Arts, Culture & Media

Italian Rocker Zucchero Mixes Blues with Cuban Percussion

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La Sesion Cubana (Photo: zucchero.it)

Zucchero is one of Italy's most successful musicians. He plays to sold out arenas all up and down the Italian peninsula. But as his fans both at home and abroad know, he's not your typical Italian singer.

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"I grew up with the blues, funny enough, even if I'm Italian," he said. "So I grew up with Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, with Ray Charles. And when I start to do my music and write my songs, my idea was to keep… the groove, or the rhythm, or the way to sing of these souls artists, but with Italian and Mediterranean melody."

And on his latest album "La Sesiòn Cubana" Zucchero adds another ingredient: Cuban percussion.

The CD was recorded in Cuba with a group of Cuban musicians. But the veteran Italian rocker doesn't want anyone to think this is an album of traditional Cuban music.

"It's my music," he insisted, "with rhythm, horns and Cuban sound."

The one exception is Zucchero's cover of the Cuban standard "Guantanamera."

Zucchero told me it was his dream to play in Cuba with Cuban artists. "Because I love Cuban music, I love Cubans. Apart the ideology, nothing to do with politics. I just love this country, and I love the culture, the people. They always smile, and they play everything and they dance everywhere."

Zucchero didn't set out to record an album in Cuba. What he wanted was to stage a live free concert in Havana. And he did, in December 2012. But before he and the Cuban musicians could go live, they needed to rehearse together.

Zucchero says they just went into the studio and started jamming on songs the Cubans had never even heard before.

"That was amazing," Zucchero recalled, "because each musician knows what he has to do with the congas, with the bass, with the drums, with a lot of percussions, trumpets and everything. And then, there's no overdubs here. We just play like in the old days, and we recorded when everybody knew the song."

The result is an album that at times sounds like vintage Zucchero, all blues and gritty vocals. The perfect showcase for the Italian rocker's voice, which U2"²s Bono once compared to an "old, oak-aged whiskey."

But on most of the tracks, it's the Cuban rhythm that dominates, and that makes "La Sesiòn Cubana" a new experience for Zucchero and his fans.