“I try to get as close as possible to the roots of things,” says 32-year old pianist David Virelles, praised as a ‘genius’ by the legendary Chucho Valdes. “I’m not interested in deliberately going out to perform things that are already present in a certain tradition. But in learning about the Abakuá tradition, which is very rich, I can internalize it and from that can come a personal music.”
Abakuá is many things: chiefly, it is a secret society established by African emigres to Havana nearly 200 years ago. According to legend, its initiates gain supernatural powers, including the ability to transform into leopards to menace their foes. Active, though hidden, to this day, the distinctive rhythmic and chanted ritual music of the Abakuá has exerted great influence on “nearly every genre of Cuban popular music” (African Studies).
Virelles is one of the most critically acclaimed artists at this year’s TD Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival (9pm Feb. 6, NAC Fourth Stage, $22). He’ll be joined by regular collaborator Román Díaz, an initiate of the society as well as a poet, folklorist and acknowledged master percussionist. Their past two LPs together, Continuum and Mbòkó, each dominated year-end “best of” lists, including those of The New York Times, The Village Voice and NPR. “We incorporate aspects of rhythm and orchestration found in traditional Abakuá music with western instruments in the context of improvisation,” says Virelles. “So basically the idea is the same, but we’re trying to find ways we can manifest the same concept with different elements.”
The result is a vision of Afro-Cuban jazz that is darkly cerebral yet theatrical in its delivery, thanks to Díaz’s ritualistic intonations and his use of the biankoméko. An assembly of drums, bells and shakers used in initiations, the unique kit throbs and shivers, matching Virelles’ wandering improvisations and vivid melodies. The result is an unforgettable live performance The Guardian’s John Fordham calls an “engrossing mix of rhythmic ambiguity, impassioned themes, jazz improv and the palpable sense of a contemporary music with a long past.”
Diasporic music is innately polyglot, the original sound striped by each port of call it passes through; just as Abakuá is the product of a long journey from Nigeria and Cameroon to Cuba and Haiti, Virelles’ compositions span the equally long voyage from Cuba to New York, Toronto and the Western European avant-garde. More than simply experimenting with sound, he is concerned with the cultural function of music: in this case, its profound connection to spirituality and the sublime. Expected to be one of the year’s finest concerts, Virelles and Díaz will transport (and translate) the audience at the NAC’s intimate Fourth Stage from the heart of Ottawa to a place where sound meets the soul.