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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).

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