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World Music Features

Omar Sosa

By Mike Greenblatt
Published June 3, 2008

Cuban-born pianist and composer Omar Sosa has made a career out of fusing Latin music with jazz, but his latest album Afreecanos marks a significant leap forward, bringing together musicians from all over Africa, Cuba, Brazil and France. From his home in Barcelona, he talks about the rich heritage of African music and his ultimate plan to bring an international aesthetic to the big band sound.

Cuban-born pianist Omar Sosa is a very religious man—a holy man, even. As a practitioner of the Afro-Caribbean Santería religion, he understands the importance of celebrating—and communicating with—his ancestors. And while most of those on his spiritual hotline are family (his grandfather and great-grandfather, for starters), he also reaches out to Count Basie, Don Pullen and, as he puts it, “the generation of great Cuban musicians I grew up on, like Machito and Lili Martinez. I channel these spirits. I have no control over it. I go with the music and whatever happens, it’s there!”

 

After 11 years and 18 albums, there’s still virtually no telling where Sosa’s music will go. Salsa, jazz, hip-hop, new age, folk, soul—whatever the style, it’s all one big beautiful montage of sound that Sosa filters through his adventurous, percussive and eclectic piano-playing, which owes as much to Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor as it does to Thelonious Monk (after whom Sosa named his son) and singer Pacho Alonso’s legendary band. But in the end, it all comes out pure Sosa.

 

“Everything is about cosmic energy,” gushes the pianist. “It’s something we cannot touch but it’s there. You cannot ‘touch’ love, but it’s there inside of you, right? And you spread it. What I do is listen—rock ’n roll, everything!—so when I write, I put no door in front of my soul. I just go and write from within. Sometimes it’s a ballad, sometimes it’s stream-of-consciousness or maybe salsa.”

 

Born in 1965 in Camaguey, Cuba, Sosa studied percussion at the local conservatory there before he moved to Havana, where he took up the piano at Cuba’s National School of Music. At 28, he left Cuba for Quito, Ecuador, and never looked back. “When I go back to Cuba now,” he says softly, “I don’t even feel myself as a Cuban anymore. I’m a tourist.” After soaking up Ecuadorian folk music (heavy on the marimba), he moved to San Francisco in 1995. He now lives in Barcelona, Spain, and hopes to move soon to Brazil. “Once you’re an immigrant, you’re always an immigrant,” Sosa says. “I can live anywhere in the world.”

 

With change being the only constant for an artist, the ability to adapt quickly to any situation becomes the most important aspect of a musician’s mode of expression. Sosa has always maintained a hard, syncopated chop to his playing, but early on he also developed a sense of dynamics, often augmenting his att