Okan is a Canadian Afro-Cuban jazz group, whose core members are Cuban-born musicians Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne. Their 2020 album Espiral won the 2021 Juno Award for World Music Album of the Year.
CBC Music (4 November 2020) writes, “The word ‘okan’ means ‘heart’ in the Afro–Cuban religion of Santería. It’s also a fitting name for the band created by violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez and percussionist Magdelys Savigne, since they pour their hearts into a sound that’s a fusion of jazz, folk and global rhythms.” [For an interview with the artists by Saroja Coelho see CBC Music.]
Here is the music video for “Espiral” (directed by Harb Singh) followed by an article by Roger Levesque (Edmonton Journal, 16 January 2020), “Cuban-born Okan explores musical roots in Canada.”
Roger Levesque interviews Okan: There’s artistic irony and a romantic twist in the story of Cuban-born Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne, who co-lead the infectious rhythms of Toronto-based band Okan.
Some six years after they both came to Canada from Cuba you could say that Okan spins a Latin world jazz fusion. But in truth, the two award-winning singers, players and composers are also exploring older traditional Afro-Cuban sounds that you don’t hear very often back in Cuba.
Okan means heart or soul in the Afro-Cuban dialect and the religion of Santeria, something you can listen for when Okan plays the Arden Theatre Saturday.
“Part of the point is to rescue those genres and those rhythms that people in Cuba don’t even use anymore,” explains Savigne. “The music that people are listening to back in Cuba now is so much to do with pop. But one thing that Cuba has is a great legacy in music, and it’s so creepy because you start appreciating those things more once you’re outside of Cuba.”
Rodriguez echoes her thoughts: “The rest of the world is listening to that legacy, but the Cubans aren’t doing it so much anymore. We grew up listening to this old stuff so maybe that’s why we’re more inclined to do that, and we had great training too, although most of that was in classical music. But if you ask any Cuban outside Cuba, they’re going back to their roots.”
Havana-born Rodriguez is a classically trained violinist who once served as the concertmaster for Havana’s Youth Orchestra. Savigne was born on the other side of the island in Santiago de Cuba and graduated with honours in orchestral percussion. Both trained at Havana’s University of the Arts but they were in different years and didn’t really come to know each other until after they had both made it to Toronto looking for wider opportunities.
They’re quite direct about their politics and the realities of life back in Cuba.
“To be honest,” Rodriguez says, “every Cuban is running away from a dictatorship, so when you get the opportunity to go to another country you take it. It turned out to be very positive but I don’t think Canadians consume enough music.”
Rodriguez first came to Canada in 2013 to perform at a classical festival in Hamilton, and played in varied genres before she connected with jazz bandleader Jane Bunnett’s Latin band Maqueque a couple of years later. Savigne actually met Bunnett in Cuba and came here as part of Maqueque in 2014, recording on the group’s Juno Award-winning debut disc. Both were part of Maqueque’s second Grammy-nominated album Oddara before they left to found Okan in 2017.
The other irony here is that the co-leaders had to come all the way to Canada to fall in love with each other. They married around the same time the group took off in 2017.
In the beginning it was a challenge to get enough gigs. Despite being a classical violinist, Rodriguez found people expected her to play only Cuban music, while Savigne’s percussion skills were more in demand. But Savigne says Toronto and Canada have been good to them.
“Being such a multicultural city, Toronto turned out to be a great place for musical opportunities. It was an open door for us and it has opened my eyes and ears to all kinds of music. I was able to play Turkish music, Brazilian, Jewish, bluegrass, pretty much everything.”
At the start Okan was a duo, and sometimes they still perform as a duo when there aren’t friends and guests performing in the band, sometimes even a set drummer. For their current western tour it’s a quartet with regulars, including bassist Roberto Riveron and pianist Miguel De Armas, who have previously worked and recorded with Okan.
One early discovery came in the great vocals they could make together, and those harmonies lift up the band’s songs. After a couple of singles Okan’s first full-length album Sombras (Shadows, 2019) brings a splendid air of traditional, exotic, novel and modern grooves. They are currently working on their second full-length album, Espiral, for release this summer, and some of those new songs will show up on Okan’s western tour.