Roberto Fonseca: “The French public helped me free myself”

Roberto, you will soon present “La Gran Diversión” at the Olympia, a show that you have performed all over France and whose album was released last September

Roberto Fonseca: “The French public helped me free myself”

Roberto, you will soon present “La Gran Diversión” at the Olympia, a show that you have performed all over France and whose album was released last September. How does this project fit into your career?

As you know, I worked for many years with the Buena Vista Social Club, but at the same time I searched for my own style, to make sure the public knew who I was and what I did. I wanted to chart my own path.

In this project, I want to show my attachment to tradition without wanting to remake the Buena Vista Social Club.

So, what is “La Gran Diversión”, this great entertainment?

The idea came from La Cabane Cubaine, a cabaret in Montmartre that played a lot of Cuban music in the 30s and 40s.

The greatest Cuban artists have performed there: the Trio Matamoros, Moisés Simóns, Antonio Machín… My intention is to revive this period. The concept is that with each performance, the spectator finds himself immersed in this reinvented cabaret with a dance floor in the middle. And this, from the first title.

I understand the idea, but you play contemporary music, not music from the 30s and 40s...?

I see what you mean… It’s true, but our music has this spirit, the spirit of traditional Cuban music that has passed through the generations.

It’s an immediately identifiable music that for people represents Cuba! We were talking about Buena Vista earlier: Ibrahim, Omara, Cachaïto… Playing with these people was a real school.

“La Gran Diversión” is a time machine that wants to perpetuate the spirit of traditional music.

Doing the Olympia is an event, isn’t it?

We try to ensure that each show is unique, but indeed the Olympia is a unique place. This concert will be very special.

Can you tell us more?

No, I can’t… (laughs) But I can just say that there will be surprises!

The show is divided into scenes. At a certain point, the musicians join you around a table for an Afro-Cuban song…

Osini. The song that concludes the album. A very spiritual song, dedicated to Yemaya, the goddess of the sea, which evokes the mystery of the depths of the oceans. It’s a very important moment for me, and for the group too, because of the ceremony we put in place.

Among the musicians who accompany you, we find those of your trio, the drummer Ruly Herrera and the bassist Andy Martinez, but this time there are many more of you. The concert also relies a lot on the singer, who is fantastic. Who is he ?

This is Carlos Calunga, who was part of the Buena Vista Social Club in recent years. This is part of the homage. Previously he sang with Klimax and Manolito Simonet.

The Mercedes theme is about your mother, right?

That's right. She was a bolero singer. The song Mercedes is dedicated to my family.

When I was little, I studied music every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., while my classmates finished at 1 p.m. I only wanted to go and play with them. I was not a very serious student. One of the teachers wanted to send me away and told me that I would never become a musician. My mom went to defend me to this teacher. Thanks to her, and the support of my family, I became the musician that I am.

It’s your mother’s voice that we hear at the beginning and end of the song… What does she say?

[Roberto rushes to the aid of a small child who is trying to bring out a lost baby bird in the hotel lounge.]

These are encouragements. My mom tells me: “Go ahead, have confidence, stand on your own two feet. » Like this little bird…

“…Shine and illuminate all the places you go. Because your light will be seen in the reflection of the water. »It’s very spiritual.

There’s this song called Oscar, Please Stop. But what is this title! ? !

I will explain to you. There were two times when I wanted to stop playing the piano.

One of those two times was the day I saw Oscar Peterson on stage. The other was Glenn Gould. This theme is a tribute to all these great pianists who inspired me: Oscar Peterson, Glenn Gould, Keith Jareth, Chucho Valdés, Lilí Martínez… It is also a game on pronunciation: Oscar Peterson, Oscar, please stop.

You just mentioned Lilí Martínez. Who is he and what does he mean to you?

He is an exceptional pianist who played for a long time with the great Cuban musician Arsenio Rodríguez. On the track “No Me Llores Más,” Lilí performs an incredible solo. This song is very important to me. I played it with the Buena Vista and I covered it on stage [The title does not appear in the album]. Lilí had a huge influence on me.

Are there any other exceptional moments, in your opinion, in “La Gran Diversión”?

Todos! (All !)

[He specifies…]

I am a perfectionist. All themes have been selected with great care. Each represents a proposition and I am very happy to present them to the world.

In each of your concerts the staging is very important, but perhaps even more so in “La Gran Diversión”. Do you have an appetite for this discipline?

It's something that I really like. My parents taught me that a concert wasn’t just about music.

[He pauses.]

There is a lot of joy in this show. This project arrived just after the pandemic. People are tired of wars, economic problems, health crises. I want to bring happiness to people, a remedy against the crisis. Hence the name: “The Great Entertainment.” »

I have the impression that “La Gran Diversión” would never have seen the light of day without “Yesun”, your previous album, although very different.

That's absolutely correct.

[I continue my idea.] “Yesun” is experimental: You sing, you use the machines… Following on from “Yesun”, you played at La Cigale le Tropical Lab, a show bordering on electro produced by Samy Thiébault, with New York DJ Joe Claussell. We discovered that you had qualities as an entertainer, in contrast to the very serious image that we knew of you.

Yes, I loved it!

You maintain an incredible bond with the French public. I wonder if your audience's trust in you hasn't helped you break your image?

[He pauses] It’s obvious. I am very grateful to the French public. We've known each other for a long time. I have nothing to prove to him. The French public helped me to free myself, to let myself go on stage.

In January, you return to the position of artistic director of Jazz Plaza, the Havana international jazz festival, which is a showcase of Cuban music on the international scene. At a time when the country is going through a deep economic crisis, that’s a big challenge, right?

It is totally true. I do not underestimate the difficulties. But I can assure you that we will make a top-of-the-range proposal. We are extremely motivated, and for my part, I am very impatient to prepare the closing show which will bring together classical ballet and rumba.

Since the start of the school year, you have hosted the Habana Social Club show on TSF Jazz radio. It’s an important show because you present rare Cuban songs, probably unpublished on French radio. I was extremely surprised by the eclecticism of the programming…

The general public often only knows one style of Cuban music. My intention is to introduce other themes, other musicians. We just talked about the Buena Vista Social Club. The records I play on this show are traditional but also very modern. I want to show the great diversity of Cuban music, from the multitude of traditional groups that appeared long before Buena Vista to jazz, timba or reggaeton.