Jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca’s playing has long been steeped in the music of his homeland, Cuba. The son of a drummer and professional singer, as a young man he toured with the hugely popular Buena Social Club before going on to act as musical director for Gilles Peterson’s Havana Cultura project.
His eighth solo album, ABUC, embraces sounds from the Caribbean island’s past and present. “For me it’s very important where we come from,” says the 41-year-old from his home in Havana on the eve of a UK tour. “It’s very important Cuban traditions, from where we start to where we are working now and where we are trying to go – the past, the present and you’re looking for the future.
“We try to get new things and we try to respect the old things – combine those and you keep the music fresh.”
Fonseca sees himself as a storyteller through music. “My songs are like tales,” he says, “I’m telling a story, and especially I dedicate my music to someone or to something, it’s like they are things that I want to share with people.”
Cuba, he feels, is a society that has music at its heart. “I’m always saying that Cuba is a music factory,” he says, “because you can always find someone who can really dance or sing or make art or play an instrument – everything relates to the music.”
As well as his father Roberto Sr and mother Mercedes Cortes Alfaro, Fonseca’s half-brothers Emilio and Jesus are also musicians. With such a background, it was perhaps inevitable Fonseca would follow in their footsteps. “When you’re young your consciousness is not so clear what you want to do but I think in my case it would have been something really strange that I would not become a musician because my father and brothers really took care of me and played me a lot of music,” he concedes.
Fonseca describes having the chance to perform with legends of Cuban music such as Ruben Gonzalez, Ibrahim Ferrer and Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal on the Buena Vista Social Club world tour in 2001 as “like a dream come true”.
“Especially for me the Cuban music that I always preferred was son montuno,” he adds. “Working with them was respecting my love of the traditional Cuban music and to learn from the pillars of Cuban music was like a dream come true. It’s like going to a school for playing traditional Cuban music and when you are working with great musicians like ‘Chacaito’ Lopez, ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal and Omara Portuondo then you are not only learning, you are feeling the roots of traditional Cuban music and that’s very important. When they’re making their stories and their jokes, when you see how they live, how they act, how they are in normal life out of the stage then you realise why traditional Cuban music is like that.”
Bolero singer Ferrer, then aged 74, seems to have had a big influence on the pianist. “He was really a big superstar in Cuba,” Fonseca considers today. “The thing that made him such a superstar was the way he was – he was simple, direct and so honest in life. Music is a reflection of how you think, how you live, how you experience so it was very important to see an old guy who was really kind and making jokes all the time but also taking the music really seriously, that’s why it gave me a lot of influence. I was trying to keep my music like he was doing. He was really simple, clear, direct. He wasn’t trying to go to the head or to the feet, he was trying to go to the heart of the people.”
Fonseca puts the success of the Havana Cultura project, which involved a younger generation of Cuban musicians, down to a mutual respect between him and the globe-trotting British DJ Gilles Peterson, who oversaw the album and ensuing tour. “It showed to people that Cuban music is really fresh,” he adds. “Even when you’re playing traditional styles you can do them really fresh, all those great songs that we did in a new way.”
The pianist’s 2012 album Yo raised his own profile internationally when it was nominated for a Grammy Award. “That was a really big surprise for me, I thought it was a dream,” he admits.
“When I make an album, it’s not only me, we are a team and we are working really hard. When someone tells you have a nomination like that you think this is an honour for the whole team.
“That was the most beautiful, unique album, all the songs there are special for me, but at the same time there were more people that were interested in my music so that was a really good thing.”
In his forthcoming British concerts, Fonseca will front an eight-piece band whose multi-national ranks include brass, flute and vocals as well as bass and percussion. “I call them the golden boys,” he says. “They are really great musicians and they are great friends.”
Their young singer, Abrahan Aristilde, from Santiago, was recommended by bassist Yandy Martinez. When Fonseca saw him perform he told Aristilde: “It’s very spiritual what you give back.”
Roberto Fonseca plays at the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds on March 10. For details visit www.operanorth.co.uk/howard-assembly-room