Born as a result of Fidel Fourneyron's research trip to Cuba, the Que Vola project deploys an uncommon syncretism between Afro-Cuban music and free jazz.

What began as a voyage into the land of his first name became multiple journeys for Fidel Fourneyron, who began pursuing the complex essence of Afro-Cuban music. Though the trombonist sought introductions with local musicians on his first trip, it wasn’t until his third, in 2014, that be began playing with them as Que Vola.

Faced with such an ambitious project, whose scope brought Fidel Fourneyron and his French counterparts together with foreign traditions, one section of the group needed years of familiarization in order to reach the necessary level of maturity. To this end, they went through workshops, discussions, readings, rehearsals and tours. In a documentary about this adventure, co-produced by Qwest TV, the normally unwavering Fidel Fourneyron is surprised at the difficulties and the subtleties he encounters. But in striving to understand foreign codes and dialects, the French trombonist never wanted to stray into the limiting and oft decried realm of cultural appropriation. To conclude this would be to misunderstand this engine of the French improvised music scene, which stays attached to traditions at the same time as remaining inside the prism of a singularity.   

In search of Afro-Cuban traditions

Forget about well-worn Latin jazz – this is anchored in tradition and directed towards the avant-garde, thanks, in part, to a process of exchange: “I tried not to let myself be influenced by what has been done in the last 30 years in relation to jazz and Afro-Cuban musical partnerships, where Cuba has simply been a canvas, and strictly speaking there has been no partnership. Here, there were genuine moments of ethnomusicology before I ever wrote a note of music down. I wanted to explore their improvisational techniques, to build shapes from the pieces. That way, it would be more destabilizing for the French.”

Having been weaned on the permanence of conservatoires, the Frenchman made an initial important discovery: “the rumba and Afro Cuban music are not measured. All Afro-Cuban music speeds up all the time. That’s what gives people a sense of sheer happiness. It accelerates as and when the musicians heat it up. My musical training taught me that we didn’t have the right to accelerate. When you’re exposed to something like that, you can say to yourself: it’s true! Why do we have to stop ourselves?!”

In Cuba, Fidel Fourneyron found music right at the heart of everyday life: “It always attracted me, this way of approaching music in a non-academic way. In France, the musicians study, they go to the Conservatoire … It’s way more separated. The three musicians we play with have never studied music at a school. When you go to a party in someone’s house over there, you see fifty people who aren’t musicians but who all know the songs and dance to them … It’s crazy!”

Under the sign of rhythm

Linked to santeria, the Cuban religion derived from Yoruba, the rumba was built on ceremonies: in each rhythm resonates the call of a God and of spiritual connection. This inspired Fidel Fourneyron, who composed “The three warriors” based on invocations made during rites: “They begin with three percussions going into a room that holds an altar to god. No one else is allowed to enter until the percussionists finish. Then you have the oro cantado. The oroseco is a complex continuation of twenty-three pieces that they play to call the twenty-three first gods. “The three warriors” is based on the first three gods called. When you start learning bata drums, that’s basically what you learn.”

By respecting the rhythmic codes of the rumba; by entrusting the arrangements for the breaks to Adonis, former musical director of Yoruba Andabo (a group famous on the island in the early 2000s), Fidel gained the confidence of his Cuban rhythm section. They were an essential engine for everyone’s investment: the best music is born in the common fire. It was also necessary that the Cubans felt involved as much as they felt shaken by the music of Fidel Fourneyron. If it was too simple, they would have treated it like a walk in the park. Questions arose: was this music too far from their story? would they be interested?

On his respect for Afro-Cuban traditions, Fidel remarked: “There is a part of the repertoire where I wanted them to really feel what they were doing: especially when playing spiritually sacred music. These are pieces that have been built with respect to all the musical calls and responses they have: the big drum that can tap once, changing the rhythm of all the other musicians.”

On the role of Adonis, who was in charge of taming the liberties taken by Fidel Fourneyron: “He has a real know-how. He is very inventive. I wanted to give him his share of creativity. When you feel that you’ve been involved in the creative process and your opinion is respected, you are more invested, more happy with what you do. Adonis found solutions, he invented patterns that would go with this music.”

Watch the documentary exclusively on Qwest TV

A refreshing syncretism

Que Vola offers a duality between inventiveness and intensity: it is an interesting project mostly because it carries the vector of a unique voice. Armed with a new groove, Fidel Fourneyron found his margins in harmonies and spaces. There’s is a music that is more modal, governed by fewer agreements, unlike Irakere, and more directed: preferring the light electric touch of the Rhodes keyboard to the piano

More modal, governed by fewer agreements, unlike Iraqere, more directed. Preferring the light electric touch of the Rhodes keyboard to the piano, which presented the risk of falling into déjà vu, Fidel Fourneyron’s music adds the imbalance of free jazz to Afro-Cuban music – leaving aside the “highly directed aspect of the Irakere.”

When the blowers build on the percussion, the conversation begins to tremble and shift, more adventurous and sexier. “We set small traps for them [Cubist drummers], clave changes, heresies basically! They are always right on the clave, whereas in European jazz we often make composite measures, with lingering half-times lying. It helped to relax the atmosphere and they realized that we had a know-how that was different from theirs.”

Well-versed in writing for big ensembles, Fidel Fourneyron finds his models in Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Carla Bley. “These are three people who write for individuals. I think it’s important.” He says, “French musicians have real sense of freedom, so from one date to another, the concerts are never monotonous. We can keep on looking for stuff. In the same fashion as Benjamin Doustayssier, these are people who aren’t interested in routine. The chaos of appearance, of a “writing where there are no cadences of chords,” creates a multitude of elements and rhythmic superimpositions. It is contained by an eye-of-the-needle groove, never interfered with by the blowers’ harmonic freedom.

Embedded in diverse directions or in a unified crescendo, the members finally resemble a troop, advancing together as a single unit.

Que Vola (No Format)

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Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée | With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union With the support of the Creative Europe programme of the European Union