Bobi Céspedes, high priestess of Cuban soul, plays Ashkenaz

Bobi Céspedes performs Saturday at Ashkenaz with special guests John Santos and Javier Navarette, and gives a Sunday afternoon workshop, Songs to the Female Orishas. Photo: Kingmon Young

Bobi Céspedes has lived in the United States four time times longer than she spent in her native Cuba, but the island’s verdant culture soaked into her marrow and she’s dedicated herself to bringing Afro-Cuban rhythms and rituals to her adopted homeland. A relatively scarce presence on Bay Area stages in recent years — she was concentrating on getting a daycare center up and running at her house in Oakland — Céspedes settles into Ashkenaz this weekend to fulfill her dual roles as incandescent performer and charismatic educator.

As part of the venue’s Maestra Series, a sensational month of programming presented in collaboration with Carolyn Brandy’s San Leandro-based Women Drummers International, the majestic Céspedes performs with her formidable band and special guest percussionists John Santos and Javier Navarette on Saturday night. She also gives a Sunday afternoon workshop, Songs to the Female Orishas, which features members of her band and Brandy.

“I have worked with Carolyn Brandy before and she’s an incredible musician, an excellent drummer, a fantastic person, and a member of my religious tradition,” Céspedes says, referring to the Afro-Cuban Yoruba-Lucumi tradition (also known as Santería). She and Brandy, one of the first women to master the batá, a double-headed drum essential to Santería. They collaborated back in 1990 on Skin Talk: An Ancestral Ballet of Women, an acclaimed production commissioned for the SF World Drum Festival.

The Maestra series runs through the end of the month, and includes Sunday’s benefit for Madre in support of Syrian women refugees. The acts include Berkeley choreographer Miriam Peretz’s Nava Dance Collective, the Bay Area Bomba y Plena Workshop performing dance and drumming from Puerto Rico, and and Shamma Ensemble, which features members of acclaimed world music group Stellamara (Sonja Drakulich, Briana Di Mara, Gari Hegedus, Dan Cantrell), and other special guests. The series concludes on March 28 with “Lafayette Sisters,” a night of Cajun and Creole music led by Berkeley fiddler, guitarist and singer Suzy Thompson. The concert is benefit for Faith House, a Lafayette, Louisiana organization that provides shelter and other services to victims of domestic violence.


For Saturday’s concert, Céspedes, who also plays chekeré, will be joined by Marco Díaz on piano, trumpet, and vocals, Saúl Sierra-Alonso on bass and vocals, José Roberto Hernández on guitar and vocals, Morris Amaya on trumpet, and Lichi Fuentes on vocals, chekeré and güiro. Born in Chile, Fuentes met Céspedes at La Peña Cultural Center shortly after moving to the US in 1981. At the time, they were both singing songs associated with the Latin American nueva trova movement, but Céspedes soon went on to found Conjunto Céspedes with her nephew Guillermo Céspedes, introducing authentic Cuban folkloric music to the region. Like so many other Bay Area musicians who went on to immerse themselves in Afro-Cuban music, Fuentes joined Conjunto Céspedes and sang with the ensemble for eight years.

“The conversation around the group was always, is this salsa? No, this is Afro-Cuban music, not just this exciting rhythm to move your hips to,” says Fuentes, a long-time Berkeleyan who has directed La Peña’s community chorus for two decades. “They were really invested in preserving the roots of Afro-Cuban music, and demonstrating the difference between a son, a guaguancó, a rumba. It was this school about the tradition and folklore from Cuba, exploring the whole history of religion, discrimination and class. I was very ignorant about all that until I joined Conjunto Céspedes.”

Bobi Céspedes embodies that extraordinary history. Though she grew up in the 1950s her consciousness stretches back for generations. The youngest of 14 children, she was raised in the midst of a musical family and steeped in Afro-Cuban culture. Her paternal grandmother was Congolese, and though she died before Céspedes was born, the music, stories, and cultural knowledge she passed on from the Old World resounded through the Céspedes family. “The tradition and folklore of the Yoruba and Congolese is all over Cuba, inside of everybody’s blood, one way or another,” says Céspedes, who also performs with the Junius Courtney Big Band at Freight & Salvage on April 12, joining the ensembles regular vocalist Denise Perrier.

Céspedes expanded her folkloric knowledge after moving to New York City in 1959, joining her mother and sisters in pursuit of an education. She studied and performed for four years with Sylvia del Villar, a renowned African-Puerto Rican vocalist and cultural activist. By her mid 20s, Céspedes had become a priestess of Obàtálá, a spiritual practice that continues to suffuse her life and music.

After Conjunto Céspedes wound down, she continued her musical explorations and probably reached her widest audience as part of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum and Bembé Orisha projects. Always open to new sounds, she looked for connections between the African-derived music of her childhood and the African-American music that she absorbed living in Oakland. The styles all came together on 2002’s Rezos (Six Degrees Records), a captivating musical synthesis that producer Greg Landau called “funkloric.”


While Rezos launched her solo career, Céspedes ended up spending far more time in the classroom than on stage. She spent the five years from 2006-10 teaching teachers about Afro-Cuban culture through San Francisco State’s Head Start Program (a pedagogy documented in the book Soy Bilingüe Adult Dual Language Model for Early Childhood and Elementary Teacher Education, which includes contributions by Céspedes, Ronald Rosario, Roman Carrillo, Sharon Cronin and others).

“It’s not just about having a cultural arts component in a school,” Céspedes says. “Our curriculum brings music and folklore into every aspect of the class.”

Afro-Cuban music and folklore will fill Ashkenaz on Sunday afternoon, when Céspedes will share chants praising and evoking her favorite female orishas, starting with Yemayá, who represents the ocean. “Every orisha person has a couple of orishas that especially speak to them,” she says. “Yemayá is my mother and Obàtálá my father, my head orisha. I think the world is fond of Yemayá. Everybody in the world loves the ocean. But I’m going to speak a little about each orisha that I sing for. I have eight orishas, so don’t know if I’ll have time to sing them all.”

Recommended gig: Thomas Buckner

New music baritone vocalist Thomas Buckner performs Saturday in Berkeley. Photo: Stefan Falke

The great baritone vocalist Thomas Buckner, who turned 1750 Arch St. into a hotbed of experimental music making, performs Saturday 4 p.m. at St. John’s Presbyterian Church, presenting a program that includes the premiere of Earl Howard’s “Left Handed Quark” featuring J.D. Parran on winds, Andrew Drury on percussion and Earl Howard on live electronics and processing, and Annea Lockwood’s “Night and Fog,” a piece inspired by the poems by Osip Mandelstam and Carolyn Forshé (for Buckner, Drury, and J.D. Parran on baritone saxophone.