OKAN: Live at The Kennedy Center


One of the greatest joys every New Year is planning out our upcoming concert-going adventures, and while many events were already circled on our calendar during late 2023, finding a show close to home at relatively short notice makes for a great start to our January live-music fix. 

Perusing the latest Millennium Stage listings for recently added shows at the prestigious Kennedy Center in Washington DC, our scrolling paused immediately when the name OKAN appeared.  Having an opportunity to see this Toronto-based Cuban/Canadian duo perform here as part of their small US northeast tour this early into 2024 was certainly something that we did not want to miss. 

Taking a deep dive into the GDW archives, it was August 2020 when we last featured OKAN on our pages – just before the release of their JUNO-Award winning “Espiral” sophomore album – and with the arrival of their latest “Okantomi” album just last year, the timing to encounter their unique blend of Afro-Cuban jazz and traditional music proved perfect. 


OKAN co-founders/spouses Elizabeth Rodriguez (vocals/violin) and Magdelys Savigne (vocals/percussion) brought along three of their good friends for this mini-tour – Roberto Riverón (bass), Frank Martinez (drums), and “Okantomi” co-producer Jeremy Ledbetter (keyboards) – and collectively this quintet more than satisfied the Saturday evening cravings of the sold-out venue. 

“Wow, this is amazing, thank you so much for being here tonight,” Elizabeth stated when taking her spot at center stage. “We hope we have a beautiful encounter. If this is the first time seeing us, I wish you good luck, and I hope that you have a wonderful time. As much as we are about to enjoy this.”  

Launching immediately into “Sombras,” the title track from their 2019 debut album, the vibrant sounds of their Cuban heritage bounced merrily off the walls, soaked up by a very enthusiastic and appreciative audience. “An OKAN means heart in our Afro-Cuban dialect,” Elizabeth added at the close of the song. “The one thing that we do is to give you our heart in music.” 


OKAN would perform three cuts from the new album, with Elizabeth taking time to explain the meaning behind “Oriki Oshun.” “[This] is for our goddess, Oshun, who also represents the river, motherhood, fertility, and she’s, my body.” Time was also taken to express their gratitude to National Public Radio (NPR): “NPR is based here, and we were picked as one of their top albums of 2023. Thank you so much,” Elizabeth shared. “Felix Contreras (host of Alt. Latino on NPR), if he’s here, I love him. If he’s not, tell him I love him, and we want to do a Tiny Desk.” 

Performing music so firmly rooted in their culture, many in attendance did not need to be asked twice each time OKAN encouraged the audience to dance. Following a tale from Elizabeth about how “1000 Palabras” was a tune devoted to her wife, Magdelys, the open floor space between the stage and front row filled quickly with dancers of all ages (as did the aisles) as the rhythmic and up-tempo beats played out. The floor would fill once more during “Mercedes,” those infectious beats luring dancers out with ease. 


Making references though the evening about her early life in Havana, and eventual move towards Canadian citizenship and experience as a Cuban immigrant, Elizabeth shared a tale about her new identity prior to a performance of “La Reina Del Norte” from the new album. “This one is very special to me. La Reina Del Norte means the queen of the north, and I feel that winter has made me stronger,” she commenced. “And during that winter, I feel that I’m the queen of the north, but in this song, I am healing that part of my upbringing as a classic violinist, because my Ukranian teacher wouldn’t let me move while playing the violin. I’ve always been expressive.” Demonstrating some dance moves that her Ukranian tutor would never endorse, Elizabeth made her violin sing once more, backed by the solid musicianship of her bandmates.  

Closing with an incredibly lively double-whammy of “Cumba Cumba” and “Baila Canada” from their sophomore album, OKAN bid the audience a good night, and earned their standing ovation. These musicians left a lasting impression, because of all the shows we’ve attended at Millennium Stage, never have we seen the line for the merch table extend out past the entrance of the main hall and into the foyer. Here’s hoping that a return to the DC area by OKAN can take place again soon. 

Set List: 

  1. Sombras  
  2. Oriki Oshun 
  3. 1000 Palabras 
  4. Espiral 
  5. Okantomi 
  6. La Reina Del Norte 
  7. Mercedes 
  8. Cumba Cumba 
  9. Baila Canada 

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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