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Omar Sosa: Building Bridges Not Walls

Duncan Heining By

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At the same time, the music is infused with the diverse traditions of Afro-Cuban dance. Bolero on "De Habana y Otras Nostalgias" and "Sanzara" with fine piano from Sosa, milonga obviously on "Milonga," son and rumba on "O Le Le," the latter a tour de force on stage for Caňizares. This is music that one feels and that seems to reach deep inside, as if touching something one had long forgotten. "Dos Bendiciones (Two Blessings)," "Oshun" and "Sonrisas de Ninos (Children's Smiles)" are ballad features, the latter building to an outpouring of emotion. The strongest performance, however, occurs at the end of the CD with the episodic "D2 de Africa," marked by its shifts in tempo, swirling violin, powerful percussion and unusual opening syncopations from Sosa.

The sheer breadth of Sosa's output is astonishingly diverse. There are several solo piano albums, two recordings with Germany's NDR Big Band and others featuring his Quarteto AfroCubano with saxophonist Leandro Saint-Hill, drummer Ernesto Simpson—both neighbours of Sosa in Camagűey—and Mozambican bassist Childo Thomas. And, of course, there is one of Sosa' finest releases -Eggun, a reimagining of Miles Davis' Kind of Blue refracted through later recordings such as Tutu and Amandla.

Yet, many of his records share the desire to make his Afro-Cuban musical roots dance with the musics of West Africa and Morocco (Sentir, Prietos), China (Transparent Water), and, even, on Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry (2009) with Gospel and North American folk music. The quest is for connection—on the most immediate level, connection between two cultures; on a higher level, as a reaching for new possibilities and potentialities; on the deepest level, as a search for connection as something ancient and primal. It's about relationships and communication. Sentir, which bridges Afro-Cuban and Gnawan tradition, is a good example. It was essentially created in the studio but it began prior to a note being played around a table.

"It's like we do it in the African tradition," he says. "It's like a family. Let's eat together round a table. Let's see if we can click. We eat. There's a good vibe. We start talking about our traditions." To use one of his culinary metaphors—it's about the right ingredients. "If I don't have the classical jazz chops," Sosa tells me, "I know a little bit about spices and when you cook you need to put the right spices."

Sosa's musical inspirations are broad, from his studies of classical music through the Afro-Cuban masters such as saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and pianists Emiliano Salvador, Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba to Joe Zawinul, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans and, of course, Miles Davis. In his journey from traditional Afro-Cuban music and classical studies, the rhythmic aspects of jazz came easily to him. As he says, "The syncopation in jazz is not so crazy like Afro-Cuban music." However, jazz harmony with its distinctive voicings for chordal instruments was more of a problem. Here, Sosa makes a distinction between being a jazz musician and a jazz player.

"I am not a jazz player because you have a handicap with the jazz harmony. This was more difficult for me and is still—this is why I do not call myself a jazz player but I am a jazz musician based on that philosophy. I use my limitations in my favour to write and sound and be honest with myself. This what I can do but, at the same time, I try to continue to develop, to make myself a better player and have knowledge about harmony because harmony is a really big bible."

The distinction he makes between being a 'jazz musician' rather than a 'jazz player' says something about the differences he sees between those, African-American and white, musicians who have grown and are schooled within its tradition and those such as himself, who come to jazz from other musical worlds. The bridge to jazz for those from other traditions lies in embracing what he sees as the philosophy of jazz—the sense of freedom and liberation that lies at its improvisational heart.

Listening to Sosa's albums, their vision and capacity to inhabit and take from other musical worlds immediately impresses. And that surely is one of the defining characteristics of jazz -its capacity to connect with other musics but remain jazz. Yet, the spirit and heart of the man are there in everything he does. It couldn't really be anyone else but Omar Sosa. His music knows how to pray and celebrate, how to cry or laugh. Most of all, it knows how to dance.

"When you dance in circles in our tradition, it's the beginning where the drummers know that the ancestor is going to arrive. I saw Monk do this in the movie Straight No Chaser on the film. There is a moment he is starting to dance in circles. Some people say he was crazy. He wasn't—he knew what he did. I said, 'Wow! Maybe he danced just because he wanted to dance.' But this way of dancing is African in origin. I think it is our human DNA. Dance is the expression of something and when I saw Monk do this, I said, 'This is my man!' He was a percussion player. African man. In Africa, everything is resolved with dance."

Selected Discography

  • Aguas (2018) ****½ -A remarkable example of simple ingredients transformed into a culinary masterpiece.
  • Transparent Water (2017) ****½—Hard to choose between these two similarly themed records. Featuring sheng master Wu Tong, Japanese koto virtuoso Mieko Miya and Senegalese kora wizard Seckou Keita, Cuba meets West Africa on the Silk Road en route to Japan.
  • Eggun (2013) ****½ -A personal favourite—as if Kind of Blue were reimagined by Marcus Miller, featuring some fine performances from Leandro Saint-Hill, Peter Apfelbaum on tenor and soprano and Joo Kraus depping ably for Miles himself.
  • Sentir (2002) ****½ -Echoes perhaps of Randy Weston, Archie Shepp and David Murray in this jazz meets the Gnawan musical tradition, though the focus here is both more elegiac and more on a search for a shared sensibility.
  • Es:sensual (2016) **** -The better of the two discs with the NDR Big Band. As with Ceremony, arrangements from Brazilian Jaques Morelenbaum. The NDR can be a difficult, even unwilling beast to coax from its Euro-Big Band default position but here Morelenbaum has its measure.
  • Ilé (2014) **** -No need to choose between them but, of the Quarteto AfroCubano albums, this sneaks it home. Just gorgeous.
  • Across The Divide (2009) **** -The wild card in a whole pack of them. This shouldn't work on paper or in practice but truly does and a nod in the direction of the great Harlem poet Langston Hughes to boot!
  • Mulattos (2004) **** -Featuring amongst others Paquito D'Rivera on clarinet and Dhafer Youssef on oud, drummer/producer Steve Arguelles has summed this up perfectly -"It tells a story about Omar's relation to jazz, Afro-Cuban rhythms and spirituality, the piano, and a freely expressive mind."

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