Bobi Céspedes performing as part of ISland soul at Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Sunday (August 3), 9:30 pm. Free. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
there's good reason why it has taken entrancing Afro-Cuban singer Bobi Céspedes so long to release her fabulous Rezos (Six Degrees) debut disc. Beyond her regular day-to-day spirit-cleansing duties as the local Lucumi priestess for her Oakland community, Céspedes has been splitting her spare time between shaking shekere with her family's Afro-Cuban roots combo, Conjunto Céspedes, and belting incantations to Yoruban deities with Mickey Hart's Bembe Orisha.
All that praying hasn't left Céspedes much time develop a solo career as a 21st-century global diva.
That's why her Rezos disc is such a delightful surprise. Instead of the expected hybrid of the Conjunto Céspedes and Bembe Orishas percussion-oriented concepts, Céspedes comes up with something radically different, laying her soulful chants over deftly programmed soundscapes that organically blend downtempo techno whoosh with Oaktown hiphop beats. It all works surprising well.
"I wanted to reach as many people as possible with my music," explains Céspedes from her home. "And the youth need to hear something new. I've been a teacher for a long time now, so I know that when you're dealing with young people, you sometimes need to camouflage your message with elements of what's happening in their world.
"I don't listen to a whole bunch of hiphop, but I'm not unaware of what's going on. I like the idea of incorporating the sounds that surround me."
While Céspedes's hiphop-loving son, Degi Simmons, proved to be a huge asset in the sonic makeover - he recorded much of the Rezos album at his Oakland studio known as the Altar - she credits producer Greg Landau with bringing the whole project together.
"When I first met with Greg to discuss the album, I brought a book containing all my songs written on loose-leaf paper and told him I wanted to give my compositions a contemporary feel.
"It was Greg who had the idea of bringing in One Drop Scott, who besides being a successful hiphop producer (E-40, the Luniz) also studied Afro-Cuban percussion. Once he came in and heard me singing my songs, he understood where I was coming from and where we needed to go."
While some of the tracks from Rezos wouldn't sound out of place in a hiphop set - in fact, X-ecutioner turntable maestro Rob Swift scratched two Céspedes joints from Rezos into his funk-heavy Under The Influence mix disc - there's no overlooking the spiritual thrust of her music.
"What you hear on Rezos is what I am," insists Céspedes. "I am African-Cuban and I am Lucumi. My music developed from what I practised and what I experienced as a member of that culture. Whenever I open my mouth to sing, that will always come out of me."