Cuban violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez was very lonely four years ago, in her first full winter after arriving in Canada. But she turned that experience into a song of hope.

“I was 23. I was extremely sad, and I didn't even know why. I started writing, and this one is about how hard it is to leave Cuba, and all things that I left behind: my family, my mother, my country, my language. And even though I really wanted to leave Cuba for the longest time, I found myself missing home and missing my family, and missing everything I knew. The only thing I had was hope, here, because it was a new country and a new life.”

OKAN (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne) performs music whose core comes from their Afro-Cuban heritage, but which has absorbed many influences from their new home in Canada (photo provided by the group)

The song has become the title track of the debut album by OKAN, the Afro-Cuban band which Rodriguez co-leads with percussionist Magdelys Savigne. With the album release this month, the band is touring Ontario, including two joint concerts this weekend with Afro-Cuban jazz pianist Miguel de Armas at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa

Rodriguez called her song (and the album) “Laberinto”, which means “labyrinth” in Yoruba, an Afro-Cuban dialect. “It's like a journey that we went through. I wrote it as a ballad years ago, and then Magdelys was the one that made the full arrangement with percussion. The percussion is representing the journey, the constant movement that we had to go through as immigrants.”

Both Rodriguez and Savigne originally came to Canada as members of Maqueque, the award-winning, all-female Cuban jazz group led by Canadian saxophonist/flutist Jane Bunnett. Savigne was a founding member, while Rodriguez joined a year later. Both appeared on Maqueque's most recent album, Oddara, and when Maqueque performed in Ottawa in 2016.

Rodriguez, in fact, almost didn't stay. She arrived in Canada in February, 2013, and returned home 11 days later. “I was like, 'No! I ain't staying here.' Even though I really wanted to leave Cuba. In February, it was so, so, so extremely cold.” She returned that summer and realized the Canadian climate could be nice – and was able to brave the next winter.

Savigne arrived in the summer of 2014. She, too, wrote a piece for the group based on her immigrant experience, and how she could bring her culture to Canada.

“It was really nice to just see the vibe, everybody's smiling on the street. It was so different! Trees were different. Buildings were different. It was so clean. Canada, I had the best impression when I first got here. So that made me stay.”

“My first winter here was brutal, but it looked so beautiful, so different. I liked it! Very pretty and it brought me inspiration, too, to my music.”

“'Quick Stop' was the first song I wrote in Canada also. It has no lyrics, but the rhythms, it's totally influenced in the rhythms, influences made in Canada. I know we have to move forward, and that's normal, but we're forced to change things from our culture and even our behaviour in order to fit in in a new society. But things that I can bring with me like this rhythm, this flavour, can actually mix pretty well with this society and people will welcome them with open arms.”

A very strict classical education

Both Rodriguez and Savigne were initially academically trained in classical music, which they say has influenced OKAN. They studied at the same Cuban university, but in different years.

“We were classically trained, in a very strict way back home in Cuba,” Rodriguez recounts. “Magdelys she has a degree in classical percussion. I have a degree in a classical music violin. It was around 20 years of going to school, because you start when you are very little in Cuba. It's almost like a 15-year education in classical music. So of course that has to come out in your music.”

While they knew each other in Cuba, they only properly met in Canada when performing in Maqueque. “We were the only two Cubans that lived in Toronto at the time, because the other girls [in the band] were going back and forth to Cuba,” Rodriguez recalls. “So we just started to hang out because we were the ones living here and then we started working together. We realized we had a lot of chemistry and the vocals together, so we just decided to do something. And this is how OKAN started.”

They took the name “OKAN” from an ancient dialect of Yoruba, a language linked to the Afro-Cuban santería religion. “It means 'heart', it means 'soul'. It's heart + soul,” Savigne said.

"We don't want to have only one genre and having only one style of playing music"

In September, 2017, both Rodriguez and Savigne left Maqueque. They are now primarily concentrating on OKAN, although both have played and recorded with other Toronto world music, jazz, timba, and salsa ensembles.

That range is also reflected in their own music, which blends “jazz, Afro-Cuban, and classical forms with world rhythms”. Or as Savigne calls it: “Eclectic!”

“We want to make it eclectic. We don't want to have only one genre and having only one style of playing music. That why sometimes it's so how to brand us, or tag us. That's the goal of everyone: so like what kind of music do you do? They call it jazz, or they call it world music. You can't put it anywhere because it has a bit of everything. It's not classical music – it's a mix of classical music with world influences, with jazz, with a bunch of whatever we feel like in the moment. So there is no specific genre for that … yet.”

Living in Toronto's multicultural society, they've absorbed many influences, and that's been reflected in the album, a five-song EP. Turkish music makes an appearance, and a bit of a Brazilian samba has been inserted in the middle of a Cuban bolero. They've also played with a wide range of musicians, both inside and outside of the Latin and jazz communities.

“We hang out with Brazilian, Turkish people, Jewish people. You get to see a lot of music. That's what we like, we like to always find new bands, new people, new artists, ” Savigne said.

But the core is Afro-Cuban, Rodriguez said, “because our roots are Afro-Cuban. We're both black women, so we embrace that part of our culture very much. And Magdelys loves Afro-Cuban music and the Batá drums, which are specific drums from Yoruba used in the santería religion. So we just decided to use all the knowledge that we had, or the influences that we had got over the years.”

Five completely different songs

Laberinto, which gets its official release in Toronto on October 21, focuses on different types of Cuban music. “We tried to rescue old genres of Cuban music,” Rodriguez said, and the result is five songs, each of which is completely different from the others. One piece, for example, began as a classical violin composition – “and we turned it into a Cuban Changüí”.

OKAN's music is a joint effort, Savigne said. “We actually do it together. She comes up with a beautiful melody line and lyrics for the ones that have lyrics. She writes them wonderfully – I cannot write lyrics. And then she comes up with the melody and I come up with the rhythms and then we do an arrangement. And it works out perfectly, I mean it's so comfortable. We're just used to working that way now.”

Rodriguez writes and sings her lyrics in Spanish (the band provides translations on its website). But there's one exception: an emotionally charged tune whose lyrics she wrote directly into English.

She wrote the lyrics for “Last Day” in 20 minutes “because I was really angry and I had to let it out somehow. And the person that I wrote the song for speaks English, so I wanted him to understand what was going on. That's why I wrote that song in English.”

She wrote the song during divorce proceedings, “right after court, that's why it took me only 20 minutes.”

Every time she performs the song, however, she says she has to clarify it to the audience. For English-speakers, it's the only song whose lyrics they understand in the concert, and since it's about a sensitive subject, “they actually get really worried after I finish singing this song. So I decided to say before I sing this song, 'You're going to notice that I was pretty angry, but don't worry, I'm happy now. I'm fine. There's no problem.' But I'm still singing it with that same passion, because it's about interpreting a song and interpreting a moment that really happened.”

It's also the song where the influence of the Afro-Cuban santería religion is most visible in their music, Savigne said. “We used the Batá drums to represent that religion. Also one of the chants from the Afro-Cuban religion is expressed there as well at the end of the song. While at the climax of the song, Elizabeth is interpreting that part, and getting fully into the rhythm. You can hear it, and then we mix that chant with her improvisations on the song.”

Freedom to speak in Canada - and no high heels

Savigne and Rodriguez said they'd found many differences between living now in Canada and their former lives in Cuba. But two of the biggest were freedom of speech, and freedom to play as a female musician.

“The freedom! You can speak out your mind, even. The biggest thing is politically,” Rodriguez said. “Even though I am not a Canadian citizen, yet, I could say I like this President or I don't, and I'm not going to get in trouble. I'm not go to jail for that, even though I'm not even Canadian. But back home I could not say that. I couldn't have that conversation with anyone, unless it's very close family or friends. And even so you cannot trust who works for the government. So that sense of freedom.”

“We were talking about this this morning. Returning something to a store, no one is going to blame you or say anything bad about you for just saying or knowing that you have rights.”

For Savigne, it was “being able to do my music with no boundaries, just do whatever I want. We wanted to create this band and we did it. If we wanted to move somewhere else, OK, let's say I want move to Montreal or Ottawa, I can just pack my stuff and move to Ottawa. No problem. That, in Cuba, is impossible.”

“It's difficult to emigrate in Cuba to Havana. If you're not from Havana, you need papers and permission in order to stay in Havana,” Rodriguez pointed out.

For women, she said, it's much easier to lead a band in Canada – and “it's not exactly a band where women have to wear short dresses and high heels and this and that in order to get a gig. That is very important. We still face things because we're women but it's not even close. It's not even the same.”

“Magdelys, as a percussionist in Cuba, pretty much couldn't start because guys wouldn't let her play congas or play Batás or be in the band. Unless you are in an all-female band, where you all have to wear high heels or short dresses and sparkles.”

OKAN, she noted, is not an all-female band, unlike Maqueque. As well, she said, “Maqueque is basically jazz. It's more focused on jazz and what Jane Bunnett does. And then the band accompanies what she has to say or to do.”

“In the case of OKAN, it's our music, but everybody has a voice. Every musician we play with brings their own flavour, and their own art, and it works out pretty well. It's not like that it's just us and our things and our sound that we want to do, everybody brings their own ideas and flavour, too.”

Miguel de Armas - "a living school"

In Ottawa, OKAN will be performing twice at the NAC Fourth Stage, on October 13 and 14. In each show, the first half will be devoted to Miguel de Armas' music with his band, and the second to OKAN – but they will be sharing musicians and collaborating with their music. Toronto bassist Roberto Riverón, who produced OKAN's EP, will perform with both bands, and both Savigne and Rodriguez will perform some tunes with de Armas' group. Then de Armas will play piano with OKAN in the second half.

Miguel de Armas ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Miguel de Armas ©Brett Delmage, 2015

As students, Savigne said, she and Rodriguez looked up to de Armas. “He is one of the founders of one of the most popular genres in Cuba, called timba. He's a legend! Being able to work with him on this side of the world is just fantastic.”

To be perform with him in Canada is “has always been like a dream for us. For him playing jazz with us, we're so proud.”

This isn't the first that Savigne and Rodriguez have played with de Armas: they and Riverón were part of his 2017 New Year's Eve Show at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata. “It was so much fun, it was fantastic,” Savigne said.

“He is a great musician,” she said. “He brings his own spices to our charts. That's what we like, that's our style. We want every musician to come to our band and do their style as long as it doesn't conflict with our ideas, the whole thing we have with OKAN. But playing with Miguel, we see it as a school...He is a school, a living school. We learn so much every time we play with him. There is always a new way of playing the same song.”

Rodriguez appreciated how de Armas, even when he is a bandleader, also works as part of that band and doesn't try to overshadow other musicians. “He's a pianist that is part of that band. It says a lot about a professional like him.”

De Armas also performed with OKAN in Kingston last month. Right after the NAC concerts, on October 16 and 17, he will go to Toronto to take part in the recording session for OKAN's first full CD, which they hope to release next spring.

While Laberinto is focused more on different genres of Cuban music, the full CD will have more of the Afro-Cuban side, Rodriguez said. “More chants, and we're going to use more Batá drums, and we're trying to do an a cappella song where we use the chants from our region.”

And even after that, the duo will still have more finished tunes waiting to be recorded. “Honestly, what happened was that we had so much music ready to go. We've been trying to work on this band for the last two years, and we were literally sitting on our music. So we just had to pick which ones would go to the EP and which ones are going to the CD. But we also have music for another CD already.”

"Get up and get dancing!"

Longer-term, they've just bought some winter coats, because they'll be touring in Alberta in the early winter of 2019.

And they want to broaden peoples' perspectives about Cuban music. “When they hear Cuban music they think it's only salsa and Buena Vista Social Club. This is more like a modernized 21st century look at the old genres that we play – and people that have been influenced by immigration, by other cultures, by many things,” Rodriguez said.

“We just want to share the music with the world, our music! And hopefully in the future do more collaborations with different artists, not only with women and not only Cuban but Canadian as well. We would love to expand our horizons, music-wise. It doesn't have to stay in the Latin community. You can go beyond that, to Canadians, It can be Europeans, Americans, whoever!” Savigne said.

And they'd love to get people dancing at their shows. “It's great for a Cuban musician to see the people dancing and enjoying themselves in the audience. So in Kingston people were even dancing to the instrumentals. It was so fabulous!” Savigne said.

Rodriguez echoed her: “I want to make sure people know you don't need permission to dance! You don't need to look around to see who's dancing first. Just get up and dance! Canada Moves – that's where we're going.”

“It's so hard for people sometimes to do that. We want to make sure that If you're enjoying yourself, just do it!”, Savigne said. “Just do it! Who cares?”

OKAN (Elizabeth Rodriguez on violin and vocals, Magdelys Savigne on percussion, and Robero Riverón on bass) will perform a joint show, Afro Cuban Meets Jazz, with pianist Miguel de Armas' quartet in two shows on Saturday, October 13, and Sunday, October 14, at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, at 8:30 p.m. each evening. Tickets are $28, available in-person at no service charge from the NAC Box Office, or with service charges via Ticketmaster on the NAC website. The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa; all downtown-bound OC Transpo routes, including those on the Transitway, stop within two blocks.