Clare Doyle interviews Cuban musician & composer Roberto Fonseca

Roberto Fonseca

Roberto Fonseca was born in Havana in 1975, into a musical family.  He found success early, and toured extensively with many of the best known Cuban musicians, including the Buena Vista Social Club. His own compositions experiment with many influences – Afro-Cuban, classical, jazz, and traditional Cuban music. 

I saw you at Marciac and was struck by your passion and precision.

Passion is what I’m trying to get over. For me music is everything. What is difficult, what I’m trying to do, is to express emotion without words. When I play I’m often overcome with sadness for the loss of my grandfather,  of people who are no longer there, like Ibrahim Ferrer [who died 2005], and I feel an intense feeling, sometimes of love, of sadness.  And then there’s rhythm.  It’s also essential to what I do, to bring a sense of movement.

So what about the precision?

You have to be disciplined, otherwise you can’t give your best.  I studied music and although I probably wasn’t the best of students, it was essential to learn the basics and to learn from others, such as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart.

At the end of the concert, you had tears rolling down your face. Does this often happen?

Yes, for all of the reasons I’ve given. I want to reach out, to communicate, not just for me, but for all those who have supported me over time, my family, my niece, but especially my mother.  All that I have achieved is nothing compared to what she did for me. We had hard times when I was a kid, but we always stuck together because of her, of what she gave us all, and so I owe them all something. I owe them at least to do my best.

If we met in two years time and I asked you how things were and you said ‘good’, what would that look like?

I don’t know where I’ll be in two years.  I’m loving what I do right now, I’m able to do all the things I want, and at present I don’t see beyond that, there’s no plan.

Do you enjoy touring?  You seem to be always on the road.

Of course from time to time I get tired of the travelling, the hotel rooms, but I put that against the incredible experience of the audiences I play for.

Do you manage to get back to Cuba?

It’s a necessity.  I spend at least six months a year in Cuba, I have to see my family, my friends.  It recharges me.  Here I am travelling and performing all over the world, but the moment I get back to see my mother, I’m a kid again!

Are there other musical influences on your work?

I am exploring more around classical music, because it seems to me that something around improvisation has been lost, perhaps because it’s become more formal.  It’s a shame, because this means that people don’t see classical music as joyful, as reaching out to other people, the way I feel at its best all music does.  Look at Bach, at the way in which he managed to build up themes and variations.  A genius, he really understood the power and the range of music.

Do you think Bach would be a jazzman if he were alive now?

He might!

One definition I heard of jazz is that it is truth, that you can’t really play jazz if you have no real honesty.

Yes, it’s what I try to do, to strip it down to essential truths, and yes, I try always to be honest in what I do, to communicate that message to others.

You said that music is a way of finding out what sort of person you are, what have you discovered about yourself?

That I work really hard!

Have you had any surprises in the things you’ve found out about yourself?

I’m not going to answer that!

You’ve said jazz is one of the most  free musical forms because of the element of improvisation.  Do you always improvise?

I compose, I have a theme, but yes, I do improvise, sometimes more than at other times.  It brings me pleasure.

You play quite frequently in France. Is there any special reason for that?

It’s always held a special place for me, the way it did for many jazz players who came to France from the USA because they felt more free, more equal. And of course, it’s the land of romance!

For some small nations, their music becomes something more than self expression. I’m thinking of Ireland, where their own music became a symbol of them freeing themselves from their powerful neighbour.  Do you think that happened in Cuba with the USA?

The sense of music never left Cuba.  In Cuba everyone plays music. The influence of the USA could never change that.  I don’t think anything could change that, it’s the heartbeat of Cuba, it’s part of the identity of the country.


© 2010 Clare Doyle