Jazz fusion duo OKAN (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne) are at the forefront of Canadian-Cuban musicians bringing kaleidoscopic island sounds to international music lovers.
OKAN (meaning heart in the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria) formed when Savigne and Rodriguez—both new Canadians living in Toronto—met after joining the Grammy-winning ensemble Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, and the musical connection was undeniable. Since joining forces, they’ve earned a JUNO-nomination for their debut, Sombras, and the 2018 EP, Laberinto, won two Independent Music Awards. Their follow-up Espiral—out later this month— may be thier strongest thus far.
Combining “history, heritage, storytelling and spirituality,” Espiral relates stories around immigration, womanhood, and sacrifice. From the stunning “Aguila” to breathtaking cover of Consuelo Velázquez’ classic track, “Besame Mucho,” Espiral is full of pride and sparkling musicianship, taking its name from the swirl of genres at play.
“We wanted to let people know that there is more to Cuba than meets the eye or that is commonly known,” explains Savigne. “We are a product of the musical evolution that happened in Cuba when we were a more isolated island. We speak from our own experiences and reflect them through our music.” Rodriguez agrees, “This album is more vibrant and bolder in terms of arrangements,” she says. “But the idea behind it is the same as with Sombras: to present an OKAN that changes every time, with every song.”
To celebrate the exclusive premiere of the official video for the LP’s title track, the pair talked with Audiofemme about working with an all-women-identifying team, African fashion, and the dynamic sounds of Cuba.
AF: You made a wonderful choice to embrace the nearly extinct sound, Pilón on lead single “Mercedes” – why was that important?
MS: Pilón is a genre of Cuban music that started in my hometown (Santiago de Cuba). It was very popular in the ’60s and ’70s, especially the compositions by the renowned Cuban composer Pacho Alonso. Pretty much every genre in Cuba is directly connected to a dance. The dance steps of Pilón mimic the movement of grinding coffee. It has a really cool rhythm and the lyrics have many double entendres. That’s exactly what “Mercedes” is. We use the humour of the double meanings to address the struggles of the Cuban people. This strategy of making jokes to deal with difficulties has always been a part of Cuban culture.
ER: It is important to share with the world that Cuban music goes beyond Salsa and Reggaeton.
AF: Talk about working with video director Kathleen Ryan.
ER: She was an angel that fell from the sky for us. Kathleen put together an amazing team of extremely talented people and created this beautiful video for us. She also donated the space where we filmed it and the result is incredible. Some people have said that it’s hard to believe that we actually made it in Canada.
AF: How was it working on a video with an all women-based team?
MS: Well, this was our first video. I have to say that I thought it would be scary. Kathleen and her extremely professional team made us feel comfortable at all times. We had no idea there would be so many women involved — all talented. As a female artist, I feel deeply grateful for this opportunity. There were also some incredible men involved, so what I really liked was the balance and chemistry I saw with the team; it’s exactly what we look for when we work.
AF: Talk about how your style is becoming an OKAN signature.
ER: Nowadays, being a good musician is not enough. People expect a show, lights, images, dancing. We are not Beyoncé, but we believe style can be a way of making a statement as well. Honouring our ancestors from Africa is a way of feeling more connected to them, and to show people we are proud of our heritage. We have teamed up with Tracy Ekubor, an amazing stylist and seamstress from Nigeria and we love her work.
AF: How was it working in Jane Bunnett and Maqueque?
MS: Maqueque brought me to Canada and for that I’m deeply grateful and always will be. I had the chance to share the stage with amazing talented women despite their young age. It gave me the tools to survive and to learn to understand this new world – Canada. I got to share my compositions and have them nominated for a GRAMMY, and to win a JUNO. The opportunity opened a few doors in Toronto for me. I got many life lessons out of it, for sure.
ER: Working there was an experience that changed our lives in many ways. I was pushed to practice and learn more about improvisation. Traveling the world was fun and a great experience. Being able to perform at very prestigious festivals was a great opportunity to grow as a musician. We also learned how to drive all over the U.S., how to organize a tour, how to apply for travel visas and work permits, and many things that as a band member you don’t usually get to experience, but that we were responsible for.
We learned different ways one can lead a band, to support and respect the musicians that work with us and their independent projects. The biggest lesson of being in Maqueque was to understand that our freedom is more important to us than anything else.
We find that many music fans in the U.S. and Canada were first exposed to Cuban music by white North American musicians who incorporated Cuban or other Latin traditions and compositions into their own works. We’re really proud and excited that there are now many successful, Afro-Cuban-led jazz projects being embraced by those same listeners – and programmers – and that the Cuban musicians are taking charge of their own careers and freely expressing their own musical vision.
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