Interview: OKAN Are Telling the Struggles of Afro-Cuban Women


Image courtesy of the artist.

Interview: OKAN Are Telling the Struggles of Afro-Cuban Women

We speak to OKAN, an Afro-Cuban Latin jazz ensemble based in Canada, about their latest record Espiral.

OKAN's new album, Espiral, opens with a Yoruba language chant that invites us to dance and experience a spiritual journey of faith and musical virtuosity. The album boasts 9 tracks that fuse Antillean rhythms, flamenco, bolero, salsa, African roots, and Latin jazz. Their compositions embody instrumental solo improvisations, lyrics, and chants full of color and social commitment using double entendres to talk about Cuban women and the Latino community in Canada.

OKAN, an Afro-Cuban ensemble based in Toronto, are Grammy-nominated and violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez, and Grammy-nominated percussionist Magdelys Savigne. Following their debut record, Sombras, OKAN just released their sophomore album Espiral, a compilation of percussion-driven songs that takes you to Havana or Santiago de Cuba.

The women-led ensemble composes, arranges and plays multiple instruments fusing contemporary Cuban sounds. They feature a generation of virtuoso jazz musicians who add different flavors to this album, like the rapper Telmary Diaz or Hilario Durán, a Cuban jazz pianist. They also dig deep into less known musical genres, like pilón (a traditional Afro Cuban carnival rhythm), combining them in their own ways.

OkayAfrica talked with OKAN about their latest record that is emotional and nostalgic but energetic, and honors the richness of Afro-Cuban rhythms and the legacy of their musicians.

OKAN - Espiral (Official Video)

What does OKAN mean?

Elizabeth Rodriguez: My name (Elizabeth) in the Santería religion is "Okantomi", which means "corazón de Oshun," a heart of Oshun in English, so that is my goddess. Also, a heart was brought to us together and we are deeply in love with each other. So it looks very appropriate to name the band like that.

How does the Santería tradition influence your music?

Magdelys Savigne: The Santería religion, even if you don't practice it, in Cuba, it is part of our heritage. We are not fanatically religious but we are religious, that's part of our African heritage and our Afro-Cuban chants describe who we are, as well as a culture. This goes beyond religion: it is a way of life, it is a way of being and, for us, it is very important to be close to religion and to honor the ancestors.

You delve into Santería chants, but there are also other genres in the album, like son cubano, Latin jazz, salsa and bolero. Tell us about your music inspirations.

ER: Cuban music is very rich and it has a lot of things to offer, not only salsa, reggaeton, or traditional Cuban music. Also, the fact that Magdelys is from Santiago de Cuba and I'm from Havana, which are two completely different cities, brings up different kinds of roots and influences. On top of that, when we moved here (Canada), we got to meet friends that are Brazilians, Turkish, and from all over the place, so that also influences our music. And we were classically trained so if you put all of that together that's what you get in this album.

But your music has traces of genres like pilón which is not widely known. Tell us about this kind of music.

MS: We want to try to open people's minds to the fact that Cuban music is not only from the 50's, while it developed from there to the 21st Century, we are products of that evolution. Trying to bring back all those genres that are not played as much as they used to be, like pilón, which was created in the 50's and 60's. The origins of this rhythm come from the coffee plantations and the movements of the woman's hips piling up the coffee at the coffee crops. That movement created that rhythm by chance.

What brought you to your second album Espiral?

ER: Fortunately we live in a country like Canada, where you get grants in order to do albums, so that is very important for us to acknowledge. We counted on different grants and thanks to all of that we were able to do it. Even though we were thinking of pushing it back a little bit, we thought we had to do it now. The entire world stopped and we couldn't go on tour, but then we realized the resilience of musicians. No matter what is happening to us, artists are creating music, putting their albums out and doing all kinds of things in order to stay on top of the game.

What was the creative process for Espiral like?

ER: When we have an idea for a song, I am usually the one responsible for the melody, the harmonies and the lyrics. The idea is very thin but then Magdelys and I work together and we finish it. It is very easy for us to write music together, honestly we can not say 'oh, it is a struggle!' Not at all.

How was working with Canadian-Cuban artists like Telmary Díaz, Miguel de Armas, Hilario Durán, Roberto Riveron, Alexis Baro, and others?

MS: We were quite honored because a lot of these musicians are legends back in Cuba, we grew up listening to their music and we respect them a lot. We got to meet some of them in Cuba, others in Canada and they brought their own flavor into this album. There is Hilario Durán, a legendary Cuban jazz pianist, Telmary Díaz who is a pioneer in Cuban hip-hop, and she has worked with women, specially in Cuba. Alexis Baro, who is a very well-known jazz trumpet player and Miguel de Armas who is one of our main pianists and he is a legend in timba, salsa, but he also plays jazz. It was really great that they treated us as equals.

How do you reflect on the Cuban community through your music?

ER: The lyrics are a way of expression in Cuba. We used the double entendre to talk about the problems that exist in society. Cubans are famous for always laughing and making fun, even though we live under a dictatorship. Music has been a way for Cubans to relieve their sorrow of all the bad things that happened to us. I know it sounds bizarre but the songs are talking about things that are difficult, like women that have to do crazy things in order to give their children a better future, immigrate, or leave them behind in order to provide better opportunities. Cuban artists can not say things openly so the government will get you in trouble.

Let's talk about your previous collaboration with Lido Pimienta and Bomba Estéreo.

ER: We have a friend that introduced us to Lido Pimienta because she was looking for a singer with flavor. We recorded with her the song "Nada," which is part of her new album "Miss Colombia." We are the ones featured in the backing vocals of this song and we did a couple of more songs and we did a concert with her. Then we started working with Li Saumet on a new demo. Then we did a demo album and were already planning to go with her on tour but the Covid-19 started. The demo album is coming out very soon and that has been interesting and we are just waiting to see what happens if we can go with them on a tour.

'Espiral' is available now. You can watch OKAN's 'Espiral' livestream this Friday, October 16th starting at 8PM (ET)—hosted via their Facebook page and Lulaworld Records' YouTube channel.