On 'Tocororo,' Alfredo Rodriguez Brings Cuba To The World — And The World To Cuba

Mar 8, 2016
Originally published on February 14, 2018 6:22 am

Alfredo Rodriguez left Cuba for the United States seven years ago. The classically-trained pianist and composer has been mentored and produced by music legend Quincy Jones.

Leaving Cuba opened up the world to Alfredo Rodriguez, and globalism is most of what you hear on his new album, Tocororo. There's flamenco and tango and Bach; there's also an international cast of musicians, most enchantingly the Indian singer Ganavya, who soars over Rodriguez's piano trio on the title track.

What distinguishes Rodriguez's globalism is his ability to both compose and perform into a kind of ecstasy. Like most Cuban musicians, he can handle polyrhythms, and he uses them like a kaleidoscope, combining and shifting meters to bring new reflections and moods to his music.

When Rodriguez does look back to Cuba on this album, it's with songs that are not so familiar abroad. The 1990s hit "Sabanas Blancas" is a love song to Havana and the emblematic white sheets that hang on its balconies. In Rodriguez's inventive arrangement, his thumping piano groove repeats under the duo Ibeyi's Afro-Cuban vocals.

The music develops parallel to the song's lyrics, gaining force and dimension verse by verse. Rodriguez isn't nostalgically dreaming about home here; he wants to create a musical ritual powerful enough to conjure Havana right there in the recording studio.

Tocororo is equal parts sophistication and sincerity. It's the sound of a prodigiously talented Cuban embracing the wider world of music. Best of all, the album resonates with the possibility of all the other new music we'll discover as Cuba itself opens up to the world.

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(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ SONG, "KALEIDOSCOPE")

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

That driving piano you hear is the work of Alfredo Rodriguez. The classically-trained pianist and composer left Cuba for the U.S. seven years ago. He's been mentored abuse by music legend Quincy Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KALEIDOSCOPE")

GANAVYA: (Singing in foreign language).

SHAPIRO: Rodriguez has just released his third album. It's called "Tocororo," named after Cuba's national bird. Music critic Michelle Mercer says the album's songs go well beyond his home country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ SONG, "TOCORORO")

MICHELLE MERCER, BYLINE: Leaving Cuba opened up the world to Alfredo Rodriguez, and globalism is most of what you hear on "Tocororo." There's flamenco and tango and Bach. There's also an international cast of musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOCORORO")

GANAVYA: (Vocalizing).

MERCER: Most enchantingly, the Indian singer Ganavya person who soars over Rodriguez's piano trio here on the title track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TOCORORO")

GANAVYA: (Vocalizing).

MERCER: What distinguishes Rodriguez's globalism is his ability to both compose and perform into a kind of ecstasy. Like most Cuban musicians, he can handle polyrhythms, and he uses them like a kaleidoscope, combining and shifting meters to bring new reflections and moods to his music.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALFREDO RODRIGUEZ SONG, "TOCORORO")

MERCER: When Rodriguez does look back to Cuba on this album, it's with songs that are not so familiar abroad. The '90s hit "Sabanas Blancas" is a love song to Havana and the emblematic white sheets that hang on its balconies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SABANAS BLANCAS")

IBEYI: (Singing) Habana, mi gran habana, costumbre de darle una vuelta a la ceiba de noche.

MERCER: In Rodriguez's inventive arrangement, his thumping piano groove repeats under the duo Ibeyi's Afro-Cuban vocals.

IBEYI: (Singing) Habana, si mis ojos te abandonaran, si la vida me desterrara a un rincon de la tierra...

MERCER: The music develops parallel to the song's lyrics, gaining force and dimension, verse and verse. Rodriguez isn't nostalgically dreaming about home here, but he wants to create a musical ritual powerful enough to conjure Havana right there in the recording studio.

Alfredo Rodriguez's "Tocororo" is equal parts sophistication and sincerity. It's a prodigiously talented Cuban embracing the wider world of music. Best of all, the album resonates with the possibility of all the other new music we'll discover as Cuba itself open up to the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AY, MAMA INES")

RICHARD BONA: (Singing) Ay, Mama Ines...

SHAPIRO: Michelle Mercer reviewed Alfredo Rodriguez's recording "Tocororo."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AY, MAMA INES")

BONA: (Singing) Todo lo negro tomamo... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.