PARIS, 16 November
2004—Omar Sosa's genre-bending music incorporates—although he owns
neither a cell phone nor a computer—electronically effected decay, warp,
echo, and phasing accompanying middle-eastern scales, a rock backbeat, a
walking bass, African percussion, Yoruban incantations, Moroccan drums,
strings, Cuban montunos, and an Australian didgeridoo.
Born and raised in Cuba, the composer,
pianist, and bandleader emigrated from the island after marrying his second
wife, who was of French, American, and Ecuadorian ancestry. Sosa learned to
speak hip-hop-accented English in Oakland, California, where he was granted a
green card and still records. Now he lives with his third wife, a Spaniard, in
Barcelona ("a good city"). "When you need to move on, you move on," he
explained. "The love moves with you. My spirit moves with me." They have a son,
and a daughter is on the way.
"Mulatos" (Otá Records/Night
& Day), Sosa's 14th album in eight years, to be released on Monday,
features an Indian tabla drum, a North African oud, and the renowned Cuban jazz
clarinetist Paquito d'Rivera. "Mulatos" has more space, less purely ethnic
elements, and it is more romantic and complex and less commercial than Sosa's
previous recordings. As always, his jazz roots are deep, though the style keeps
getting more contemporary. Jazz is a common denominator between the musics of
Musicians with Sosa's multi-racial, multi-national credentials
tend to have their love of, and influence by, jazz in common. Recently, his
cheeks were "wet with tears" reading a book about the making of John Coltrane's
spiritual album "A Love Supreme." "Music is the purest art," he said. "It does
not need to be described. It just is. But there is less and less spirituality
in music. That is one reason I cried reading about 'A Love Supreme.'" Starting,
coincidentally or not, roughly at the time of Coltrane's death in 1967,
thousands of foreign music students have come to hundreds of American jazz
schools to learn the history and the vocabulary of "America's native music."
Some of them went back home to start similar programs in such cities as Porto,
Helsinki, Istanbul, Paris, Trondheim, and Tel Aviv. Musicians from around the
world have been mixing their acquired jazz culture with their native traditions
for more than 35 years. The music goes round and round.
Sosa said that
his music is a direct expression of the spirituality that comes from Santeria,
a Cuban religion with mixed African and Christian influences. Santeria holds
that your ancestors speak directly to you. Wearing his religion's amulets,
chains and bracelets, he had the lean intensity of a true disciple:
"Spirituality includes being able to receive messages from the other world. I
sincerely believe this."
Photo courtesy of Ota
Composing a symphony
for the Oakland Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, he began when he was
"given" a B-flat. It came directly from his ancestors. He knew immediately that
it was B-flat, even though he does not have perfect pitch. He then wrote the
work quickly, with a pen not a pencil (he composes music the old-fashioned way,
on paper), and, he said: "I don't remember doing it. It was like a visitation."
The first time he performed outside the US, in Athens, Greece, a 12
year-old girl came into the club with her mother, and they sat at a table close
to the stage. The girl requested one of his songs—her mother later
explained that she'd heard it on the internet. "She listened and listened,"
Sosa recalled. "It was a simple tune with only three notes. She was crying, I
could see her tears. How just three notes can move somebody so much is a
Sosa, who is 38, respects gray hair—to the point of
almost wishing he had it already. Gray hair implies wisdom to him. Wisdom was
the first thing he noticed about Richard Avedon when the photographer took his
picture for the New Yorker magazine last year. The occasion was Sosa's
performance during the opening weekend of Zankel Hall, the new chamber space in
Carnegie Hall. "Richard heard my music and he liked it," he said: "And when he
took my picture he told me something deep—that I should make sure to do
everything I possibly can as long as I still have life in me. Only the spirit
can give you enough force to endure for an entire lifetime.
forget, I was born in Cuba. When I say that, it means there were a lot of
problems. My religion gave me the force, and the music is the message. I light
a candle and put it in the piano when I perform —even in Carnegie Hall.
This is my personal way to summon the spirits. Some people take heroin to
communicate with their spirituality. I prefer to light candles."
Omar Sosa Web Site
Mike Zwerin has
been jazz and
rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He
is currently writing a book called "The Parisian Jazz Chronicles : An Improvisational
Memoir" for Yale University Press and he is the jazz editor of
Culturekiosque.com. Zwerin who has lived in France for 33 years, was promoted
recently from 'Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres' to 'Officier de
l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres" by the French Minister of Culture.