OKAN: stripping the soul from Toronto
I remember perfectly when I first heard the voices of Magdelys Savigne and Elizabeth Rodríguez. I was traveling down the endless 401 freeway, to Toronto. It was the summer of 2017. My friend Karen was driving. The car speakers sounded the songs of La Migra (Made With Pencil Crayons, 2017), the album I like the most from Battle of Santiago. The music was charged with energy. The sound, experimental, electronic, rock, full of Afro-Cuban rhythms and songs. There, in the percussion, in the choirs, you could see a presence, a contagious creative energy. Karen and I looked at each other in moments when that energy was most evident, most alive. "Pretty cool stuff", we were repeating throughout the trip while the songs on that album followed one another in a delicious, addictive loop. That day the 401 felt smaller.
About a year later I had the opportunity to meet Magdelys and Elizabeth in Kingston, Ontario. It was my last year of doctorate at Queen’s University. Since I arrived in Kingston in 2012, I have helped organize concerts by Cuban musicians who almost always came from Havana or Toronto. So I had the opportunity to work with artists that I admire and respect a lot, such as Carlos Varela, Aldo López-Gavilán and Telmary. Already in the fall of 2018, OKAN - the duo of Magdelys and Elizabeth - had been founded for a year or so. Their visit to Queen’s helped me understand the OKAN concept first hand. They were in Claudio Palomares's music and culture in Latin America class where they spoke about the challenges of being a woman in the music industry and offered an Afro-Cuban percussion workshop. I also had the opportunity to moderate a panel where they talked about their diasporic experience in Canada, as artists and as Cubans. The visit closed with a full-capacity concert at the Grad Club, our little Brecht. I was in heaven. I never forget that show because it was my last night in Kingston. The next morning I moved to Toronto, to be closer to music.
Since I live here I have attended many of OKAN's concerts, at DROM Taberna, at the Lula Lounge, and at other of my favorite places in the city. It has been nice to see how these Cuban women have grown as artists and have become a popular phenomenon in this country; how their work has started to be recognized in other places as well. I recently returned to work with Magdelys and Elizabeth. Karen and I asked you for a cover of Qué pasa con el Cha Cha Chá for an episode of our podcast Cuban Serenade . We are delighted with this work, a tribute to Chicho Valle, one of the first Latin American musicians to settle in Canada.
About OKAN's music I like its clean, elegant sound, the notable influence of various cultures without losing the Cuban essence, the harmonies and vocal arrangements and, of course, the virtuosity of Magdelys on percussion and Elizabeth on violin, both with an enviable ability to navigate between the classic and the contemporary. Talent calls talent. The duo has been nurtured by the experience and creative energy of some greats on the Toronto scene such as Hilario Durán, Roberto Riverón, Pablosky Rosales, Alexis Baró, Jeremy Ledbetter, Bill King, Reimundo Sosa, Danae Olano, Roberto Occhipinti, the Turk Selcuk Suna, the Dominican Junior Santos, the maestro Miguel de Armas from Ottawa, Telmary from Havana and from the frequent collaboration with the young percussionist Frank Martínez.
In just three years of existence, OKAN has come to occupy an important place in the universe of contemporary Cuban diaspora music. Much has been said about the undeniable artistic value of the music that Magdelys and Elizabeth make; however, less has been said about other dimensions of his work. For example, what social spaces have been addressed and developed by the duo? What effect has Magdelys and Elizabeth's way of conceptualizing and articulating their multiple identities had on the recognition of OKAN? How has Toronto as an urban and multicultural space influenced the duo's upward trajectory? Here are some ideas about it.
Where are the singers from?
Magdelys nació en Santiago de Cuba. Aprendió inglés de pequeña, hablando con niños y niñas canadienses que venían a pasar las vacaciones en el hotel donde trabajaba su mamá. Fue estudiante de música en el Isa y en 2007, su segundo año en el programa, fue invitada a estudiar por un año en Australia. A los 19, esa fue su primera experiencia fuera de la Isla. Durante esos años Magdelys vivía en Centro Habana, donde colaboraba con Alami, la banda de jazz de Daymé Arocena, compuesta intencionalmente solo por mujeres. Ahí estaban Danae Olano en el piano, Celia Jiménez en el bajo y más tarde se incorporó Yissy García en la batería. El proyecto musical coincidió con una de las visitas de la jazzista canadiense Jane Bunnett a La Habana y al combinar el talento que había en Alami con los recursos y la influencia de Bunnett, se concretó la oportunidad de grabar y girar en Canadá y los Estados Unidos, bajo el nombre de Maqueque. Con limitadas oportunidades de trabajo en Cuba, Magdelys decidió quedarse a vivir permanentemente en Toronto en 2014.
As she began to make her way into her new city, Elizabeth moved to Boston with her aunt. The other half of OKAN grew up in Havana's Los Sitio neighborhood, surrounded by strong-willed women, who prepared her to navigate a world dominated by men. Her family was poor; one of those who sacrifice everything for the improvement of the youngest. Elizabeth had the opportunity to develop her vocation for music, beginning as a child to train her voice in a choir. She then she came the violin classes, the Isa and the honor of working as a teacher with Guido López-Gavilán. She later came to Canada through an invitation to perform at a festival in Hamilton, Ontario. In Boston she had not done badly financially, but in exchange for her musical career; while Canada gave him the opportunity to create and play her instrument again, so she decided to stay. In 2017 Elizabeth began to collaborate with Jane Bunnett and Maqueque because already in that period Daymé Arocena had a huge career as a soloist. Melvis Santa, who also sang with Maqueque, could not go once with the group to Chicago and that was Elizabeth's opportunity, not only to sing with Maqueque but to get to know her future partner in art and in love, Magdelys intimately.
The time they shared in Maqueque was important to OKAN's future. There they realized what they wanted and what they didn't want to do musically. The band led by Bunnett exposed them to the blank of constantly playing in all kinds of scenarios, venues, and seasons. It allowed them to discover some of the secrets of the North American audience and the expectations that exist around contemporary Cuban music. On the other hand, it was to give continuity to the concept of Alami.
Magdelys and Elizabeth's collaboration with the Afro-Cuban post-rock group Battle of Santiago was also critical. With this group they explored the creative possibilities of various musical languages, including Afro-Cuban, and discovered the more indie and experimental side of the Toronto art scenes, an important commercial route for Cuban music in the 21st century. Working with Maqueque and Battle of Santiago gave them industry recognition — with a considerable number of Juno and Latin Grammy nominations — and with it came media coverage, and interest from bookers of festivals and theaters in Canada and the United States.
By the end of 2018, Elizabeth and Magdelys were ready to go full steam ahead with their own musical project and were fortunate to have the support of Tracy Jenkins, one of Canada's most experienced actors in world music.
With two Juno Award nominated phonograms, Sombras (Lulaworld Records, 2019) and Espiral (Lulaworld Records, 2020), OKAN has already earned a place in the competitive segment of global music in Canada. Magdelys and Elizabeth have found a niche within this market saturated with world-class diasporic artists. Its sound is more accessible than other proposals by Cuban artists based in this country, most of whom have dedicated themselves to the world of pure jazz or to satisfy the demand for salsa music —one of the few exceptions is Alex Cuba . In this sense, OKAN represents an aesthetic and generational break with what the diaspora of Cuban music had done in Canada up to now. Genres and styles from other cultures coexist in their sound, including Brazilian samba, Dominican merengue, and Turkish folk music. It is produced with contemporary aesthetic codes that belong to the world of global popular music, that is, to the more pop side of world music. This sonority resonates highly with Canadian audiences, especially in cities like Toronto that have large concentrations of immigrants.
Magdelys and Elizabeth have managed to articulate and present to this audience a unique combination of identities, critical in the current moment that the North American music industry lives; a moment of recognition of the barriers and systematic and historical marginalization that some artistic communities to which they belong have faced. They are a couple of women, Afro-Cuban, immigrants, gays. These identities are explicitly reflected in the music and lyrics of songs like Laberinto, Desnudando el alma and Águila, a song that Elizabeth originally wrote for his aunt and now always dedicates "to those many women who are far from their land, making enormous sacrifices for their families, creating opportunities and a better future for their children." In Espiral , the track that gives its name to the most recent album, the duo tells us about their migratory experience in Canada, using the metaphor of San Lázaro or Babalú Ayé, who after being buried managed to start a new one life in foreign territory. To tell this story, OKAN chose an Arará song mounted on a guajira. The video for this track closes with Magdelys and Elizabeth hugging, contemplating a rainbow, the quintessential symbol of diversity.
OKAN has found an aesthetic sensibility not very exploited in Canada by other Cuban musicians, from which to update a classic bolero or take up styles in danger of extinction such as the pilón with contemporary sound codes —or “the language of the XXI century”, as it has recently described Elizabeth in an interview with World Music Central . Beyond their Cubanness, which is an important credential in the global popular music market, the duo capitalizes on their proposition by focusing on the richness and cultural value of the African - transcending the common usage of African-origin religions to position oneself artistically, focusing on Africanity as a way of being, understanding and existing in the world. This can be seen in the instrumentation of their songs, the vocal harmonies, as well as the way they dress and wear their hair.
I see OKAN in a leadership position for a new generation of Cuban diasporic artists in Canada who have found some open spaces from which to claim their economic right to live primarily from their art. This generation, with the help of allies like Tracy Jenkins, Marilyn Gilbert, Michael Owen, Derek Andrews, Mark Marczyk, among others, better understand the grant system that sustains the artistic sphere in the Canadian nation. OKAN's opportunities to record two albums, tour North America, and participate in showcases at some of the most coveted conferences in the region are due in large part to funding from Canadian arts councils.
OKAN and the Cuban diaspora in Toronto
To succeed in the music industry today, you have to have more than talent, access to technology or financial capital. The deciding factor, especially for the freelance artist, is the ability to tell a story. Not just any story, of course. A solid story, which hooks, but at the same time leaves spaces from which sub-stories can continue to be built and, of course, make people see themselves reflected. Here Magdelys and Elizabeth have excelled using a simple and efficient resource: their honesty to tell their story, which is that of many immigrants, women, gays, Afro-Cubans, in Toronto and throughout North America. A story that is musically accessible to an audience of all ages, who do not necessarily know about Afro-Cuban music, but who are curious and affinity for the story of this young feminist couple who have bared their souls even in winters of -20 degrees. OKAN has served as a cultural bridge to that audience, taking many of their fans to a place where they have never been before. In Toronto they have not only achieved it through concerts and recordings. They have also done important community and educational work, teaching many boys and girls - and others not so young - to explore and appreciate the ins and outs of Afro-Cuban percussion, the classical violin, and to identify opportunities and challenges in the sector.
The American theorist Adam Krims, in his analysis of music in urban spaces, wrote about the power of music as a socializing agent; its ability to organize at the social level, its fundamental role as a channel through which social relations are formed and reproduced. The OKAN phenomenon has an impact that goes far beyond the artistic. It is also important for a community where music has been the most representative identity element. I am referring to the Cuban diaspora in Toronto where music has functioned as a cultural axis and a unifying agent, and where other spheres converge such as religion, food, double meaning as a way of communicating, humor as a resource to face adverse situations, the dance and the entrepreneurial, business and cosmopolitan spirit of the Cuban men and women who have settled in this metropolis.
With their ability to communicate the complexity of contemporary diasporic processes through their songs, their stage projection and their image, Magdelys and Elizabeth have also become social leaders. They have fought their space in a world where women, immigrants, Afro-Cubans, gays, have it more difficult. I think that that extra effort they have had to make to create their own space has motivated them to build a larger social space, where the entire Cuban diaspora in Toronto fits.
OKAN concerts —where we socialize, network, and express culturally— act as empowerment centers for Cuban immigrants. In addition, the duo's inclusive, collaborative and multicultural style, where non-Cuban musicians frequently collaborate, has played an important role in the development of social spaces where the Cuban diaspora interacts with other diasporas such as the African, Latin American and Eastern European ones. . They have not allowed themselves to be pigeonholed into categories like "Cuban music" or "Latin jazz." That freedom allows Magdelys and Elizabeth to move in multiple spaces, and with them we move their followers.
Más allá de espirales, laberintos y sombras
It has long been said that the strength of the Canadian music industry lies in the cultural diversity of the country, and Toronto is the heart of that phenomenon. OKAN, three years, two albums and an EP after his birth, is representing the Cuban diaspora in that space that is gaining more and more strength and that has been consolidating itself as the “global sound of Canada”.
Recently, CBC Music ranked Espiral at number nine on the top 20 Canadian albums of 2020, sharing recognition with artists such as William Prince, U.S. Girls, Caribou, The Weeknd and Lido Pimienta. Magdelys and Elizabeth collaborated on Bomba Estéreo's highly anticipated new phonogram and on Lido's Miss Colombia (ANTI-, 2020) album, where on the popular song Nada , the Cuban recorded the voices for the chorus that accompanies that feminist hymn. OKAN has also worked with other important musicians such as the Brazilian pianist Bianca Gismonti. These collaborations are a sign of the recognition they are having within the avant-garde artistic community in Latin America. I believe that Elizabeth and Magdelys' nascent journey is pointing us in a fascinating direction for the future of the Cuban music diaspora.
Party, concert and festival organizer, music curator, DJ, researcher. He lives in Toronto and dreams of Havana. He is currently researching the history of Cuban music in Canada.