The Swing of a Black Planet

A Cuban-born pianist based in Spain mixes the sacred and secular, bridges continents

The Middle Passage—that terrible, triangular trade of black, brown, and beige men, women, and children of Africa—dispersed an infinite variety of gods, dances, instruments, chants, and musical forms to the New World. In the United States, Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic those far-flung sounds became the soundtracks of our civilization: jazz, Latin jazz, rumba, tango, samba, bomba y plena, and meringue. Though they all spring from the same sub-Saharan source, these complex and often confounding genres test any musician who tries to blend them into a unifying whole. But since the latter half of the '90s, and at the beginning of this century, the Cuban-born, Spain-based pianist-composer Omar Sosa has met that challenge.

History offers numerous examples of musicians exploring their ancestral roots to find their voice. The Hungarian composer Béla Bartók made field recordings of folk music in the Balkans, North Africa, and Turkey. In Brazil, Heitor Villa-Lobos traveled down the Amazon and recorded the music of that country's indigenous peoples. Sosa is cut from the same cloth, but his musical conception is on a broader scale. Born on April 10, 1965, in Camagüey, Cuba, the conservatory-trained Sosa, who grew up on folkloric, classical, and jazz musics, moved to Ecuador in 1993, relocated to Mallorca, Spain, and wound up in Oakland, California. In his travels, Sosa worked with Cuban singer Martha Galarraga, the San Francisco conguero John Santos, D.C. rapper Sub-Z, and Moroccan vocalist-multi-instrumentalist El Houssaine Kili. Sosa incorporated the Ecuadoran marimba, the Venezuelan bamboo sticks called quitiplas, cylindrical culo'e puya drums, and the ancient bass-like guembri of Morocco's Afro-Islamic Gnawa musicians into his ever evolving conception.

Since 1997, Sosa has released 10 critically acclaimed CDs, all on the Bay Area-based Otá label. His latest, Pictures of Soul, is a duet recording with the brilliant but underrated Chicago percussionist Adam Rudolph, who co-founded the Mandingo Griot Society and has worked with saxophonist-flutist Yusef Lateef. On the CD's 16 tracks, Rudolph plays a staggering array of instruments—from the conga, dumbek, and the gong to the djembe, tabla, and tarija. The sessions were totally spontaneous, like Herbie Hancock's early-'60s Blue Note Afro-Cuban album, Inventions and Dimensions. In the Motherland-pulsed "Kachirumba," the kalimba-cadenced "Kiss of the Rain," and the avant-abstractions of "Intermezzo," Sosa's pianisms evoke distant echoes of McCoy Tyner's power, Keith Jarrett's improvisational flights of fancy, and Thelonious Monk's angular harmonies, transforming the piano into 88 well-tuned drums, which beautifully counterpoint Rudolph's Afro-Eurasian evocations.

He meets the challenge.
photo: Juan Ferreras
He meets the challenge.

Sosa's 2003 solo piano recording, A New Life, reveals his contemplative side. Its airy and Chopin-tinged impressionism and spare, electronic echoes recall George Winston's December and Bill Evans's Conversations With Myself. The CD's Afro-Latin feel comes from plucked piano strings and is percussively illuminated by Sosa manually striking the keyboard case and different parts of the piano—as evidenced by the imagined brushstrokes of "Crash de la Tierra," the native dances of "Danzón de los Indios," and the ethereal "Nacimiento," a song paced by the prenatal heartbeat of Sosa's newborn son recorded by ultrasound in utero.

Sosa's most recent ensemble recording is Ayaguna (2003) a live, multimedia recording from Japan with Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles, which captures the heat Sosa, who performs in white, generates in person; it's got new versions of the clave-coded "Toridanzón" and "Africa Madre Viva," plus a bonus video track, "Iwayo," produced by the London VJs Marc Silver and Nick Hillel. Prietos (2001) and the even stronger, Grammy-nominated Sentir (2002) feature Sosa's most complex, large-ensemble, multilingual selections: "Azul Yemanyá," "Blanco en Africa," and "The Sleeping Lion" combine Arabic, Portuguese, and Spanish lyrics with English, which sometimes clashes with the beauty of the Romance languages. But in an era that finds the Hispanic population pacing African Americans in the United States, Sosa's syncretic musical worldview is a welcome mix of the sacred and secular, offering an aural representation of our sepia-toned, syncopated citizenship.

 
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