Photo: Ksenija Hotic

Okan Explore Complexities of Cuban Heritage on Powerful ‘Okantomi’

On Okantomi, Okan continue to engage with many of the interwoven styles and stories critical to their own experiences of Cuban music and personhood.

8 November 2023

With a name meaning “heart” in Lucumí, the Yoruba-derived lexicon used in Santería rites, Canada-based Okan are deeply driven by their love of (and often complicated relationship to) Cuba. On their new album Okantomi, they continue to engage with many of the interwoven styles and stories critical to their own experiences of Cuban music and personhood. The sounds that emerge speak to global flows of the inseparably secular and sacred: themes of Santería draped over bones of conga rhythms, all coming together in intricate combinations of jazz and pop. 

If Cuba is at Okan’s heart, leaders Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne are at its head. Thoughtful culture bearers who work together to guide Okan’s repertoire, they trace social and historical throughlines from past to present as they advocate for a progressive vision of the future, calling on the orishas integral to Santería and other cosmologies rooted in Yoruba traditions as they navigate inherited gifts and traumas and contemporary experiences throughout their work.

In invoking specific deities, Okantomi connects the group with a diaspora that crosses levels of space and time. They signal this right away. The opener, “Eshu Nigüe (Eleguá)”, dedicated to the titular spirit Eleguá, who governs crossroads and beginnings, starts with the sound of radio static. They are journeying through the ether, and their music is transcendent on its way to reach us.

From there, Okantomi grows ever more expansive. Okan fill it with a number of distinct and carefully blended elements that thrill both in their respective rights and even more as a whole. Rodriguez soars not only as a vocalist but as a violinist; Savigne’s percussion enthralls in its complexities; keys, flute, and bass come in from different directions but always move together.

Perhaps the most striking assemblage is “No Volví”, which features vocal powerhouses Daymé Arocena and Marta Elena moving through tightly stitched-together moments of jazz, reggae, and Caribbean pop forms. These many overlapping textures build a captivating setting for their lyrical messages, in which the musicians discuss their plans never to return to Cuba, even as they carry it with them elsewhere in a difficult world, for better or worse.

Similarly stylistically compound but with a very different energy, “La Reina del Norte” celebrates life, love, music, and community. Rodriguez and Savigne are in especially fine form as they play and harmonize, and their joining of classical, folk, and pop sounds turns conservative definitions of tradition on their heads in the best ways.

The music Okan makes on Okantomi draws, above all else, on the strength in human relations, not only to one another but to other beings, past and present, throughout all that is and was and could be. Rodriguez and Savigne mobilize their heritage in ways inclusive of many different experiences and, while honest about their struggles, stay hopeful and often even joyful. We hear this in the rush of drums and keys on “Oriki Oshun”, in the poignant strings of “Preludio y Changuï”, in the defiant Spanglish of “Okantomi”, and beyond: the resolve, the fire, the love. Okantomi is many things, and all of them are worth hearing.

RATING 9 / 10