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The Voodoo That She Do 

Bobi Céspedes casts a Yoruban spell over Afro-Cuban jazz

Wednesday, Mar 19 2003
No two ways about it, voodoo gets a bad rap. The few cinematic depictions of the religion are heavy on the milky-eyed zombies and blood-soaked priestesses, swooning in the rapture of some pagan god. Lisa Bonet sacrificed her career on the altar of the voodoo-sploitation film Angel Heart, while The Serpent and the Rainbow changed ethnobotanist author Wade Davis' deep reverence for the tradition into a tawdry horror flick. And it's not just outsiders who foment controversy: Within the worship of orishas (anthropomorphic emissaries of God), different groups can't seem to see eye to eye. Cuba and the Caribbean's Santeria faith, Haiti and the southern United States' voodoo tradition, and western Africa's Yoruba tribe's faith all are rooted in orisha worship, but each has varying rituals and myths, and devotees of one tradition often whisper derisively about the beliefs of another.

Like voodoo, jazz -- the other key descendant of West African culture -- shape-shifts depending on its regional conditions. Whether he's playing post-bop or free jazz, every musician thinks his style is best.

East Bay artist Bobi (rhymes with "Moby") Céspedes is at the nexus of both these cultural battle lines. She's a singer in the Afro-Cuban style -- one of the living legends, in fact, with a fantastically buoyant voice that's ethereal and weighty at the same time. And she's a Yoruba priestess, practicing a faith caught between an Americanized version and its West African origin. Although she's as pious as they come regarding her music and her religion, she's not a purist in either. Her long-awaited solo effort, Rezos (out now on Six Degrees Records), pays homage to Cuban jazz and Yoruba philosophy in a way that her elders would respect, but with enough twists to raise an eyebrow. She says she hasn't heard any complaints yet, but she expects there will be murmuring of the "What she's doing isn't the pure stuff" variety.

Still, purity brought us Puritanism, with its starched collars and scarlet letters. Rezos is far looser and livelier -- mucked-up, fusionist, and multicultural, but not in that toothless Cost Plus Imports sort of way. For the album, Céspedes tapped hip hop and house producers along with one of Cuban music's top arrangers. Her lyrics, sung in Spanish and the Yoruba-Spanish mutt language she calls Lucumi, are infused with Yoruba prayers and invocations -- with her own twist on the tradition, to keep the doctrinaire on their toes.

Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes was born in Cuba, the 14th child in a musical family. By 8, she and her siblings were dressing up and performing as rumba dancers. Her older sisters moved to the United States, and, in order to avoid becoming a burden to her parents, she headed north in 1959.

In 1967, she was initiated with her brother and infant son into the Yoruba faith in New York City. It was a big affair, she says via phone from her East Bay home, "because it was very new to people of America at the time." Even though she had grown up in what she describes as an "orisha neighborhood," her mother was not Yoruba, so it wasn't until later that she completed the yearlong transformation process into a full member of that community. Soon after, she moved west and began her music career, teaching in the Oakland and San Francisco school systems at the same time.

In the '80s, she co-founded one of the West Coast's most respected Latin groups, the 12-piece Conjunto Céspedes. With this band she toured the globe and earned a reputation as one of the great Afro-Cuban divas. The producers of the 1995 documentary about Cuban legend Francisco Aguabella called Sworn to the Drum featured her and exposed her to an even broader audience. Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart was intrigued with Céspedes' tremendous vocal range, which can leap from soothing to searing almost instantly, and invited her to record and tour with his multicultural Planet Drum project.

With all her responsibilities -- as priestess, teacher, singer, and bandleader -- Céspedes didn't have time to step out as a solo artist until recently, when Conjunto Céspedes went into hibernation.

By 1998, Cuban music had become a nationwide phenomenon via Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club album and film. As an unintended outcome of that success, the genre began to ossify, becoming increasingly traditionalist. While Céspedes had deep respect for the style, she wanted to create something that appealed to all ages and represented the jambalaya of influences she'd sampled while living in California.

So Céspedes and her producer Greg Landau (of Susana Baca and Quetzal fame and one of Latin music's current go-to guys) took a unique multigenerational approach for Rezos, drawing players from the hip hop and electronic music worlds. In addition to using pianist/flutist/arranger Oriente López, percussionist Nengue Hernandez, and bassist Rahsaan Fredericks, Céspedes called upon One Drop Scott -- an Oakland rap producer who's made beats for Vallejo's most famous thugs, E-40 and B-Legit -- as well as Donald Hodgson and Garry Hughes, two British dance-music helmsmen.

One Drop Scott was the ideal bridge between the age groups, because Céspedes had known him since he was a child. "He began studying the folklore of the Cuban people and the drums and the clave [the pattern around which the syncopation is organized]," Céspedes says of Scott. "At the same time, he was doing his own music. He had learned to hear the clave inside his stuff, and this is a very special thing which doesn't happen very often." (Céspedes herself has a little bit of the hip hop outlook. When asked how strong Oakland's Yoruba community is, she chants joyfully, "We're with it! We're with it! Gotta represent!")

Anyone who has seen the National Geographic special Taboo: Voodoo, with its footage of rooster-feather explosions and priests in sweat-streaked face paint, might be taken aback by the sonic cleanliness of the production on Rezos. Because the sounds and beats were often organized by a computer, they don't meld together messily. Even "Ogun," the album's most stripped down, traditional number, effects a magic trick -- Céspedes' voice appears to soar way out over the congas and other hand percussion.

Infusing her native roots with newfangled studio techniques didn't always go smoothly, though. She says the dance-music elements were added only in post-production and "with a fight." Thankfully, the outcome -- which Landau dubbed "funkloric" -- is much better than the never-ending ooze of swirly, New Age-y jam sessions like, well, Planet Drum. Where other world-fusion experiments are content to gnaw at the edges of multiculturalism, Rezos bites in. From the moment when Céspedes' voice breaks through the thick fog of syncopated beats (on the opening title track) to the later call-and-response invocations above shuffling son grooves, Rezos offers a whole spectrum of emotional colors, many of which are hard to hear in other Afro-Cuban efforts. Rather than dash together disparate elements like an overindulgent chef, Céspedes and her team have created a discernible balance of traditions and sonic textures.

As everyone from Eminem to Barbra Streisand has discovered, though, mixing cultures can elicit bitterness from both sides. Céspedes isn't feeling any trepidation about the response to her work, but she does expect a bit of resistance. "I doubt if I will find any controversy on a face-to-face level, but I do think there will be a certain amount of controversy going on between the purists," she remarks.

Céspedes, who has a bit of a purist streak about her, too, concedes that she can't claim undiluted Afro-Cuban/Yoruba essence now. "I can't say that anymore," she says with a little sigh, "now that I've mixed it. I mixed it, but I didn't strip it." All the ingredients were imported from Cuba and West Africa, so to speak, but the melting pot was American-made.

It seems strange, though, that someone who honors her West African heritage in multiple ways -- through her songs and by serving as an adjunct professor of folklore and music at Northwest College in Seattle -- would be the subject of controversy. Besides, her new record is practically a love letter to the Yoruban belief system.

Rezos means "prayers," and Céspedes says that every song on the album is either "a prayer, about prayers, or about someone praying." The tune "Obatala," for example, sings the praises of the orisha who serves as Céspedes' specific deity (each Yoruban priest has one). "He also is the owner of all the heads -- that is, the one who directs all the brains of the humans," she says. "So consequently, his intelligence and clarity of mind and depth is attributed to the children of Obatala." Even the song "California," about as stirring a paean to living here as can be imagined, is a prayer. "The earth is an orisha for us, too," Céspedes points out.

As devout as the album is, it isn't straight orthodoxy. "Everything in the record is my thoughts, which came about as a consequence of my life and those around me," she says. "But there are definitely subjects that are being discussed to make people think." She cites "Lenu," a tune that describes the power of the spoken word. "We say the tongue can make you, and the tongue can break you, depending on how you use it," she says. "[The song's] a proverb that tells you the most important thing we have to learn in our lives is how to use our tongue."

Now that the record, which was released on Feb. 2, is selling better than she anticipated, Céspedes has mighty goals. "At this point, I'm thinking Grammy!" she beams. "I want everyone to get hold of it, get a whiff of it, and enjoy it. I already have my young students running around enjoying it and my elders running around enjoying it. They say you gotta ask for what you want, so there it is."

About The Author

Darren Keast


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