©Brett Delmage, 2018
Miguel de Armas and Elizabeth Rodriguez ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Afro-Cuban Meets Jazz featuring Miguel de Armas and OKAN
NAC Fourth Stage
Saturday, October 13, 2018 – 8:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

I have rarely felt that much energy and joie de vivre pouring out of a group as in the collaboration between Miguel de Armas and OKAN this month.

For two successive evenings, they took over the NAC Fourth Stage and turned it into a Cuban fiesta, combining their own compositions, jazz standards, and Afro-Cuban songs into a joyous rush of music.

On the first (Saturday) evening, every seat was taken in the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage – and there were fans perched in the window ledges. Each song was greeted with strong applause, and by the last song most of the audience was up dancing, and stayed on their feet to give the group a standing ovation and to demand an encore.

There was a strong simpatico and easy communication among all five musicians on-stage – not surprising given their similar roots in Cuba and their performances together here. This was the third time that de Armas and OKAN had performed together (the first was last New Year's Eve in Ottawa).

OKAN is violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez and percussionist Magdelys Savigne. Both graduates of Cuba's rigorous musical university training, they arrived in Toronto in 2013 and 2014 as members of Maqueque, Jane Bunnett's JUNO-winning women-only Cuban jazz group. They left Maqueque in 2017 to concentrate on OKAN.

Pianist Miguel de Armas founded the legendary Cuban orchestra NG La Banda, and has performed and recorded for decades in Cuba and abroad, including with groups like Chucho Valdes e Irakere, Los Van Van, Pablo Milanés, and Compay Segundo. He arrived in Canada in 2012, and quickly established himself in Ottawa's and Canada's jazz scene.

Toronto-based bassist Roberto Riverón was a founding member of the legendary Cuban group Klimax. He moved to Canada in 2007. He produced OKAN's just-released EP, and has frequently performed with de Armas. Drummer Frank Martinez is also from Cuba – in fact, he was a university classmate of Rodriguez and Savigne – and now lives in Ottawa, often performing with de Armas.

“We're so happy to present you our music from our hearts,” Rodriguez told the crowd during their opening number, an intense Afro-Cuban piece with her and Savigne chanting over strong rhythms from Savigne's Batá drums.

And it was a heartfelt show, with each of the musicians presenting music that they loved, and their own compositions from recent albums. Three of the five songs from OKAN's just-released EP, and three pieces from de Armas' 2017 quartet album were included in the set list. The music ranged from folkloric chants to Cuban “son” to Thelonious Monk to rumbas to intensely personal ballads.

Even with only five musicians on stage, there was a rich and propulsive mix of instruments in the music: at the bottom, drums and electric bass; then de Armas' piano, Rodriguez's violin, and Savigne on congas, cajon, and Batá drums; and, soaring on top, vocals from Rodriguez, Savigne, and Riverón.

It was far more than a concert – it felt like a spectacle, with colourful costumes and dancing and considerable interaction back and forth between the audience and the stage.

Highlights included the heart-wrenching melodies which transformed into vivid cha-cha-cha rhythms in “What's to Come”, the title track from de Armas' 2017 album; the gentle and bittersweet “Aguila”; the fierce and echoing violin, cajon, and conga rhythms in “Trocada”; and the interlaced and powerful ensemble playing on de Armas' “Rumba on Kent Street”.

“Laberinto”, the title track of OKAN's EP, was a song Rodriguez wrote about not forgetting one's past. It included both strong Afro-Cuban rhythms and European classical flourishes, and some impressive pizzicato violin against accented piano.

The most passionate song of the night was OKAN's “Last Day”, Rodriguez's unrestrained and furious remembrance of a man who had done her wrong, and the only piece that evening with English lyrics. Her voice, vibrating with emotion, was matched by slashing violin lines, intricate piano, and strong Batá drumbeats. The song's last violin flourish evoked intense applause. At the end of the song, Rodriguez assured the audience, “You see I'm happy now – I got rid of him!”

The band then jumped into a super-fast merengue to close the show. “This song is about Cuba!” Rodriguez exclaimed, and almost everyone – band and crowd – was up on their feet singing and dancing to the sizzling, thumping rhythms. Rodriguez squatted down at the edge of the stage to play her violin directly to the audience, who clapped back in time. When the music ended, the clapping naturally morphed into a standing ovation.

The band quickly returned for an encore, whose deep bass riffs resounded through the Fourth Stage, and whose sparkling piano, fast cajon beats, and catchy singing kept everyone up. The audience reacted to its last drum thump with another standing ovation.

Set 1

  1. Sombras
  2. Laberinto (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne)
  3. Monk's Dream (Thelonious Monk)
  4. The Mistress and Her Dog (La Dama y el Perro)
  5. 1000 Palabras (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne)
  6. What's To Come

Set 2

  1. Espiral
  2. Aguila
  3. Trocada
  4. Rumba on Kent Street (Miguel de Armas)
  5. Last Day (Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne)
  6. Kumba Cuba

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with OKAN about this show and how they ended up in Canada: