Omar Sosa: The Flavor of Africa

Inside Omar Sosa’s grand musical and cultural fusions

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Omar Sosa by Shinya Atabe
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Omar Sosa by Massimo Mantovani

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It’s human nature: If you have something before your eyes every day, you stop seeing it,” says Cuban pianist, percussionist, composer and arranger Omar Sosa, who turned 45 on April 10. “In Cuba we have such a potent African tradition that I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to it.

“Most of the music that the world has heard from Cuba is from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s: son montuno, mambo, cha cha cha, danzón,” Sosa continues. “But if we look deeper, in Cuba we find music and cultural remainders from so many places in Africa: Congo, West Africa, East Africa, North Africa. Before I left Cuba, I saw all those things in separate compartments. What I’m trying to do now is to put them all in one place.”

For nearly two decades, Sosa has been constructing a pan-African sound that connects ancient African traditions to the neo-African cultures of the African Diaspora, especially those of Europe and the Americas. “We are all children of the same mother,” says Sosa in the notes for his 2008 recording, Afreecanos. “And even though our sounds are geographically different, we are all close in essence, concepts and roots.” It’s an idea that has shaped his vision.

His music might draw from both religious ritual music and rap, and include lyrics in English, Spanish and Wolof, a language from Senegal. At any given time, the instrumentation of a piece might feature piano, samplers and trumpet, as well as mbira (African thumb piano), a n’goni (a traditional lute from West Africa) or a New World instrument such as a cajón (a wooden box drum). His musicians may hail from Cuba and the U.S., but also Morocco, Brazil, Senegal and Ecuador.

He has recorded 22 discs as a leader, including albums of solo piano, duets, small groups and large ensembles. His most recent recording, Ceremony (Otá), features his quartet with the NDR Big Band (NDR stands for Norddeutscher Rundfunk or North German Radio) and Brazilian cellist, arranger and conductor Jaques Morelenbaum. It confirms his commitment to continuing exploration—but it also suggests an artist taking stock.

Ceremony is Sosa’s first recording with a big band. But eight of the 10 pieces are new arrangements of songs that have previously appeared on record: six from Spirit of the Roots (1998), and one track apiece from Bembón (2000) and Afreecanos.

“The idea was to revisit work that, at the time, was done with great passion, a touch of lunacy, and a great deal of time,” says Sosa, speaking in Spanish from his home in Barcelona. “[Spirit of the Roots] was one of my first discs and I don’t think many people heard it. It was an old dream of mine to hear that project with a bigger sound. Having a chance to work with Jaques closed the deal for me.”

The collaboration with NDR began back in 2006, when Sosa appeared in concert at their studios with his quintet and a special guest, Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu. (The performances are documented on 2007’s Promise.) This led to an offer to work with the NDR Big Band. “And when Stefan [Gerdes, a producer at NDR] asked me who did I want to arrange the music, I said, ‘Jaques Morelenbaum,’ but I thought it was just talk, wishful thinking,” reminisces Sosa with a chuckle. “We were at a restaurant, on our third bottle of wine. I never thought it would actually come to anything.” But it did.

Morelenbaum, a superb cellist who has also developed a career as an arranger and conductor collaborating with artists such as Tom Jobim, Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Egberto Gismonti and Ryuichi Sakamoto, knew Sosa’s music and had met the pianist a few years earlier in Paris. “[I’ve been] a big fan of Omar since the first time I heard him at the New Morning in Paris,” says Morelenbaum, reached in Texas where he was appearing with Brazilian singer and songwriter Gilberto Gil. “Omar’s music, his concept, impressed me a lot. His music synthesizes a lot of elements and styles. It has a whole universe inside. That night I became one of his biggest fans. Next day I went to the store and bought all the records I could find and became his ambassador in Brazil.”

In fact, Sosa had long made his admiration for Morelenbaum known by dedicating to him Bembón, his first recording featuring strings. “I was surprised when I met him that he knew me and knew my work in [Veloso’s] Fina Estampa,” says Morelenbaum. “But I was even more surprised when I found Bembón. When I got the call from Gerdes it was like winning the lottery.” For Sosa, the opportunity to work with Morelenbaum was “a dream come true, a blessing. Jaques has been a point of reference in my path.”

The rest of the tracks include references to other orishas, or spirits, Sosa’s takes on secular Cuban music styles such as the cha cha cha, the danzón and the son, and a new version of his tribute to Thelonious Monk. “I think because he admired me he gave me too much freedom—and that was a problem for me,” says Morelenbaum. “I admire his writing and I didn’t want to go too far with my own view. It was not easy. As an arranger, I always try to set myself as if I’m the composer, and here I tried to amplify Omar’s ideas, his concepts, his way of constructing a piece.”

But Ceremony does more than update old music. It also allows Sosa to reconnect with his momentous experience in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, in the early ’90s, and revisit some of the discoveries that have become essential to his vision.

The rest of this article appears in the May 2010 issue of JazzTimes

Originally published in May 2010

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