The Voodoo That She Do

Bobi Céspedes casts a Yoruban spell over Afro-Cuban jazz

No two ways about it, voodoo gets a bad rap. The few cinematic depictions of the religion are heavy on the milky-eyed zombies and blood-soaked priestesses, swooning in the rapture of some pagan god. Lisa Bonet sacrificed her career on the altar of the voodoo-sploitation film Angel Heart, while The Serpent and the Rainbow changed ethnobotanist author Wade Davis' deep reverence for the tradition into a tawdry horror flick. And it's not just outsiders who foment controversy: Within the worship of orishas (anthropomorphic emissaries of God), different groups can't seem to see eye to eye. Cuba and the Caribbean's Santeria faith, Haiti and the southern United States' voodoo tradition, and western Africa's Yoruba tribe's faith all are rooted in orisha worship, but each has varying rituals and myths, and devotees of one tradition often whisper derisively about the beliefs of another.

Like voodoo, jazz -- the other key descendant of West African culture -- shape-shifts depending on its regional conditions. Whether he's playing post-bop or free jazz, every musician thinks his style is best.

East Bay artist Bobi (rhymes with "Moby") Céspedes is at the nexus of both these cultural battle lines. She's a singer in the Afro-Cuban style -- one of the living legends, in fact, with a fantastically buoyant voice that's ethereal and weighty at the same time. And she's a Yoruba priestess, practicing a faith caught between an Americanized version and its West African origin. Although she's as pious as they come regarding her music and her religion, she's not a purist in either. Her long-awaited solo effort, Rezos(out now on Six Degrees Records), pays homage to Cuban jazz and Yoruba philosophy in a way that her elders would respect, but with enough twists to raise an eyebrow. She says she hasn't heard any complaints yet, but she expects there will be murmuring of the "What she's doing isn't the pure stuff" variety.

Tobaji Stewart


Sunday, March 23, at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $22 in advance, $25 at the door


Brava Theater, 2789 24th St. (at York), S.F.
www.brava.or g

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Still, purity brought us Puritanism, with its starched collars and scarlet letters. Rezos is far looser and livelier -- mucked-up, fusionist, and multicultural, but not in that toothless Cost Plus Imports sort of way. For the album, Céspedes tapped hip hop and house producers along with one of Cuban music's top arrangers. Her lyrics, sung in Spanish and the Yoruba-Spanish mutt language she calls Lucumi, are infused with Yoruba prayers and invocations -- with her own twist on the tradition, to keep the doctrinaire on their toes.

Gladys "Bobi" Céspedes was born in Cuba, the 14th child in a musical family. By 8, she and her siblings were dressing up and performing as rumba dancers. Her older sisters moved to the United States, and, in order to avoid becoming a burden to her parents, she headed north in 1959.

In 1967, she was initiated with her brother and infant son into the Yoruba faith in New York City. It was a big affair, she says via phone from her East Bay home, "because it was very new to people of America at the time." Even though she had grown up in what she describes as an "orisha neighborhood," her mother was not Yoruba, so it wasn't until later that she completed the yearlong transformation process into a full member of that community. Soon after, she moved west and began her music career, teaching in the Oakland and San Francisco school systems at the same time.

In the '80s, she co-founded one of the West Coast's most respected Latin groups, the 12-piece Conjunto Céspedes. With this band she toured the globe and earned a reputation as one of the great Afro-Cuban divas. The producers of the 1995 documentary about Cuban legend Francisco Aguabella called Sworn to the Drum featured her and exposed her to an even broader audience. Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart was intrigued with Céspedes' tremendous vocal range, which can leap from soothing to searing almost instantly, and invited her to record and tour with his multicultural Planet Drum project.

With all her responsibilities -- as priestess, teacher, singer, and bandleader -- Céspedes didn't have time to step out as a solo artist until recently, when Conjunto Céspedes went into hibernation.

By 1998, Cuban music had become a nationwide phenomenon via Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Clubalbum and film. As an unintended outcome of that success, the genre began to ossify, becoming increasingly traditionalist. While Céspedes had deep respect for the style, she wanted to create something that appealed to all ages and represented the jambalaya of influences she'd sampled while living in California.

So Céspedes and her producer Greg Landau (of Susana Baca and Quetzal fame and one of Latin music's current go-to guys) took a unique multigenerational approach for Rezos, drawing players from the hip hop and electronic music worlds. In addition to using pianist/flutist/arranger Oriente López, percussionist Nengue Hernandez, and bassist Rahsaan Fredericks, Céspedes called upon One Drop Scott -- an Oakland rap producer who's made beats for Vallejo's most famous thugs, E-40 and B-Legit -- as well as Donald Hodgson and Garry Hughes, two British dance-music helmsmen.

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