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Omar Sosa: Building Bridges Not Walls

Duncan Heining By

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Cuban-born pianist, Omar Sosa is a passionate man. Music, religion, family, his relationship to the planet—all these are inseparable to an artist whose musical world is steeped in the Afro-Cuban heritage that he draws upon so personally and individually in his work. Spinning culinary metaphors to describe the processes of music-making, he sings the praises of the musicians from so many different cultures with whom he collaborates. But most of all, he is passionate in his concern for the environment and deeply worried about the threats it faces from human activity.

Sosa, like many Afro-Cubans, practices the religion of Santeria. In a way, calling it a religion does scant justice to a belief system that connects the individual with nature, species, planet and cosmos and, within which, the worlds of spirit and matter intersect. In Santeria, elemental figures known as Orishas and the ancestors of each individual provide the bridge between those worlds. Music and religion, ritual and celebration, the sacred and profane connect in ways very different from our own Judeo-Christian traditions. Santeria is a way of being and living in the now, a religion of connections.

Aguas, Omar Sosa's most recent record, illustrates this perfectly. "Aguas" means "waters" and, on CD, the music is subtle, almost pastoral in feel, filled with the sense of free flow of its title. Live, however, it can just as easily boil and bubble whipped to near-frenzy by the trio of Omar Sosa, violinist/singer Yilian Canizares and Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles. At last November's London Jazz Festival, spurred on by Caňizares' amazing dancing, the trio gave one of the most stunning performances I have ever seen. Just writing about it brings on an attack of goose bumps!

Born in Camagűey, Cuba in 1965, Sosa moved first to Ecuador in the early nineties and then to the Bay Area, San Francisco in 1995. Now based in Barcelona with his young family, we spoke on the phone earlier this year. With thirty plus records to his name, I began by asking how come each CD he releases seems so different, so unique.

"Every record is a moment in my life," Sosa explains. "If we imprint every moment of our life maybe we would have a million records because every moment of every day could be the last day. So, with every record I like to put together so many important moments in my life. When I finish a record, it's the release of a moment. It could be good. It could be bad."

So, what was the moment in his life that was Aguas?

"It was a moment where I was thinking about a few things," he says. "The world today, for whatever reason, it's kind of crazy. It's kind of on fire but it's not a peaceful fire. The fire these days can burn people, can burn humanity, can burn the soul of people. But Aguas is one of the important elements. We face a lot of problems with water on the planet and people don't even think about this. Why? Because we spend time worrying about social media but not the fundamental things. How we going to feed ourselves in a healthy way? Clean water is fundamental. Everything needs water. We are born out of water. We don't really put our attention to this. With this project and the project before, Transparent Water (2013) with Seckou Keita and musicians from China, Japan, Venezuela, it was the same philosophy."

And, as he describes it, it's a philosophy bound up with Santeria.

"We pay tribute to our tradition because in Santeria we have a different religion, different gods, who represent the elements. Oshun represents the river and the clean water that we drink and Yemayá represents the sea that surrounds us and the entire planet. We pay tribute to our Orishas and to Mother Nature, to thank them in the best way we can, which is to make music and, at the same time, we try to tell people, 'Hey, guys! Water is going to be the most expensive thing in ten or fifteen years. It's not going to be Brexit or independence for Catalan. It's not going to be Donald Trump with his crazy ideas. It's going to be water, man.' And with climate change, a lot of places will go under and one of them is going to be London. New York is going to go out. So guys, let's pay attention to Mother Nature and being true with the elements."

The idea of representing the elements musically is, of course, nothing new. Handel's Water Music, Debussy's La Mer, Vaughan Williams' Symphony No.1 and French Baroque composer Jean- Féry Rebel's Les Élémens spring to mind. However, Omar Sosa's approach begins within a different set of cultural traditions.

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African Sunrise

African Sunrise

Omar Sosa
Live at FIP

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Aguas

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