has been nom­i­nated for a Grammy along­side al­bums by con­tenders in­clud­ing Span­ish singer Buika — who, like Fon­seca, will be per­form­ing at WO­MADe­laide in March.

‘‘ My goal is to be­come a ref­er­ence point,’’ Fon­seca told me in 2007, when we met in the foyer of a swanky tourist ho­tel in Ha­vana. ‘‘ Wher­ever peo­ple are, what­ever coun­try they are in, I want them to hear my mu­sic and say, ‘ Ah, this is Roberto Fon­seca!’ ’’

Fon­seca had al­ready come to in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion af­ter tak­ing over the pi­ano chair from Ruben Gon­za­lez (who died in 2003) in the Buena Vista So­cial Club, and then tour­ing the world with imp­ish BVSC crooner Ibrahim Fer­rer. Back then he was keen to prove him­self as a com­poser and per­former in his own right — and had just com­pleted Za­mazu, an al­bum with guts and prom­ise.

A grad­u­ate of the pres­ti­gious In­sti­tuto Su­pe­rior de Arte, Fon­seca had been re­garded as the fu­ture of Cuban mu­sic ever since his live solo de­but at Ha­vana’s Jazz Plaza Fes­ti­val, aged 15. His weekly gigs at lo­cal jazz club La Zorra y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow) were the stuff of leg­end, with Fon­seca wield­ing the keys with his eyes shut and head tipped back, his fin­gers knead­ing the keys in the per­cus­sive style that hints at his for­ma­tive years as a drum­mer.

Yet the ho­tel’s se­cu­rity would none­the­less bar him from en­ter­ing a lift and join­ing me in the less noisy ho­tel restau­rant, sim­ply be­cause he is Afro-Cuban.

Fon­seca gri­maces at the mem­ory, agree­ing racism in Cuba is more in­grained than most peo­ple think. ‘‘ But many things have changed in my coun­try since then,’’ he says brightly. ‘‘ Now we can own small busi­nesses. More of us can come and go. But I don’t know about pol­i­tics,’’ he adds, eyes twin­kling, ‘‘ just be­cause I am Cuban. Re­mem­ber, I am a pi­ano player, not a politi­cian.’’

He re­calls the press con­fer­ences he at­tended with the Buena Vista So­cial Club, when jour­nal­ists from Asia to South Amer­ica would quiz the el­derly mae­stros on hu­man rights, the US em­bargo and other po­lit­i­cal hot pota­toes they didn’t feel qual­i­fied to talk about. Even now, wher­ever he tours — he last vis­ited Aus­tralia in 2009 — he is forced to field

Roberto Fon­seca

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