In 2009, Cuban pianist Omar Sosa collaborated with eight East African musicians, making field recordings in seven countries during a tour of the continent with his Afreecanos Trio. More than a decade later, he went into a Paris studio with a drummer and multi-instrumentalist and added more texture and continuity to those tapes. An East African Journey has no business sounding so multifaceted yet coherent, so pacific and yet impassioned, so in tune with the delicate profundity of good-faith collaboration.
This is Sosa’s métier. He’s won a slew of Grammys, grants, and global awards turning his ongoing exploration of Afro-Cuban music’s roots into his own organic expression. For An East African Journey, his contributions—on piano, kalimba, and percussion, as well as overall pilot of the project—follow a course of discovery and affirmation.
Five of the 13 songs were originally recorded on the island of Madagascar. Three feature Rajery on vocals and valiha, a bamboo tube zither that he plays in a unique fashion due to the absence of fingers on his right hand. Two are with Monja Mahafay, who plays a suitcase-shaped, 24-string box zither on the driving “Eretseretse” (translated as “Inspiration”) and lokanga (three-string violin) on the hypnotic “Sabo,” a song meant to invoke nature spirits. Mahafay, who deserved wider renown, just passed away this February at age 51.
There’s a kindred connection between “Thuon Mok Loga” and “Kwa Nyogokuru Revisited.” The former is a gospel song praising recovery from illness, composed by Kenyan vocalist Olith Ratego, who doubles on an eight-string lyre. The latter recalls a family gathering around a fire in the mountains of Burundi; vocalist Steven Sogo plays a long musical bow with an attached gourd for resonance, known as an umuduri. Both songs are danceable delights.
Other countries represented include Ethiopia, Sudan, Zambia, and Mauritius, each with an indigenous song to sing and play. To listen to them and the rest of the material on An East African Journey is to risk having your cynicism exposed as naiveté. Not a bad prescription during a global pandemic.