Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne will be bringing a touch of Cuba to the Harrison Festival of the Arts this year — except, it’s not the sound that Cubans have fully embraced.
Rodriguez and Savigne began the group Okan out of their home in Toronto in 2016 and since then have become a local powerhouse of Afro-Cuban sound, winning two categories at the Independent Music Awards this year.
Savigne came to Canada as a refugee from Cuba, and plays instruments in the band that women are scarecly allowed to touch: the hourglass shaped batá drums, used in the Santería religion.
“Back home, it is extremely difficult for women to play percussion, first of all, but then those specific drums are even more forbidden to women,” Rodriguez explained. “But she loved them, and she learned how to play them thanks to a very nice guy, a teacher of hers in Santiago de Cuba.”
Rodriguez, as a violinist and vocalist, was “a little bit more safe,” she explained.
“Girls are supposed to be playing violin. But still, the fact that two women are leading a band of guys … we breaking (tradition) a little bit in that matter of the women being the bosses of the band,” she said.
Okan, which is traditionally a quintent led by Savigne and Rodriguez, breaks other things too.
“We make arrangements of the genres, or we make our own versions of Cuban genres,” Rodriguez explained, then laughed. “I don’t know if Cuba is quite ready for that.”
On Friday, July 19 and Saturday, July 20, Harrison will have to be, as the group gets ready to play two concerts at the festival. Okan will also be holding a workshop on Saturday July 20 at 11 a.m. on Cuban music, one that will dive into the genre called pregón.
Pregón is the music of street vendors, Rodriguez explained, and participants will get a chance to learn one of the songs in the genre as well as its history.
As for the concerts, which take place on the beach stage at 7 p.m. (Friday, July 19) and 1 p.m. (Saturday, July 20), audience members will get a chance to hear a new side of Cuban music.
“It’s basically having a good time listening to music created right here in Canada, by Cubans, by immigrants that are trying to pursue their dreams,” Rodriguez said.
And although not all of their songs are dancing tunes, no one should be shy about moving to the music.
“I want people to dance when they feel like they want to dance, without looking to the sides like ‘Who’s dancing first?’” Rodriguez said. “Just go dance if you feel like it. No permission needed.”