The queen of the Bay Area Latin music scene returns with Mujer y Cantante
Bobi Céspedes’ vibrant presence in the Bay Area’s Latin music scene began upon her arrival in Oakland in 1969. As the leader of Conjunto Céspedes, a band she co-founded with her nephew Guillermo and her late brother Luis, and more recently as the leader of her own group, Céspedes has carved out a unique musical niche. “I play traditional Cuban music, based on ‘son,’” Céspedes said, speaking from her Oakland home. “Son is its own thing, more African in its sounds, rhythms and composition than salsa. It was born in Cuba, but it’s known all over the world. Performing this type of music is comforting to me. You have to push me off the stage sometimes.”
On her most recent recording, Mujer y Cantante, Céspedes showcases various aspects of son, with arrangements that include hints of bolero and mambo. The album was released in 2020. Due to the Covid lockdown, she put off promoting it.
“We planned a celebration last year, but decided to wait till things were less complicated,” she said. “Now that they’re settling down a bit, we’re ready to move forward. We’re doing a live stream concert with the whole band on June 12 at the Freight & Salvage. We’re all vaccinated and don’t know if we’ll do it without masks yet. We’ve been watching and being careful as we move forward, trying our best to figure things out.”
The songs on Mujer y Cantante explore the singer’s love of family, music and the Santeria religion that are the foundation of her art. The lyrics are in Spanish, but the emotion she puts into her performance needs no translation. The album starts with the title track—a love song to Cuba, her family, Santeria and son itself. She opens with a joyous exclamation, “Bueno, mi gente, aqui les voy habla un poquito de las cosas como son!” (“Hey people, I’m going to tell it like it is!”) The band supports her with vigorous rhythms, driven by the sparkling piano of Marco Diaz and the interlocking percussion of John Santos on batá, Javier Navarrette on congas and Julio Pérez on bongos. The tempo increases as she slips into the chorus, improvising as she calls out the names of the Orishas—spirits—that guide her.
“Rumbologo” is a son cubano, arranged to the son clave (3/2). Diaz plays a syncopated piano line and adds frisky trumpet work to compliment Céspedes as she pays tribute to the artists who inspired her—singers Celia Cruz and Miguelito Cuni, bandleader Arsenio Rodriguez and Benny Moré, considered by many to be the greatest Cuban singer of all time. The album’s centerpiece is “Mamaíta.” It has a slow, ballad-like groove and pays tribute to the singer’s mother. Céspedes sings it with an emotional intensity that transcends language.
“My mom was a widow with 14 children,” Céspedes said. “I was the youngest. She was always singing, despite the hardships. When you’re a mother and your children are hungry, you do whatever you can to ease the pain; she sang. She was a seamstress and made clothing for middle class women. She didn’t get paid a lot, but we managed.
“We didn’t consider ourselves poor. We were just waiting for our time. Thanks to our mother’s example of hard work and song, we were ready when it came. By the time I was five, my older sister had moved to New York City and sent money home. In 1959 my mother and I came to New York. I was given a lot of support when it came to performing and learning about Cuban culture. I was a member of a folkloric group led by Sylvia del Villar, an African-Puerto Rican woman. She was a classical soprano and dancer. When I was a child, my mother let me perform at community presentations during carnival time, so I was ready for it.”
Céspedes continued performing after coming to Oakland in 1969, supported by her extended family. “Mi Canto,” another highlight of Mujer y Cantante, was written by her mother. “She was always singing. She could make up a song on the spot,” Céspedes said. “‘Mi Canto’ was the last song she wrote. She wanted it to fly, and it does fly on the record, and I hope she keeps flying. I often asked her why she sang all the time. ‘Mi Canto’ answers my question.”
The band plays at a relaxed pace as Céspedes sings a lively, wordless introduction. The subtle trumpet fills supplied by Diaz compliment lyrics that express her mother’s love of life. “A veces cuando estoy triste, Yo me pongo a tararear. Si la tristeza persiste, Entonces me pongo a cantar.” (“Sometimes when I’m sad, I start humming. If the sadness persists, then I begin to sing.”) The trumpet takes off as Céspedes improvises lines that sketch out her memories of her mother’s ability to transcend hardship with music.
“She was an extraordinary woman, who gave of herself and made us proud of who we were,” Céspedes said. “She got us through hard times with love and generosity. I hope the spirit of this song will echo in the hearts of the people living through our current hardships.”