Each recording by Cuban pianist and composer Alfredo Rodríguez tells a story. His albums are not collections of musical pieces but tales told in a distinctive voice, with a distinct point of view and purpose. His 2011 debut, Sounds of Space, served as an introduction, as a way of saying “here are the people, the places and the sounds that have surrounded me, and made me who I am,” he explained then. In The Invasion Parade, his 2014 follow-up, Rodríguez revisited various Cuban musical traditions, seen through the prism of time, distance, and his new personal and musical experiences.
Now, in Tocororo—his new album for Mack Avenue Records—Rodríguez’s story is represented by the national bird of Cuba. The Tocororo is a bird that if caged dies of sadness, reflecting not only the desire for liberty but the necessity of it. Beyond this facet of meaning, there is also the story of everything else the bird represents: freedom, travel and cross-pollination. In Rodríguez’s case, it represents the cross- pollination of his Cuban culture with all the cultures he’s experienced throughout his musical journey. “What I wanted to do in this recording was to open myself up to the world, while honoring my roots at the same time,” he says. “That’s also why I wanted to collaborate with artists of other nationalities and explore other cultures. I play what I live, and this record expresses what I’m living. And right now with social media and technology, I’m living in a very small world with countries now being able to see what other countries are doing—influencing each other—and hopefully Cuba will have that kind of freedom soon. Things are changing over there, but slowly. It’s a process.”
Aided by a group of collaborators that includes musicians from France, Cuba, Lebanon, Cameroon, Spain and India—Rodríguez has recruited a diverse range of artists to stretch the boundaries on his new genre- spanning record. GRAMMY® Award-nominated Cameroonian singer and multi-instrumentalist Richard Bona appears with his own African-tinged interpretation of Eliseo Grenet’s “Ay, Mama Inés.” Ibrahim Maalouf, the trumpeter born in Beirut and now living in Paris, also appears on Silvio Rodríguez’s “Venga La Esperanza.” The French-Cuban duo Ibeyi (comprising twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz) are featured vocalizing on “Yemayá,” an original song to the Yoruba deity of water, but also singing lyrics in “Sabanas Blancas.” The sisters, who were raised in France, were born to legendary Cuban percussionist Miguel “Angá” Díaz—best known for his work with Buena Vista Social Club.
Rodríguez holds on to his Cuban roots as he stretches to embrace Johann Sebastian Bach (“Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”), flamenco, tango (Astor Piazzolla’s “Adiós Nonino”) and Africa. “I didn ́t want to lose my identity,” says Rodríguez. “If I was going to reflect influences from so many places, I also wanted to make sure that Cuba was present. Cuba is always in my music.”
Such global vision also speaks to the influence of producer Quincy Jones, the executive producer of Tocororo and a key figure in Rodríguez’s remarkable story. In 2006, Rodríguez was selected to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival where, at an informal gathering during the Festival, Jones heard him play, congratulated him and told him he wanted to work with him. The encounter set in motion a chain of events that resulted, three years later, in Rodríguez leaving Cuba and settling in Los Angeles.
“I’ve fed on a lot of Quincy’s philosophy about global culture, unity and brotherhood,” says Rodríguez. “It’s something I really admire and I think, unconsciously, I’ve been following those ideas. What you hear is not just the idea of globalization but also the transcultural process I’ve been living since I arrived in the United States. This recording is the result of that process.” As a musical guide, “Quincy proved to be extremely open and generous,” he says. “He never imposes his ideas but lets each musician find and choose their own path.”
The 13 tracks in Tocororo include five originals by Rodríguez and a fresh reading of Compay Segundo’s classic song “Chan Chan,” which became an international hit after the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon. There are also nods to modern Cuban songwriting such as “Venga La Esperanza” by singer and songwriter Silvio Rodríguez (no relation) and “Sabanas Blancas,” a musical postcard of Havana by Gerardo Alfonso.
Rodríguez chafes at labels—be it “Cuban pianist,” or jazz or classical musician. Since he discovered improvisation at 15, when an uncle gave him a copy of Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert, “my music has been based on improvisation,” he says.
The other notable development in Rodríguez’s writing for Tocororo is the addition of voices, sometimes featured conventionally, singing lyrics, but also sometimes utilized like just another instrument in the ensemble. Indian-American singer Ganavya Doraiswamy contributes beguiling wordless vocals to two originals, the title track and “Kaleidoscope.”
“Before writing my music I sing it, and if it works sung, then I know it works. I’m no singer but I like to experiment, I love to vocalize,” says Rodríguez. “And now, more and more my music is calling for the sound of voices.”
He chuckles as he notes that this restlessness, this continuing search of his place and his sound is the very reason why he titled the album Tocororo. “It’s the national bird of Cuba and it made me think about my own situation, flying from place to place, always looking for my truth, in different places, in different ways,” he says. “And the Tocororo is a bird that cannot live in captivity. It has to fly or it dies.”