A prolific collaborator who has travelled extensively since leaving his Cuban homeland, Omar Sosa talks to Jane Cornwell about his fact-finding tour of East Africa and his new album, which sees him collaborate with some of the region’s leading folkloric musicians
Omar Sosa (photo: Massimo Mantovani)
Afro-Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa has always been a seeker, an artist driven to explore African musical cultures and their connections to his own ancestral roots. Along the way he has linked the traditional and contemporary, the acoustic and electronic, with forward-thinking solo work and collaborations with musicians from Latin America and across the African diaspora. “Most of the Cuban music people know about is from the 1940s onwards,” says the Camagüey-born award-winner, Zooming from his home in Barcelona. “But if we look deeper there are cultural and musical reminders from so many different places in Africa. I want to give them attention, bring them together in one place.”
That place is his back catalogue, which teems with over 30 recordings, the majority released on his own OTA label. Albums such as 2002’s Grammy-nominated Sentir, a tribute to the Santería orisha Elegguá, or 2016’s Eros, one of several discs to feature Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, might equally be filed under jazz or global.
All, however, are imbued with a sense of space and a flowing sensuality variously informed by Sosa’s profound spirituality, a grounding in classical music (“the way I play harmony owes much to composers like Ravel and Scarlatti”) and the much-proved conviction that music is indeed a common language.
Recent releases, including 2017’s Transparent Water (with Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita), and 2018’s Aguas (with Cuban violinist-singer Yilian Cañizares), each sparked long and wildly successful international tours. Now comes An East African Journey, a cross-cultural adventure that, in these especially restrictive times, offers a welcome wealth of new discoveries and, at the very least, a soundtrack for metaphorical escape.
An East African Journey began back in late 2009, when, on the back of his 2008 album Afreecanos, and in a trio format featuring Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla and Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas, Sosa embarked on a French-sponsored concert tour of eight Alliance Française venues across East Africa. Along the way he met and collaborated with some of East Africa’s most significant folkloric musicians, recording the results on portable digital equipment.
An accompanying French film crew made Souvenirs d’Afrique, a 52-minute documentary of Sosa’s experiences, directed by Olivier Taïeb. And then… Well, nothing. “These interviews were in the archive in a bottom drawer for several years,” says the drummer Steve Argüelles, Sosa’s long-time producer. “We’d occasionally take them out and have a listen. Then we really got to work in 2018.”
More than a decade after the original sessions, aided by Argüelles on drums and percussion and with French multi-instrumentalist Christophe ‘Disco’ Minck (who also performed on Afreecanos) adding keyboard-bass and analogue electronics, Sosa carried out the final, less-is-more recording and mixing in a studio near Pigalle in Paris. The sessions were completed in two days. “We decided to embrace the flower because it was already beautiful,” smiles Sosa, who added his finishing touches on a lived-in 1873 Steinway. His notes emerge subtly, sensually, from the silences, framing traditional recordings whose riches are almost palpable.
Among them, Burundi singer-songwriter Steven Sogo, a virtuoso on the umuduri bow. From Kenya, Olith Ratego, a singer and player of the nyatiti, a stringed plucked bowl yoke lute. From Mauritius, percussionist-vocalist Menwar, whose take on traditional séga blues music features spoken-word elements in Creole and the ravanne, a frame drum made of goatskin that is heated before playing. “Menwar had a [Yamaha] MOTIF keyboard in his studio near the beach. We had a musical conversation, which was the point with all the artists, who brought their melodies, their traditional message. It’s like a basketball game,” adds Sosa, a man given to analogies. “I pass to you, you pass to another and so on. Menwar and I improvised a song we called ‘Ravanne Meets Jazz’.”
Elsewhere among the album’s 13 tracks are artists from Ethiopia, Madagascar, Sudan and Zambia, each contributing one or more compositions either used whole or as a jumping point for more in-depth musical discussion.
In a library in Lusaka, Zambia, elder Abel Ntalasha – formerly of the Zambia National Dance Troupe – sings in Lenje, a Bantu language, of a youth who plays his kalumbu through the night to let his parents know he wants to marry.
In Addis Ababa, at a small theatre at the Alliance Ethio-Française, the ethnomusicologist and krar (five-string lyre) virtuoso Seleshe Damessae uses a complex vocal styling, delivered in Amharic, on ‘Tizeta’ to tell of beautiful Ethiopian women. On ‘Che Che’ he switches to the regional Oromo language to imitate a horse’s rhythmic gallop.
“You know, when I was 18, the Cuban army sent me to Ethiopia,” says Sosa in his scratchy, animated way. “I discovered a lot of things musically, and that country got into my heart and soul. When I got the opportunity to tour there in 2009, I called my manager and said ‘We have to find a way to record there!’ This is how it began.”
Omar Sosa with krar player Seleshe Damessae (photo: Patrick Destandeau)
“Most people, when they think of African instruments, think of instruments from West Africa like the djembé, kora and talking drum. They don’t realise that some East African music has Arabic modes. It was so fascinating for me to find similarities and connections. If you close your eyes you can hear Moroccan choirs, for example. You can hear the choreography of Indian ragas. The kalumbu of Zambia is very like the Brazilian berimbau. For this reason we will have a berimbau player with us if and when we tour.”
Fascinating, too, for Sosa was the comparative lack of knowledge about his own country – let alone about Cuban music. “Nothing. Nada.” He flashes a smile. “Most people hadn’t even heard of Cuba, except in places like Ethiopia or among artists such as [well-known Malagasy valiha player] Rajery, who I already knew and who tours internationally. Sometimes I would play Afro-Cuban rhythms and they’d say ‘But this is music from Nigeria!’”
Officials at the airport in Khartoum, Sudan – the home of multi-instrumentalist Dafaalla Elhag Ali, head of the Sudanese Traditional Music Centre and a member of the Sudanese National Band for Traditional Instruments – initially failed to grasp that they were there to play music, despite negotiations by the Centre Culturel Français. “When my keyboard with effects pedals and cables went through the scanners they thought it was a bomb. There was chaos! We waited for hours in immigration, where no one spoke English, French or Spanish, trying to tell the police we were musicians. Eventually we played some drum rhythms, and they understood. Ah! Music!” Another smile. “Music as a weapon of mass consciousness,” he says.
Omar Sosa in Khartoum trying out the adingo (photo: Patrick Destandeau)
There are other projects in the works. Sosa has already returned to West Africa – via a studio in the remote German countryside – with Seckou Keita and Steve Argüelles to record the follow-up to Transparent Water, which is scheduled for release later this year.
“Africa is a big, big continent. There are so many different sounds and traditions and I want to study every single area in a way that feels natural and organic and open hearted. I want to express the difference between West and East Africa.”
“With An East African Journey I wanted to look at tradition and then add touches that functioned like a bridge, letting the music breathe out.” Sosa exhales happily. “It’s about the freedom that comes when different worlds meet and share connections. That’s what I want my music to do.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of Songlines. Never miss an issue – subscribe today