When the popular Buena Vista Social Club takes to the stage Saturday at the UA’s Centennial Hall, it will come after Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca wows the audience with his brilliant jazz improvisation, Afro-Cuban songs and Middle Eastern sounds.
While most of the audience will be there for the Social Club, which enthralled global music lovers with its 1997 recording of standard Afro-Cuban tunes, the younger Fonseca doesn’t need to take a back seat to his elders. For nearly 20 years, Fonseca has created his own strong musical space. “I have the fortune that people identify with my music,” said Fonseca, whose 2012 recording, “Yo,” his seventh, earned him wide accolades. “That is why I make music.”
Fonseca and his quintet will open the Afro-Cuban fest, followed by the 13-member Social Club, which includes several members from the 1997 group: grand diva Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Guajiro Mirabal, laud virtuoso Barbarito Torres and guitarist Eliades Ochoa. Fonseca is likely to join his compatriots for a song or two.
It’s more than Fonseca’s musical prowess and knowledge that have led him to share the stage with the group. He has performed with key Social Club artists and was the musical director for the last studio recording by vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer, who died in 2005.
“He affirmed my love for music,” Fonseca said during a recent telephone interview from France.
The Social Club’s story is well known: American guitarist Ry Cooder traveled to Cuba in 1996 to team with Cuban Juan de Marcos González to record Cuban and African musicians. The African contingent was unable to travel, so Cooder and the Cubans went into a Havana recording studio. Some of the Cubans, including Ferrer and pianist Rubén González, had not been in a studio in years. The group was the latest Cuban export the following year.
Fonseca, despite wide critical acclaim, is relatively unknown. He grew up in Cuba studying music. As a teen he drew the attention of Havana’s jazz circle, and by his early 20s he completed his first recording in 1998, “En el Comienzo,” with his jazz group Temperamento. Since then he has appeared at major international jazz festivals and performed with jazz stalwarts Herbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and Wayne Shorter. But it was his musical associations with Ferrer and Rubén González, who died in 2003, that had the most impact on Fonseca.
“They transcended music and they kept me focused on my Afro-Cuban musical roots,” he said.
They taught him long-held fundamentals of the Afro-Cuban musical legacy: son, guaguancó, danzón and boleros. They revealed to him respect for the music. And they showed him, after their deaths, that music is forever.