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Omar Sosa: Bringing The World To The World

AAJ Staff By

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Pianist/composer Omar Sosa was born in Cuba in the first decade of Fidel Castro's rule over the island, and grew up listening to forbidden American jazz with his music school friends in secret, the radio discretely turned low, though eventually the rules changed and the music was broadcast in Cuba, too. After Cuba and a short time in Mexico, Sosa discovered his calling in the Esmeraldas region of Ecuador, where he found music that was, like Cuba's music, founded in the African Diaspora. Seeing music with the same roots as those he had grown up with in Cuba, he saw that it would be a great thing to unite all music of African origin into one, following the Diaspora as well as absorbing himself in the source, Africa itself.

Moving to San Francisco, Sosa experienced jazz in person for the first time, becoming enthused by the freedom to play what he felt, to improvise what he willed. This addition of the jazz aspect of improvisation to the African tradition led to the music Sosa plays today. He formed a fruitful personal and business relationship with Bay Area resident/record label owner Scott Price, recording for their Otá Records label ever since. Twenty-two albums later, Sosa now lives in Barcelona, Spain with his family, spreading his brilliant impressionistic mix of African-rooted melodic and rhythmic music around the world with a band including musicians from Mozambique (bassist/vocalist Childo Tomas), Cuba, (percussionist/vocalist Julio Barreto), and America (saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum and drummer Marque Gilmore).

Sosa has created a magnificent and deep view of what is often called "world jazz." His music—whether solo piano, piano/percussion duo, quartet, quintet or larger forms—presents a silken, almost visual sheen of beauty...the beauty of the world. Imbued equally with Thelonious Monk and Chopin, as well as other pianists from Bach and Satie to Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor and Randy Weston, Sosa has, in his quest to unite the African traditions, created a new form of music.

Albums such as Mulatos (Otá, 2004) (featuring guest Paquito D'Rivera and nominated for a Best Latin Jazz Grammy), and Ceremony: NDR Big Band Plays Omar Sosa (Otá, 2010), arranged by Brazilian composer Jaques Morelenbaum, of Antonio Carlos Jobim fame, are masterpieces of color, melody, rhythm, philosophy, and life itself. This new form of music, impressionistic rhythmic world music, has legs.

Sosa's solo recording, Calma (Otá, 2011), combines four elements: acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes, electronic effects, and samples of world music, including water music played by pygmies. The combination reflects his new feeling of peace, or "calma," that he now enjoys in Barcelona—like San Francisco, a city by the coast. Already popular in Europe and lauded by composer John Adams, Sosa—Grammy nominee and BBC Radio 3 Award-winner for World Music—is now also becoming a familiar face at New York's The Blue Note, where American audiences are discovering Sosa's soft, earthy, colorful, and humanistic music.

All About Jazz: How long have you been in Barcelona?

Omar Sosa: Around twelve years, a little more, twelve or thirteen years. And now I am formally here. I have two kids, my wife. To be honest, it's a good place to live. For music, there are a few scenes, but this is more like a tourist city in a way. I live in the old area. Actually, it's cool. Sometimes it's crazy when they have a soccer game here, everybody is screaming. This happens about three or four times in the whole month.

AAJ: Catalonians are pretty nice people.

OS: Yeah, the people here are great. This city is faced to the sea. When you find a city in the world that is faced to the sea, I don't know why, but most of the time the people are less tight. They are more relaxed, looser, in the way of free people. Like I said again, this is a beautiful city to live. The food is great.

AAJ: Do you ever go to Madrid for gigs?

OS: Before I came to Barcelona I lived in Madrid for seven months, a year. It is different, because Madrid doesn't face to the sea, so the people act in a different way. Actually, it's another kind of party. It's a party too, but different.

AAJ: You've lived in a few interesting places, obviously Cuba, and then Quito (Ecuador).

OS: I lived in Mexico too [laughs]. Before Ecuador was Mexico. I lived there almost eight months, nine months. I had a good time there, but... let's say I didn't have a strong connection with the tradition of Yucatan. But I learned a little bit. But when I moved to Ecuador—I moved there because I married my ex-wife, she's Ecuadorian—in Ecuador I had the opportunity to connect really strong with Ecuadorian people. I discovered this kind of music of the Pacific coast, the Esmeraldas—it's called musicas Esmeraldas. And I was deeply inside of the tradition and I combined the tradition with the Afro-Cuban tradition. This was one of the first moments I started with this obsession of mixing all the African traditions all over the world.

It was the moment I thought, "Woa, this Ecuadorian tradition is pretty much the same as our Afro-Cuban tradition." Actually, our tradition comes from Nigeria, like our religion, and they have this tradition there they call marimbas merdania. It's kind of a style of music, but inside, a philosophy too. I said "Wow, this is a good step to start creating music based in the African diaspora."

After that I moved to Spain for the first time. I went to Minorca, an island in the Mediterranean. I had a connection with a couple of friends, and I started playing a lot there. But after that I moved to San Francisco. I brought with me all this Ecuadorian tradition, and when I discovered all this Afro-American tradition, especially hip hop, the spoken word, I said, "Well, they can all combine together." And this is why I started with my first record. With this band, this group, the record was Free Roots (Otá, 1997).

AAJ: So Free Roots was your first record, not the solo record, Omar Omar (Otá, 1997)?

OS: No, the first one was the solo record. But to be honest, this record [Omar Omar] was a party. My manager—we have a record label together—he used to have two microphones in his living room faced to the piano, and we started to drink some wine with some friends. And I started playing for almost two and a half hours, and he recorded everything [laughs]. And I remember a couple of weeks later—we weren't working together, we were only friends—he called my ex-wife, because at that time I didn't speak any English. The only thing I could say was "jazz," "thank you" and a couple of bad words, which is the first thing you learn particularly when you live in Oakland, West Oakland—nothing too beautiful in the sense of language. But I remember he told me, "Omar, you want to make a record?." I said, "Well of course I want to make a record, but I don't see this is going to be so simple... you want to make a record?" He passed me a contract, a big contract, 150 pagess, to a guy that doesn't speak English, doesn't read English! I said, "Man, I'm gonna say 'yes,' but it's my word with your word. You betray my word, I kill you!" [Laughs]. And now we have worked for almost fourteen or fifteen years together, and we have twenty-two records together, on Otá Records. I'm proud to have this opportunity, I'm proud of myself to say "yes" at the moment he called me [laughs]. We became a family; he's my manager, his family, my family.

AAJ: Did you find the Bay Area very different to what you had known before?

OS: Of course. America's America, man. They have a lot of problems, they have a lot of scenes, things that can happen only in America! Here in Spain, I played a couple of gigs but it was hard to do this kind of conceptual work, this kind of crazy music, for a lot of people. And when I arrived in San Francisco I see this window kind of open. I played all kind of music. I played flamenco, I played Brazilian, I played whatever music you can imagine. Reggae, Mexicano, salsa, Cuban. And actually, when I started to play jazz, I said "You know, I don't play jazz. I enjoy playing music, but I don't play jazz as a style of music." This is something that I keep until today: I call myself a musician who loves to play music, but I don't play jazz in terms of straight-ahead, or bebop.

As I said before, jazz for me is a kind of philosophy. I take jazz as a philosophy of life, the freedom and the way to create, the way to learn and share and be open to reproduce what you feel inside. I love jazz in that connection. I discovered this in San Francisco. I was starting with all these musicians like John Santos, or Peter Apfelbaum or Jack Jones, all these musicians, Babatunde Lea, Richard Howell. I started to discover this wonderful world of creating music, and expressing what you feel in the moment. In a way, this is what I do until today.

AAJ: Were you listening to jazz in Cuba?

OS: We were listening to a little bit of jazz, but it was undercover. The people in the school would tell you, "They'll grab you. If you listen to some jazz you're in trouble." Because, at that time, jazz was a music from America. It was a kind of secret to listen to jazz. It's beautiful, because when you're not allowed to do something, you want to do it every day [laughs]. And pretty much this is what we did—listen to jazz almost every day, with a little radio. We took some FM radio from Miami every night around ten or eleven o'clock and we listened kind of quiet to this kind of music. It was a beautiful moment. I have beautiful memories of this.

Then, they put jazz [on Cuban radio] every night or a couple of days a week—this was the father of Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, the drummer. His father used to have a really good radio program and he only played jazz. We always waited for this program. Whether it was every day or two times a week I don't remember, but we learned a lot. In my last two years of school the music was more free, and we started to get some radio in the school and we played some music, some Oscar Peterson, we played some different kinds of music, Faria Olestar, Weather Report, some Monk, Miles, early Miles, and this was, in a way, the introduction for a lot of people of my generation.

AAJ: This was the Cuban radio show, or the program from Miami that you were able to listen to more openly?

OS: It was Cuban radio. It was called Radio Progresso.

AAJ: From Horacio's father?

OS: Yes. It was a beautiful program. He used to say who was playing, the style, the concept, the biography of the musicians, and we discovered musicians on his radio show like Cecil Taylor, Randy Weston, Abdullah Ibrahim, Ahmad Jamal, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, of course John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Miles. It was beautiful, it was beautiful. I talked to Horacio a few months ago, because we have a project together with the NDR Big Band, and I talked to him about his father's radio program and we talked quite a bit about this period.
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