It’s been a mere three years since Cuban-Canadian duo OKAN – comprised of percussionist Magdelys Savigne and singer/violinist Elizabeth Rodríguez – hit the music scene, but in short order the pair have released the Independent Music Award-winning EP, Laberinto, their 2020 JUNO-nominated debut album, Sombras, and received a JUNO win for their work with Battle of Santiago. This summer, they’ll release sophomore album, Espiral.

Raised in Cuba and educated at the same university – Rodríguez knew of Savigne as being one of the few female percussionist at the time – it wasn’t until their separate moves to Toronto, and subsequent involvement in Jane Bunnett’s all-female-ensemble  Maqueque, that they became friends and collaborators. Since then, they’ve married the traditional and modern, Cuban rhythms and western influences, via Afrobeat and jazz, in an increasingly celebrated sound.

“I’m from a very traditional city – Santiago de Cuba,” says Savigne. “I grew up with ballads, ancient, traditional Cuban music. Composers and singers like Beny Moré, Celia Cruz, Oscar de Leon [was] my childhood. No kids’ songs – all ballads from ancient times.”

“You can’t try to make the other person think like you, or write like you.” – Magdelys Savigne of OKAN

Rodríguez, raised in Havana, enjoyed classic Cuban artists like Benny Morea, while also embracing salsa sounds, and controversial performers like Cuban, Miami-based singer, Willy Chireno. “[He] was completely forbidden in Cuba,” says Rodriguez. “He would sing songs about liberation of Cuba, and liberation from communism. I would have to listen to him very quietly and low.” Both say that Western pop music, from AC/DC to Madonna, were also forbidden musical treats.

Their own work merges ancestors, immigration, love, heartbreak, and the Cuban political climate. “We’re from Cuba, but we want to show our Cuba, not the Cuba always shown,” explains Savigne. She says that as new Canadians, they’ve found creative inspiration in the diverse cultures, musicians, and genres they’ve encountered living in Toronto. “It’s impossible not to be influenced in this city,” says Rodriguez. “Songs like ‘Quick Stop’ show my fiddle and bluegrass influence, along with Turkish rhythms. ‘1000 Palabras’ shows our Spanish heritage. ‘Mas que nada,’ our similarities [with], and love for, Brazilian culture.”

For the pair, composing and songwriting together is about allowing both voices, including their differing influences and ideas, to be organically expressed, no matter how initially opposite they might seem.  “You can’t try to make the other person think like you, or write like you. It’s finding that fine line of putting those two worlds together with respect. We share all the songs,” says Savigne. “Elizabeth helps me with lyrical content when I need it, and I help her with arrangements and chord progressions. We debate the songs a lot, and then, when we have a clear picture of it, we share it with our musicians. The more we play them, the better the songs get, until their final stage.”

Instrument choices are essential to composing and songwriting for both multi-instrumentalists. “Elizabeth uses the piano most of the time. [It’s] a very complete instrument and the perfect tool for composition. I sometimes use my percussion instruments [most notably the bata percussion] for rhythm patterns that I can use on different songs.”

“I usually compose very late at night,” explains Rodríguez. “I love the silence of the night for that.  Mags [aka Savigne] is more of a day person. She has a crazy idea [for] a song and suddenly it’s done – printed and ready to go. She pushes me to write lyrics if she needs some.”

While the pair find strength in combining their creativity, their advice to artists making music solo is to always be true to your own voice, embrace feedback, and – most importantly – keep the faith.

“Try, try, try, and never stop trying,” says Rodríguez. “Maybe the first result isn’t the best, [but] it will open the door for another result, and so on, and so forth. Never give up.”