Roberto Fonseca at Birmingham Town Hall (1/4/12) Review

Tagged with: Roberto Fonseca Yo Birmingham Town Hall Baba Sissoko Sekou Kouyate Javier Zalba Yandy Martinez Ramses Rodriguez Joel Hierrezuelo Jorge Chilcoy Serious Cuba Mali Guinea kora ngoni tamani jazz afrocuban afro-cuba World Music Glyn Phillips

"if you get a chance to see them, grab it!"

Roberto Fonseca at Birmingham Town Hall (1/4/12) - Concert Review

After having listened incessantly to and reviewed Roberto Fonseca’s new album “Yo” (separate CD review here: ) I was more than pleased to get a chance to go to Birmingham Town Hall to review his live show currently touring Europe to support the album.  

 “Yo” is beautifully put together with a mass of great names contributing to it from various continents. So what would the understandably stripped down band (from 15 to 8) actually sound like live?

The “Yo” album and tour is Fonseca’s exploration of identity and draws upon the influences of his mixed cultural and musical influences. So, he pulls from the canons of jazz, soul and classical as well as from the deep wellsprings of Africa and his own afro-cuban heritage. It’s very fertile territory indeed, especially in the hands of someone as skilled as Fonseca.

"truly blistering solos"

The touring band essentially consists of Roberto Fonseca on piano and keys, Mali’s Baba Sissoko on tamani (talking drums - large and small) and ngoni (bass and normal), Guinea’s kora maestro Sekou Kouyate (known in francophone circles as “Le Jimi Hendrix africain” for his amazing skills on acoustic and electric kora), all backed by five fabulous Cubans: Javier Zalba on clarinet, sax and flute, Jorge Chilcoy on guitars and cavaquinho, Yandy Martinez on bass and the powerhouse rhythms of Ramses Rodriguez on kitdrums and Joel Hierrezuelo on percussion. One very talented band indeed.

They came on and slowly laid down an atmospheric intro piece (possibly derived from the track “Gnawa Stop”) and settled us all into the journey-making vibe of the night, taking us far from Birmingham somehow, before hitting us very hard with the album’s opening track “80s”, with some truly blistering solos on the small tamani by Baba Sissoko as well as the dumbek (goblet drum from North Africa - like a small djembe) and a jazzy electric guitar solo from Jorge Chilcoy. This was followed by “Quien Soy Yo?” a sort of danzón-choro with a delightful lift and bounce to it provided by Chilcoy’s cavaquinho and Javier Zalba’s clarinet and a fantastic solo by Yandy Martinez on a 6-string electric bass, all driven by a relentless vigour.

"chemistry … respect … understanding"

Right from the start it was obvious that the musicians were enjoying each others’ company and musical skills. Always a good sign for an audience. Baba Sissoko lit up the room every time he flashed his huge smile and there was an obvious chemistry between him and Fonseca and an innate respect and understanding amongst all the musicians on stage.

During the dreamy ballad-like “Asi Es La Vida”, played by just the piano, drums, bass and guitar, Fonseca was to be seen peering at kit-drummer Ramsés Rodríguez through the open top of the Steinway grand piano, listening intently to the interplay and giving an approving nod when Rodriguez strokes the cymbals in exactly the right way to produce a sound somewhere between a ‘zing’ and a ‘swoosh’ at precisely the right moment in the piece.

I’d just like to also point out that Rodriguez had a wonderful sounding kit - in particular his four cymbals which each had endless variations of sound and tone within them which he made excellent use of, especially in the quiet, subtle parts of the show. Quite beautiful and a man with a real ear for sonics.

"spacing and dynamics to die for"

In fact this number had masses of space between the notes and the spacing and dynamics were to die for. Seated as I was directly in front of Birmingham Town Hall’s notoriously high stage and just to Fonseca’s right (he was seated facing mostly away from the audience, toward the band) I was able to see at close range the many expressions that flew across his face as he managed to squeeze every bit of emotion out of the 88 keys in front of him before turning round, popping a tube into his mouth and switching to some beautifully controlled vocoder gymnastics! Eat your heart out Peter Frampton!

I kind of lost my place in the programme because he stopped announcing the names of the next few tracks, but we were treated to a fast and complex un-named piece which although only delivered by a few instruments sounded like an entire orchestra blasting out a supercharged conga de comparsa with turbo-powered flute over fast bass ostinato and congas and kit, the drums rolling around and crashing like a storm whilst Roberto launched into a furious piano solo - his body stock-still, his head thrown right back and notes absolutely thundering out of his fingers! This earned a well-deserved and tumultuous applause.

"incredible majesty and power"

A short un-named percussion work-out on kit, congas and piano in a fast 6/8 preceded the rest of the musicians taking to the stage again as Fonseca introduced “a really amazing musician” - Sekou Kouyate from Guinea, who had stayed offstage until that point.

The number (which might have been “JMF” or “7 Rayos”, I really can’t remember) had an incredible majesty and power (especially Sissoko’s tamani runs). But when Kouyate’s kora kicked in the effect was electrifying - there was an audible intake of breath from the audience as his amazing dexterity and ideas pushed the other musicians to new heights, in particular when sparring with Fonseca, swapping riffs, licks and musical vignettes with breathtaking speed of thought, let alone artistry. Worth coming to see the band for that moment alone!

"Kouyate’s kora ... like a million tiny bells exploding"

I think I can say that Roberto and his boys had well and truly settled in by this time and the last three numbers of the set were a tour-de-force as they took on Sissoko’s tune “Bibisa”; as Fonseca said “We gonna make a song from the pretty boy in the band”. Again, phrases were swapped between the front-liners - Fonseca’s piano: sweet and sonorous, Sissoko’s magical bass ngoni: buzzing, rasping and woody, and Kouyate’s kora sounding like a million tiny bells exploding around our ears as he shyly peered out from under his brow at the audience.

"Truly explosive"

The one tune not on the new album “Yo” was entitled (I think) “Bulgarian” a very Balkan wedding band sounding number in a complex time signature which featured an amazing drum solo by the man Fonseca referred to as Ramses ‘Dynamite’ Rodriguez. Truly explosive.

And then all too soon: “You spend a good time? Well, I have some bad news - the concert gonna end after this next one!”,  “Nooooooo”, “Yeah, yeah, yeah”, “No, no, no…” and so on.

The last number was “Chabani” another super-fast track, which Fonseca used to introduce the members of his band. Percussionist Joel Hierrezuelo stayed on krakebs (Moroccan metal castanets) throughout and Fonseca gave us another chance to hear his expressive vocoder work.

Luckily there was an encore (“Gnawa Stop”, I think), but this time they chose to wind us all down with an atmospheric intro by Sissoko on his small ngoni backed by Hierrezuelo on dumbek, Chilcoy on guitar and Fonseca on piano as the others gradually filtered back onto stage, it all faded down and Martinez’s bass took up the baton and led the band into a very spacy groove. A beautiful way to lead us all off over the horizon.

Highly recommended artist and band - if you get a chance to see them, grab it!

You can catch Robert Fonseca at the Cheltenham Festival on Sunday 6th May, the Bury St Edmunds Festival on 26th May and the Salisbury International Arts Festival on the 29th May 2012

Otherwise get a hold of the excellent album “Yo” (in-depth review here):

Glyn Phillips ( - 5/4/12

[For a review of the excellent support act Ayanna click here]: