Last December, Montreal jazz pianist Rafael Zaldivar was initiated into the Yoruba tradition in Cuba. It was part of his recent exploration of his own Cuban roots, at the same time as he's become firmly ensconced in Quebec's jazz scene.

Rafael Zaldivar ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Rafael Zaldivar ©Brett Delmage, 2012

It was a spiritual experience for him: he went through a ceremony “to resolve personal incidents that I had about my past”. And not only did he learn more about this major Cuban belief system, its link to nature and the universe and to the divine, but also about the rhythms, dances, and songs which are a central part of its practices.

He's put those rhythms and that music into his Afro-Cuban Revival project, which he brings to the Ottawa Jazz Festival tonight, and then to the Montreal Jazz Festival on July 3. It's a show which he hopes will connect the audience to the energy of the music, the spirituality of the traditions, and “the vibration that music brings to them”.

“This is a live performance. This is an animated performance. There will be a lot of exchange between the musicians in terms of accentuations, syncopations, visual exchange between views, the dancing, the physicality of the performance – people will appreciate that.”

Zaldivar, 35, was educated in Cuba's rigorous musical system, graduating from the Higher Institute of Arts in Havana. He emigrated to Canada in 2005, and quickly found a place in Montreal's jazz scene. He has released three albums of mostly original compositions with Canadian and American musicians, one of which was nominated for a JUNO Award. At the same time, he continued his university education, and was awarded a Doctorate in Music from McGill University in 2016. He's currently a professor of music at Laval University.

His Afro-Cuban Revival Project includes rhythms traced from the four major Afro-Cuban cultures: the Yoruba (or Lucumí), the Congo (or Bantu), the Arará, and the Abakuá. These are all rhythms which he studied for his doctoral thesis, on Afro-Cuban integration in jazz composition and improvisation.

His thesis discussed cultural integration and hybridization: “the way I perceive the rhythms themselves, the way the rhythms were perceived in Africa, in Cuba, in Brazil, the United States, and the way those rhythms changed the Cuban landscape, in terms of our situation, in terms of syncopation, in terms of displacement for rhythm. And how Afro-Cuban musicians have been exploring in the jazz practice area, how did they use those rhythms to create a new voice and a way of thinking, to develop a personal voice and individuality through the creation.”

He examined how different ethnic influences combined into Afro-Cuban music, and then “how musicians like Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba or even Steve Coleman, David Virelles in New York – how did they take these rhythms and make something personal with that.” And then he wrote compositions based on those rhythms: “a simple process of experimenting with rhythms and creating something personal with rhythm.”

In the Afro-Cuban Revival project, Zaldivar incorporates these rhythms both in the drumming and percussion, but also in how he improvises on piano. “Also when I compose, I use them to shape my harmonic and melodic ideas. Basically my compositions are not melodically or harmonically driven, they are more rhythmically driven. It's the rhythms in front for me first and the harmony and the melody are in second place.”

Most of the music his ensemble will play will be his compositions: “I think jazz festivals are a great opportunity to promote your creations, your personal and original work.”

However, he may include “La comparsa”, a song by Cuban nationalist composer Ernesto Lecuona which crosses between classical and Afro-Cuban music. “He's a tremendous composer. He wrote music for piano, with influences from African music and he added the rhythms into the compositional process. But also he makes clear the kind of classical steps where he writes.”

"I want my country to change, in the best way"

For Zaldivar, the project extends beyond just the music: he wants to use to bring issues about society, particularly in Cuba but also in Canada, up front. The “revival” in its title refers to “renewal”, he said: “to renew thinking, consciousness, to be conscious of my identity, my background, my past.”

“Because I want my country to change, in the best way. We really think of the word 'revival' as to change. It's a word that represents change, that represents development, opening to change, and a reflection about cultural issues and issues about identity, about political administrations that we have been facing for all the last 50 years in Cuba.”

The current Cuban system has many advantages: “free education, a health care system which is free, too. We also have access to the resources generally – there is no difference basically. We tend to see that there is no difference between races. All the things that Castro and the Cuban system made for Cubans and I personally appreciate that and I personally appreciate that.”

But “there is a price to pay for all the things that the Cuban government made at the time: free education, free health care. And the price is the freedom. So people don't have the freedom to express themselves. They don't have the freedom to understand the culture in a really deep sense and to produce it in their own way. They don't have the freedom to explore with their consciousness about the fact that we are an Afro-Cuban identity, and the African element is as important as the Spanish element. There is also a gap between the African practices themselves, and the vision of the Revolution has about the culture of the Cubans. So we need to be aware of that, we need to be conscious of the role of Africans, the role of African culture in the Cuban society.”

To him, the Afro-Cuban revival includes being conscious of one's past and and “the rights that we as citizens need to create a better and more hybridized society.” While specifically related to Cuba, this could apply to any country, he says.

“It's important for me to reflect about those issues. The Revival puts these issues up front.”

A hybrid ensemble

Performing with Zaldivar in the project's ensemble are two Cuban musicians now living in Montreal: drummer Michel Medrano and percussionist Eugenio 'Kiko' Osorio. Ottawa audiences have heard both in concert with Miguel de Armas.

Zaldivar said both are in harmony with his vision about rhythms, as well as bringing their own experience as Afro-Cuban musicians about facing those issues in Cuba before coming to Canada. Osorio is also “one of the most solid and grounded percussionists in Montreal”, and “contributes to the musical direction of the group as a percussionist because he used to play with a really well-known pianist José Maria Vitier in Cuba as a percussionist, so he knows about collaboration with a pianist, he knows how to create that kind of single voice attached together with the piano.”

From Medrano comes a “younger vision” as opposed to Osorio's “more mature vision. I think it's a great mix, that we have different ages in the group, and I value the differences.”

Also in the ensemble is Montreal jazz bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc, who is originally from Moncton, New Brunswick. Zaldivar values the fact that LeBlanc comes from a bilingual (French/English) and “more balanced” culture which has faced issues about acculturation and has “a really open view about cultures”.

“Rémi-Jean LeBlanc reflects these kinds of ideas. And he's a musician that plays with everybody because he understands the hybridization process. And he's interested also in the collaboration process. So this is why I have him in my band. Of course I could use a Cuban bassist to play this music, because this music relates to the Afro-Cuban ideal. But Rémi-Jean LeBlanc is able to relate these two and he also brings something personal, which is different and which is also related to jazz. He's a tremendous musician, a very talented and creative musician. So sometimes we find people in other countries, other places that are an example for you. That's why I have him in my band.”

Adding his own voice

Vocalist Mireille Boily will join the ensemble for the Montreal jazz festival shows. But for both shows, Zaldivar will add a new component: he'll sing along with his piano on a few pieces.

“Singing is probably the best way to show people how you feel, how you reflect about music, and what you have to say to them. And I like exposing my inner side to the people. So I wanted to sing a little bit. I will be singing in Spanish but I will also be doing some vocalizations along to my piano melodies.”

“There is a piece that I love which is called 'Guaguanco'. Guaguanco is a specific type of Cuban rhythm but any rhythm or artistic expression or musical expression comes from the dance itself, so Guaguanco is a dance basically. Even the word has a rhythm in it, we sing it.”

“That piece talks about the way people dance the Guaguanco in Cuba, the way people socialize through the Guaguanco, around the Guaguanco. This is a tool for socializing, expressing social values and human values. So I use that piece to sing.”

He will sing the melody – sometimes in unison with the piano, sometimes in harmony with the piano. “Sometimes I use the melody and I keep playing something different on the piano. I keep the original melody of the piece and I play something in the background with the piano. Sometimes I play in unison with the melody for my improvised line and my voice. I want to be sounding fresh and exposing more my inner soul to people.”

Zaldivar's next CD will be a recording of the Afro-Cuban Revival, most of which he's already recorded with the ensemble. He'll be back in the studio on July 16 to add vocal tracks. He's also hoping to include with the CD a documentary interview about Afro-Cuban practices, including interviews with Afro-Cuban musicians.

He also has another current project celebrating Cuban popular music: his Tribute to Buena Vista Social Club, the renowned quintet from Havana whose collaboration with Ry Cooder renewed interest in the U.S. in Cuban jazz. He'll bring that show to the Festival Desjardins in Aylmer on July 28 [see OttawaJazzScene.ca's story about the festival].

Welcoming every kind of influence

Zaldivar's interest in “hybridization” extends well beyond just the Revival project – in fact, it was a constant refrain in our interview.

What attracted him to staying in Quebec, he said, were the many opportunities that became available to him, and how the how the society welcomed a hybrid mix of musical influences. When he first came to Montreal he said, “I saw that the jazz community was so open to receive, to welcome every kind of influence from Africa, from the south, like me for example as an Afro-Cuban musician. And I had the opportunity to play with musicians here and invite the musicians to be part of my projects and I made some groups with them. So that was something that really inspired me at that time, the fact that the society was flexible, to be open to the continued integration and the hybridization process.”

More recently, in May, he led a three-week residency at the Centre d'Expérimentation Musicale in Chicoutimi, Quebec, with six other vocalists and instrumentalists. They worked on Zaldivar's new compositions, focusing on rhythm and Afro-Cuban groove mixed with contemporary jazz.

Zaldivar said he got to know the other musicians as people as well as performers, in a family atmosphere. “The experience for me was amazing – I got three weeks to write my own music. I also get three weeks to reflect about my music to get away from the metropolitan area, to reflect about myself as a person, and to put these reflections through my compositional process.”

“I also had the experience to see how my music is performed in different ways for other people. We had singers, we had saxophonists, we had bass, we had a drummer, we had a Québeçois percussionist, It was awesome to integrate the Afro-Cuban rhythms into the compositional process around discussions with all these musicians. That was a kind of reconciliation around cultural differences.”

Those compositions won't be in his immediate set-lists “but the process itself of putting this music together, creating this music, the questions that came out regarding other musicians – these are going to be helping me with the performances.”

“Because that gives me more ways to deal with my own musicians in the Afro-Cuban Revival. And that gives me more space to know, to better define ideas with Afro-Cuban musicians. To better define my values, to reinforce my human values.”

Rafael Zaldivar and the Afro-Cuban Revival will perform on the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Main Stage on Saturday, July 23, at 6:30 p.m., and at the Montreal Jazz Festival (Club Jazz Casino de Montréal à la place SNC-Lavalin at the corner of De Bleury and René Lévesque) on Tuesday, July 3, at 8 p.m.