Roberto Fonseca is one of the most extraordinary, charismatic young pianists to explode from Cuba in recent times. He wowed audiences as a member of Buena Vista Social Club ®, co-produced Ibrahim Ferrer’s last album with Nick Gold, and his two most recent albums “Zamazu” and ‘Akokan” have received global acclaim. He takes a rich mélange of idioms from Cuban to Yoruba and jazz and he creates a mix uniquely his own.
Recognition for his considerable talent has spread far and wide, and if there is another level to rise to, it would be to greatness. However, Fonseca fights shy of any attention that distracts from his music. A deeply spiritual person, who just happens to express himself through his art, he prefers to defer to the mysterious and invisible force that compels him to make music.
An explosive pianist, Fonseca brings the lyricism of Herbie Hancock and the drive of McCoy Tyner to his music in intimate collusion with his superbly flexible and responsive band.
Born in 1975 (Havana) into a musical family, Roberto Fonseca – despite having been described in many different ways (“the most promising and important talent in Cuban music”, “A true revelation who stands out among pianists of his generation”) – remains faithful to the wish he has had since the beginning of his career: I want my music to reach people who don’t know me, and I dream of one day becoming a point of reference for my audience…”
He started studying piano at the age of 8, though his initial passion was percussion. This interest from such an early age would clearly influence his trademark “percussive” piano-playing style. His first “job” was as the drummer for a band doing covers of Beatles songs “We used to listen to Beatles music on the radio, with my mother, and it was something that marked me – I played the drums as though I were one of them, I loved it”. At the age of 14, he created his first compositions, drawing inspiration from the Afro-Cuban genre, “At school we used to regard American Jazz as a point of reference; I felt that my music would be a fusion of both genres … I liked lots of Jazz musicians, such as Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, but also old American Funk and Soul classics”.
His appearance as a pianist, aged just 15, was a revelation at Havana’s “Jazz Plaza” International Festival; he completed his academic training as both pianist and teacher. After this, his desire to improve and learn further led him to take a degree in Musical Composition at the “Instituto Superior de Arte “(ISA).
At the age of 21, guided by the need to fuse his music with other styles, he embarked on a tour across Italy with singer Augusto Enriquez, which included performances on the state TV channel, RAI, “it was musically different, and made me realise even more that I always needed to search for my own path.”
And his path would cross, one year later, with saxophonist Javier Zalba (Irakere, Cubanismo), with whom he formed the group “Temperamento”. This was the beginning of a 9-year journey which would culminate in the work he is now releasing, called “ZAMAZU”.
In a year of intense creativity, he recorded and produced his first album “En el Comienzo”, which won the award for best Jazz album at the Cubadisco´99 festival ; he co-produced, arranged and played on Augusto Enriquez’s album, “Cuando Yo Sea Grande”, and recorded his first solo album “Tiene Que Ver” which he released in 1999, receiving an award in the popular Cuban music category of the Trimalca competition, organised by UNESCO.
His second solo work was quick to be released, and in 2000 he presented “No Limit”, recorded and produced by Roberto for Japanese record label JVC. The same year he composed the soundtrack for the film “Black”, by French director P. Maraval, and produced the record “Un montón de cosas” for the Hip-Hop group Obsesión.
“Those two years were really intense; I needed to express all the creativity that was inside me; I didn’t really know wh ere it was all driving me to, because each idea I had led to a thousand others“
Roberto’s life changed with the start of the 21st Century, not only because he released his third album, “Elengo", but also because his career took an unexpected turn. “I went to the EGREM studios to record Angá Díaz’s album, invited by him, and when I got there I saw many people who were legends to me …, Rubén González, Cachaíto López, Guajiro Mirabal…… in two months my whole life changed”
Shortly afterwards, he was invited to be support pianist to the great maestro Rubén González, as part of the renowned Orquesta de Ibrahim Ferrer and that same year he joined the management company “Montuno” “My God, sharing the stage every night with Rubén González was a real dream; I’d just stay there, staring at him play for hours”.
A dream that toured all over the world, with over 400 concerts, promoting Ibrahim Ferrer’s records next to great legends such as Cachaíto López, Guajiro Mirabal and Manuel Galbán, among others. Playing at the most prestigious venues, such as “Frankfurt Alter Oper” (Frankfurt), “Palais des Congrès” (Paris), “Albert Hall” (London), Beacon Theatre (New York), “Sydney Opera House” (Australia), etc. Not a single review of Ibrahim’s concerts, from South America to Asia, would fail to mention Fonseca’s talent and his magnetic stage presence.
Omara Portuondo, passionate about his style, invited him to take part in her tours, among them the Tokyo Jazz Festival in 2002, where he shared the stage with Herbbie Hancock, Michael Brecker and Wayne Shorter “I couldn’t believe it, when Herbie Hancock himself called me to play with him, I did not even sleep that night!!”
That period of intense work, touring round the world, led Roberto to realise that his music was ready for creating his own project. He dug deep to compose each of the songs that form “ZAMAZU”, the result of the integration of all his influences; Afro-Cuban music, Jazz, classical music and traditional Cuban music.
He discovered that his music can create new possibilities: meeting fashion designer Agnès B was the start of a relationship of mutual admiration. Their rapport first emerged when Roberto started wearing her creations for all his performances, and took shape when Roberto played live for the Agnès B fashion show in Paris in July 2006.
In mid 2004 Ibrahim Ferrer decided to carry out a project that would be the climax of his artistic career, a record and a tour of his treasured boleros, which would celebrate the singer’s love for the genre. His close relationship with Roberto and the trust he placed in his musical abilities led to Roberto taking part in the first recordings. He arranged and co-produced the work in the EGREM studios in November of that same year, producing over 10 songs in January 2005, as well as assuming the role of director of the world tour “Mi sueño: A bolero Songbook tour 2005”. Ibrahim Ferrer used to say “This “muchacho”, despite having a jazz background, gets me and respects my music, and - boy, can the kid play…!
After two exciting tours with this project, August 2005 was a time of great pain for Roberto, with the loss of Ibrahim Ferrer. This became the driving force behind the desire to finish his own album “Zamazu”, and he did so in 6 months. He invited in Alê Siqueira, one of Brazil’s major music producers, creator of great projects such as Tribalistas, Flor de Amor (Omara Portuondo), Infinito Particular (Marisa Monte), etc. He travelled to Bahia for the pre-production stage at Carlinhos Brown’s studio, and added the finishing touches to all the collaborations on the album, including Brazilian percussion. At that moment, a date was fixed for the album’s recording - January 2006 - as well as a place – La Habana.
And so, in barely 5 days in January, Roberto recorded over 2 hours of music. A creative output reminiscent of the classic jazz sessions. Several musicians were included in the line-up for this fabulous album and several collaborations closed the 3-year creative cycle; Carlinhos Brown, Cachaíto López, Omara Portuondo, Vicente Amigo, Toninho Ferragutti, and friends such as Javier Zalba, Omar González, Ramsés Rodríguez and a further twenty or so musicians were involved. All were witnesses to a Roberto Fonseca seeking to connect the most sensitive touch on the piano to the melody and forces of rhythm that amalgamate the principal musical cultures of America, Brazil and Cuba with those of the African continent. Compositions of a beauty that touches the sublime, with lyrics of imagination that inform the aesthetics of the album, a place where virtuosity submits to emotion.
IN 2006 he produced the album of Japanese singer Asa Feeston and has collaborated as a musician on other albums, such as Timbalada’s latest. Together with Nick Gold from the World Circuit record label, he co-produced what turned out to be Ibrahim Ferrer's last album, which was released in 2007.
In July 2007, during the summer festivals in Europe, he shared the stage with Bebo and Chucho Valdés at Jazz in Marciac and composed the song “Latin in Marciac” which the Festival used for the opening and closing of its main concerts.
"…I’m enthusiastic to share this journey with my audience, wherever they welcome me "
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You thought you knew Roberto Fonseca, the brilliant Cuban pianist who drew attention the first time he appeared at Havana's International Jazz Festival. He was just fifteen. Maybe you know that he's an alumnus of...
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