Getting lyrical with OKAN

Get to know the Toronto-based Afro-Cuban duo as they share the meaning behind their favourite lyrics

An image of OKAN in front of a dusty orange background with butterflies on their straw outfits

Photograph by Luisa Maria Gonzalez.

The harsh realities of immigrating to Canada, the freedom of self-expression, and tough times in their relationship - no topic is off limits when it comes OKAN’s lyrics.  

Composed of partners Elizabeth Rodriguez and Magdelys Savigne, the Juno Award-winning Afro-Cuban duo OKAN formed after the pair met while working for another band in 2016. An instant connection between the two artists turned into a Juno Award for their 2019 album Espiral, tours across North America, and a beautiful family of three. 

The Toronto stop on their current North American tour, OKAN will be performing at the AGO on Friday, February 2 from 7 pm to 8:30 pm as part of Black History Month programming. Navigating the Toronto music scene for seven years now, Rodriguez shared that the pair have been widely received.  

“The most challenging part for venues and festivals has been how to categorize us,” she explained. “Our music doesn't fit in one box and sometimes people don't know what to expect. But after every OKAN concert people feel like they discovered a cool new thing from Toronto.” 

Both Rodriguez and Savigne have a rich background in music rooted in their home country. Growing up in Santiago de Cuba, Savigne graduated with honours in orchestra percussion from Havana’s University of the Arts. A classically trained violinist from Havana, Rodriguez was the concertmaster for Havana’s Youth Orchestra. Combining their diverse musical backgrounds, OKAN’s songs layer complex percussion, violin, and vibrant vocals to fuse their Afro-Cuban roots with jazz, folk, and global music.  

An image of OKAN at a table. Elizabet is seated at the height of a table with her long braid resting on it. There is a beige cup on the table

Photo by Luisa Maria Gonzalez

Following their Juno-Award-winning album Espiral, OKAN recently released OKANTOMI, an album that took the pair almost three years to create. Compared to previous works, Rodriguez explained that this album explores the pair’s Afro-Cuban traditions and spirituality, their name meaning “heart” in the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria. 

“We feel that we matured as musicians and humans and we learned from our previous works,” she said.“With this album, we took more time to let the experiences sink in. This album was influenced by the endless ways we try to stay connected to our roots and upbringing, both our Afro-Cuban roots and our classically trained careers. We are very proud of collaborating with so many talented musicians on this album.” 

OKAN’s Afro-Cuban roots definitely shine through in their vibrant instrumental scores and powerful harmonies. However, their music is also heavily influenced by their time in Canada. While their lyrics explore love, courage, and their religion Santeria, their lyrics also candidly share the challenges they’ve faced as immigrants in Canada. For Rodriguez, the lyric writing is her way of processing life experiences.  

“If something big and transcendental happens to me, you bet I'll write about that,” she shared. “My lyrics are full of biographical moments of my life — that's part of my healing process and that will be my way of writing forever. Our lyrics are mostly in Spanish and if we are writing about a deity of God from our religion, it is because we have a good reason for it.” 

Ahead of their performance at the AGO, Rodriguez broke down the meaning and inspiration behind some of her favourite OKAN lyrics.  

OKANTOMI (Oshun’s heart)

No voy a callarme de nuevo  

Los años de nieve me han quitado el miedo. 

(Translation) 

I will not shut up again 

The years of snow have taken away my fear 

Rodriguez: This is my favourite line in this song. I think it’s powerful to feel that the years of winter here have made me stronger. I started to feel like being here made me stronger and freer to express myself openly.   

No matter how hard we can work.  

Tu siempre te crees el mejor  

We came here with nothing but soul  

Y tus frustraciones las convierto en songs. 

(Translation) 

No matter how hard we can work. 

You always think you are the best 

We came here with nothing but soul 

And your frustrations I turn them into songs. 

I think these lyrics are self-explanatory. Feeling inferior in a new country as an immigrant is a very common feeling, especially because of the language barrier. But, once we go deeper into ourselves and understand how strong we are, that is when we can use this feeling to become a better version of ourselves and use it as fuel to create our art. 

1000 Palabras  (A 1000 words) 

…De más está decir que me perdones 
Por cada triste adiós que te pedi 

Sin concesiones.  

(Translation) 

…Needless to say, forgive me. 

For every sad goodbye I asked 

Without concessions 

…Con tu mirada llego al infinito 
Que valentia tu le has dado a este corazoncito 
No tengo miedo, solo necesito, 
Que me prometas ese amor 
Que no se halla en cualquier sitio. 

(Translation) 

…With your gaze I reach infinity 

What courage you have given to this little heart 

I'm not afraid, I just need, 

That you promise me this love 

Which is not found anywhere 

Rodriguez: This is one of the first songs we created for OKAN. I was asking for forgiveness from Mags (Magdelys Savigne). When we first met, we had the most fun and basically fell in love instantly, but I always had to go home because I was married. When things became too horrible for me at home, I decided to leave. I took a leap of faith and moved in with Mags because my heart told me that was the right decision, and it was. Here we are eight years later with a beautiful family.  

La Reina del Norte (the Queen of the north) 

No te dejes engañar,  

Aqui hay espacio para todos los que quieran. 

A Canadá yo le traje gozadera.  

(Translation) 

Don't be fooled, 

There is space here for everyone who wants. 

I brought joy to Canada. 

Rodriguez: Canada is our new home, and we are extremely grateful. However, we have to say it out loud: the immigration process here is very elitist and classist.  

I keep telling everyone that there is space here for more immigrants who could make this country even better. When I say “I brought joy to Canada,” I’m referring to our Cuban culture and music bringing joy to Canada.  The “I” really means “we Cuban people,” but this lyric can be applied to every other immigrant who comes here.

A Solas Contigo (Alone with you)  

Los momentos que tengo 

A solas contigo, 

Dónde está el universo 

Como único testigo

Dan placer, dan terror

De lo que puede ser 

Más tengo la certeza

Que te veré crecer 

(Translation) 

The moments that I have 

alone with you, 

where the universe 

is the only witness, 

They give pleasure. They give terror 

of what it could be 

But I am certain 

that I will see you grow. 

Rodriguez: This is a verse that came to me all at once. I was singing in the shower while pregnant with our son Orun and I was trying to calm myself down from the anxiety and uncertainty I was feeling during this period of my life. I wanted to feel certain that everything would be fine, so I wrote the line “but I’m certain that I will see you grow” because I feel that songs have the power to make things come true. I had a great pregnancy and delivery, and he is a very healthy and smart boy now.  

Experience a spirited evening with OKAN at the AGO on Friday, February 2 from 7 pm to 8:30 pm in Walker Court. This performance is included in general admission. See some of OKAN’s lyrics in Spanish, English, and French on their website.

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