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No matter what setting vocalist Bobi Céspedes is singing in, she infuses her music with a bountiful soul rooted in Afro-Cuban culture.
Since co-founding the Bay Area’s pioneering Cuban dance band Conjunto Céspedes in the early 1980s she’s occupied a singular position in the region’s musical landscape. Céspedes has toured with the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, delivered a potent synthesis of Cuban son and East Bay grease on her 2002 collaboration with producer Greg Landau, Rezos, and belted out classic boleros on her self-released 2009 album, Patakín.
No less soulful than her previous recordings, Mujer y Cantante opens a new chapter for the longtime Oakland resident. Released in June, Céspedes’s third album presents her on a program of original songs for the first time. She offered a preview of the material at the SFJAZZ Center last year, a concert that’s being streamed Oct. 2 as part of SFJAZZ’s Fridays at Five series.
“That performance is very special. It was the first time I was able to do all my own songs with my group,” she said. “All mine, can you imagine? Everyone received it so well. It was such a big party, I’ll never forget it. I do everyone’s music, but I never had enough of my own to carry it out for the whole night. I think it’s really wonderful that they’re showing it again.”
Cespedes has always surrounded herself with the top players in the region, and her current band is no exception, starting with her San Francisco-born music director Marco Diaz, who’s both a commanding pianist and a warm-toned trumpeter. Guitarist and vocalist José Roberto Hernández and bassist Saul Sierra, both raised in Mexico, are mainstays on the Bay Area Latin music scene.
Havana-born conguero Carlos Caro and Puerto Rican percussionist Julio Pérez serve as a potent rhythm section in several excellent bands, including Caro’s salsa combo Vission Latina. Cuban trumpeter Roberto Morris Amaya and Chilean-born vocalist Lichi Fuentes, who also plays chekeré and guiro, round out Cespedes’s septet.
The icing on the cake for Céspedes was John Santos joining the SFJAZZ show as a special guest on the sacred batá drums. Their musical partnership stretches back more than three decades and no matter what the context is, Santos has always been deeply impressed by the regal presence and gentle mastery Céspedes brings to the bandstand.
“With Bobi, I think of words like grace and elegance,” he said. “She’s been here a long time and she’s always had this depth. She learned all that from her elders. She’s very deeply rooted in the Yoruba-based religion. That’s always been her aura. Whatever she does comes from that root of sacredness.”
Her spirituality, teasing sense of humor, and abiding connection to her ancestors suffuses the eight songs on Mujer y Cantante, which opens with the title track, a hearty greeting that gives thanks to the orishas (spirits) Elegua, Obatala, and Olokun. On “Mi Canto,” a song she wrote with Dionisia González, Céspedes offers a soothing meditation on the restorative power of nature. The album closes with the mid-tempo, batá-powered “Misas Modernas,” a piece that gently chides those who lose sight of spiritual priorities.
“These songs are studies of my life and people, observations of what goes on around me,” Céspedes said. “I thought I might get in a little trouble for ‘Misas Modernas,’ which is really a spoof on what can happen in a spiritual situation, a misa, a séance. The lyrics tell a story of a person who asks his aunt for a spiritual session, and it talks about how they put gold and silver on a table, but the genuine spiritual work doesn’t come out. It’s compromised by all of this other stuff.”
Though she grew up in Cuba in the 1950s as the youngest of 14 children, Céspedes carries cultural memories that stretch back generations to Africa. Her paternal grandmother was Congolese, and though she died before Céspedes was born, the music, stories, and knowledge she passed on resounded through the Céspedes family.
She expanded her folkloric knowledge after moving to New York City in 1959, joining her mother and sisters in pursuit of an education. Looking beyond Cuba, she studied and performed for four years with Sylvia del Villar, a renowned African-Puerto Rican vocalist and cultural activist who also traced her roots to the Yoruba people of Nigeria. After relocating to the Bay Area in the 1970s she started performing in public with Conjunto Céspedes, a group she co-founded with her nephew Guillermo, a pianist, composer and arranger, and her late brother, vocalist Luis Céspedes.
What started as a small family combo gradually expanded into a percussion and brass powered juggernaut with a sound influenced by the great, short-lived Cuban jazz singer Guapachá (aka Amado Borcelá), who recorded with both Bebo Valdés and Chucho Valdés. John Santos produced three Conjunto Céspedes albums. The recordings won several national awards but the labels didn’t serve the band well in promotion and distribution.
“Bobi and her brother Luis had been playing together their whole lives,” Santos said. “They had a wonderful unity and vibe, bringing Cuban son from its sources. It was pretty unique to have them based here. They were a force, immersed in the tradition with this personal take on it.”
Listening to older Conjunto Céspedes albums like Una Sola Casa, what’s striking aside from the surging arrangements and Bobi’s velvety contralto is the surfeit of talent in the band, including players like percussionists Michael Spiro and Jesus Diaz, trombonist Wayne Wallace, bassist David Belove, and Santos himself.
“Every one of us were learning from each other,” Céspedes said. “I’ve sang since I was a kid. But it takes more than singing. It takes respecting other people’s art, as well as making sure other people respect your art. I’ve always been very lucky to come together with great musicians, most of whom are super humble. That band was an interesting kind of excitement you sometimes don’t find nowadays.”
After Conjunto Céspedes wound down, Céspedes reached her widest audience as part of Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart’s Planet Drum and Bembé Orisha projects. She started establishing an independent musical identity with a new body of music that producer Greg Landau dubbed her “funkloric” sound. Her acclaimed 2002 release Rezos effectively integrated the African-Cuban music of her childhood with the African-American music that she absorbed living in Oakland.
Still shaped by her childhood in pre-revolutionary Cuba, Céspedes has long sought to provide educational and spiritual sustenance for the community. A priestess of Obàtálá, a spiritual practice that continues to suffuse her life and music, she used to travel widely, leading services in the Yoruba-Lucumi tradition (also known as Santería). Hailing from Nigeria, the Yoruba people’s religious faith merged with Roman Catholicism in Latin America, taking forms such as Candomblé in Brazil, Vodou in Haiti, and Santería in Cuba.
From 2006-10 she trained teachers in 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). Eventually she started her own pre-school, though she closed the home-based program down in response to the pandemic. Like everyone else, she’s moved much of her work online through her website Bobicespedes.com, “giving son classes and orisha studies,” she said.
“Music keeps me alive. I’ve been doing a little bit of writing, a little reacting in my writing to the conditions and situations we’re in. We’re planning on doing a performance without an audience and putting it online. These are very difficult times and you cannot stop praying for humanity and each other.”