African music influences kickstart first weekend of Rochester International Jazz Festival 

click to enlarge Magdelys Savigne and Elizabeth Rodriguez of OKAN. - PHOTO COURTESY ROCHESTER INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
  • Magdelys Savigne and Elizabeth Rodriguez of OKAN.
The 20th anniversary edition of the Rochester International Jazz Festival kicks off on Friday, and some of the festival’s most intriguing artists have strong ties to African music.

The Afro-Cuban band OKAN is a prime example. Based in nearby Toronto, the band is led by partners Elizabeth Rodriguez (violin and vocals) and Magdelys Savigne (percussion and vocals). OKAN will perform as a quintet at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Friday at Montage Music Hall.

LISTEN: Daniel Kushner interviews members of OKAN >

Rodriguez said her life’s work as a musician is a hereditary passion.

“I think my ancestors gave me this tool that is undeniable,” she said. “And it runs in my blood in, I would say, a more exaggerated way than other people. So it is a calling that I feel music all the time, everywhere.”

The music of OKAN is rooted in the religion of Cuban Santeria, but is also defiant of some of its core traditions. Women are traditionally prohibited from participating as musicians in certain spiritual roles. But that hasn’t stopped OKAN and its percussionist-singer Savigne.

Rodriguez says reaching audiences who wouldn’t otherwise have a connection to her ancestry and culture is a part of OKAN’s musical impact.

“Being that bridge, and being that tool from the universe, you know, to show people that they're all the things and open their minds to different ways,” Rodriguez said. “And it's not necessarily just Mags playing the drums. It's like me talking about immigration, me talking about being a woman, and being a mother, and being an artist that is a mother.”

  • Albino Mbie.
Another jazz festival artist whose music serves as a cultural bridge is Mozambique native and guitarist-singer Albino Mbie, who at 14 built his first instrument out of an oil can, scraps of wood, and electrical cords.

Mbie eventually left the southern African country to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he still lives. The guitarist plays a blend of smooth jazz, R&B, pop, and traditional Mozambican influences — including the dance music called Marrabenta and the orchestral xylophone music known as timbila. But he doesn’t think his role is to entertain listeners, per se.

“I don't call myself an entertainer, because I don't feel that's what I do,” Mbie explained. “I call myself a musician, a messenger. That's my goal.”

Despite living and working in America, Mbie’s motivation for making music is still strongly rooted in Mozambican culture. And like OKAN, Mbie’s musical heritage is deeply tied to to spirituality and ancestry.

“They're playing music to express themselves, it's not really to sell," he said. “And you can feel the difference — people that are creating art out of the sake of traditions, reaching out to the spiritual world, reaching out to the youngest, reaching out to ancestors.”

Albino Mbie will play Montage Music Hall at 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. on Saturday, June 24, the second night of the festival.

For more information, visit

Daniel J. Kushner is an arts writer at CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
click image champion-story-banner.gif

SLUCC Community FREE Luncheon

SLUCC Community FREE Luncheon @ South Livonia United Church of Christ

We are hosting another Community Free Luncheon. It will be always on...
The Henhouse Prowlers in Concert

The Henhouse Prowlers in Concert @ Geneseo Riviera Theater

Internationally touring bluegrass band recently nominated for the IBMA Best New Artists...

View all of today's events »

Website powered by Foundation     |     © 2023 CITY Magazine