How two Cuban women in Canada formed the award-winning band, OKAN

By Nicanor Gordon

Elizabeth Rodriguez laughs, thankful it’s not a video interview. One half of the Afro-Cuban, genre-agnostic, and Juno award-winning duo OKAN, she jokes that they’re not usually up this early. Warm on her own, the dynamic changes when her partner (in all meanings of the word) Magdelys Savigne joins. The two women riff on each other effortlessly, picking up each other’s sentences and sneaking in little jokes and smirks.

Their latest album Espiral, for which they won their Juno, carries influences from all over. 

Magdelys hails from Santiago de Cuba, while Elizabeth  was born in the capital city, Havana. Both municipalities have different approaches to music, with Santiago being more traditional. On top of that, they’re both classically trained, which brings in some European flavor. Now both based in Canada, they’ve fused their island heritage and European techniques with the sonic hot pot that is Toronto’s music scene.

The title track and opener for the album leads with an Afro-Cuban chant. It loosely translates to the story of a deity arriving in a new land and starting a new life. The parallel is obvious. But more than that it centers their heritage, which is inseparable from OKAN. 

From there, Espiral bleeds into so many different genres – cha cha cha, pilon and bolero, while also incorporating the styles from the players around them… Everything from Brazilian swings, to Turkish rhythms. This is the meaning behind Espiral. The sound spirals, it goes around Cuba and broader, picking up different genres.

Despite both being born in Cuba, they actually met in Canada. Elizabeth had heard of Magdelys in Cuba… it was impossible for her not to.

“I knew about her, but she did not know about me,” Elizabeth reveals.

“Sorry!” Magdelys laughs.

The women met when Elizabeth auditioned for Magdelys’ band. “We needed a singer to tour with us, and it was ideal if they could play an instrument. She came into the fold instantly. She could sing beautifully and play the violin. She could do it all,” Magdelys gushes. The two hit it off immediately, “One thing led to another, and with time…,” she laughs, “I’m glad she came to the rehearsal.”

This love is central to OKAN, which itself means heart in the Afro-Cuban dialect. “Mags encouraged me to write my own music. I felt that I wasn’t ready to write songs and be a composer, and she was the one who inspired me,” Elizabeth waxes.

“It’s (OKAN) our baby. Our first baby that we created together and everything we do for OKAN is pouring our hearts into it.”

Despite a clear reverence for Cuba, their relationship to the island is complicated – to use their own word. “I do miss being able to run into the ocean at any time,” laments Elizabeth. 

It’s simpler for Magdelys. Like Elizabeth, she misses her family, “My mom – I haven’t seen her in a long time. That’s basically what I miss.” She explains. “Anywhere with an ocean, I can go. There are so many Cubans around the world…if I miss Cubans, I can go there.” She goes on to liken it to a bad ex. “You look back and you just remember the tough moments from the relationship and that’s kind of sad.”

But that’s in the past, now they’re both excited for what’s next, especially live shows, having released Espiral during a pandemic. “OKAN is a whole different experience live!” Rodriguez beams. When you listen to the album you feel like you’re at a concert. You can pick out each instrument with stunning clarity – the guitar, Elizabeth’s violin, Magdelys’ percussions, castanets, etc.

Their song Baila Canada is a standout and is all about getting people moving. It’s fast paced and features both women on vocals, and an especially lively violin solo from Elizabeth. It’s an inside-joke… In their almost ten years in Canada, they’ve found that the people don’t dance. They made the song to loosen them up. OKAN isn’t worried about that anymore after being cooped up for so long, they’re sure everyone’s itching to move…. and they’re ready to play.

Follow OKAN

online at: www.okanmusic.com   | IG: @okanmusiccuba

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