OKAN: the heart and soul of jazz music

Submitted by Rosemary Akpan on Tue Jun 25 4:34pm

Earlier this week, the JUNO and Grammy nominated women-led duo OKAN performed at the TD main stage on Cumberland Street. The area was packed with tons of people who were thrilled to see the Cuban natives Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne perform their world jazz fusion melodies. And on the morning of their performance, I got the chance to have a conversation with Elizabeth on their Afro-Cuban roots and their passion for jazz.

Rosemary: The group name “OKAN” is a very unique name. How did you two go about choosing it?

Elizabeth: We are from Cuba and our heritage is from Africa as well - so we're Afro-Cuban and in our Afro-Cuban dialect OKAN means heart. We basically do this with our hearts - we started with our hearts without looking at anything else.

Rosemary: That’s amazing. I know before the creation of OKAN you and your musical partner Magdelys were in several bands, one being Jane Bunnett and Maqueque. What was that experience like for you?

Elizabeth: It was a very interesting learning experience because it was this young group of females that were killing it. In my case, for example, I was the last one that got into the band - Magdelys was already there, she founded the band. Jane went to Cuba and started working with them, brought them here and created Maqueque. Then I entered Maqueque a year after that. For me it was incredible because these girls were ready. They had a tour under their belts and had performing experience. They were working more into jazz - which was a little bit more new for me because I was more into classical music at the time. So I just decided I really needed to step up my game in order to fit in more with the band. We also learned all the things you should be doing in a band and all the things that you shouldn't be doing. All of that experience we brought to OKAN.

Rosemary: So it really prepared you for what you're doing right now.

Elizabeth: Exactly. That is exactly what happened. It really helped us. If we had not gone through that experience, it honestly would have been way harder to be here today.

Rosemary: Yeah! I know the music that you make blends different rhythms together. How do you two make sure the traditional Cuban sound doesn't get lost?

Elizabeth: Well it doesn't matter if it gets lost. We basically play what we want or compose anything that just comes to mind. The thing is, the Cuban flavour will always be there because we're Cuban. So even when I'm trying to do a song that is based on Brazilian music, it is Cuban music because we're going to play it the Cuban way.

Rosemary: That’s definitely true. Cuba has such a rich history in jazz, so can you explain how its history has influenced you in what you're doing?

Elizabeth: We have to look up to all these amazing musicians that our country has given the world. But it's so funny because both of us went to music school and classical music was what you were taught in Cuba. You're actually not allowed to play jazz or Cuban music - so you find it [jazz music] on your own. When you’re prohibited from going that way it makes it more interesting for you as a teenager. What comes after salsa was Timba, they created that in the 90s and that music was all influenced by jazz and we're influenced by all that music. So just listening to that all the time honestly comes out in the music eventually.

Rosemary: So what artists were you specifically listening to?

Elizabeth: There is one band that started mixing (genres) heavy called Irakere. Irakere was an amazing band at the time. These Cuban musicians wanted to play jazz but of course they also had to play Cuban music - they were super heavily influenced by jazz though, Irakere was an amazing band. Also, a more traditional style group would be Los Van Van. Those are the two bands Mags and I grew up listening to. But in Cuba there are so many bands, it is so hard to keep track of all the music that we listen to.

Rosemary: It's such a rich culture so I can see how it would be hard to do so.

Elizabeth: Yeah!

Rosemary: Do you find that your spirituality or religion plays a part in the type of music you create?

Elizabeth: Of course. It's hard to not to be influenced by that because it's very beautiful and unique. In our case because we're immigrants, you go back to your roots, you go back to where you're coming from and you find these things way more interesting and way more satisfying when you're so far away from home. Maybe it's why we kind of turn back to our roots - trying to look for that grounded moment.

Rosemary: Would you say music has helped you find out who you are as a person?

Elizabeth: I think...yes of course. I work with a program called Sistema Toronto and I tell my students all the time how much music has changed my life. If it wasn't for music I honestly wouldn't be here. I wouldn't be in Canada - it was my way out of Cuba for example. Both of us were born in very poor neighbourhoods (Elizabeth being born in Havana and Magdelys being born on the east side of Cuba) but if it wasn't because of music we wouldn't be out of where we were born. And of course if it wasn't for music I wouldn't have survived this winter [laughs].

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If you missed OKAN at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, don’t despair - you can find more information about their upcoming US/Canada tour on their website www.okanmusica.com.