OKAN’s two Toronto-based female musicians have a solid classical background acquired in Cuba. Violinist Elizabeth Rodriguez performed with the Havana Youth Orchestra, while percussionist Magdelys Savigne left her home town of Santiago to take honours in orchestral percussions at the Havana Arts University.
In 2012, Elizabeth Rodriguez became the first foreigner to take part in the Brott Music Festival in Hamilton, Ontario. This experience enabled her to settle in Canada and to join the Afro-Cuban jazz group Maqueque, under the direction of Canadian saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett.
Magdelys Savigne has been part of Maqueque since it was created in 2014 and played a role in the success of its first album, Jane Bunnett & Maqueque, recorded under precarious conditions in Havana, later to win the Juno award for best jazz album in 2015. With Elizabeth and Magdelys being the only two members of Maqueque living permanently in Toronto, the musical links between them grew tighter, and they formed OKAN in 2016.
In Yoruba, the language used in Cuban santeria, OKAN means “soul” or “core.” The core of their music is necessarily Cuban, with strong classical and jazz influences due to their training with Jane Bunnett. They also perform with the Afro-Cuban post-rock group Battle of Santiago, nominated in 2018 for best world music album.
Through their musical collaborations in highly multicultural Toronto, the two musicians have enriched their compositions with influences from Brazil, Spain, New Orleans and even Turkey. But the core remains Afro-Cuban, in particular with the strong presence of batá drums, for which Magdelys has a special liking.
Their first album, Laberinto, released in October 2018, presents five tracks inspired by often forgotten types of Cuban music. Elizabeth and Magdelys brought in excellent musicians, including Roberto Riverón on base, their Maqueque colleague Danaé Olano on piano, and trumpet player Alexis Baro on the vigorous “1000 palabras” salsa track.
The two musicians are preparing a more complete album as well as a tour of Canada and the United States in 2019 and 2020.