Omar Sosa - Where a new world opened up


Omar Sosa remembers his first visit to Glasgow in 2000 very clearly. According to his tour schedule, he was due to play at the Tron Theatre but somewhere along the way a detail had escaped and when Sosa and his duo partner of the time, Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles fetched up in town, they discovered they were actually appearing in the Tron’s more intimate Victorian Bar, with Sosa playing a rather beat-up upright piano instead of the Steinway grand he had in mind.


“That was both fun and funny,” says the Cuban virtuoso down the line from Los Angeles, where he’s busy mixing yet another new album. “Gustavo and I looked at each other and said, okay, we’re here, we’ll just have to be professional and make something happen. I remember Gustavo had all these instruments that I don’t think I’d seen before I met him, so the audience probably wouldn’t have seen them before either, and we just started playing and having a good time. It was a powerful moment.”


It was indeed. With Sosa in the white robes that would become a familiar trademark, teasing magic from an unprepossessing instrument, the gig became one of these occasions when the small number of people present – around thirty – somehow grows into hundreds as time passes. The promoter, the late Billy Kelly, kept meeting people afterwards who congratulated him on his latest discovery and who he was pretty sure hadn’t actually been there on the night in question. But this worked in both Sosa and Kelly’s favour: when Sosa returned the following year, with a fantastic octet this time, Kelly booked the Tron Theatre proper and promptly sold out the concert.


That first night was the beginning of a special relationship. Kelly had assured Sosa after the Victorian Bar gig that he would try his damnedest to build him an audience. No other promoter in the UK had taken a chance on the Cuban, whose music has elements of salsa and son but goes far beyond these styles into both the African roots of Cuban music and a kind of hugely soulful, futuristic jazz aesthetic. Kelly, whose ability to spot special talent has ensured that, five years on from his death, he’s still sorely missed, would become, as Sosa says with warmth that comes clearly down the transatlantic phone line, “my mentor, no question.”


It was Kelly’s ambition after Sosa’s first visit to have him play to a full house at the Old Fruitmarket within five years, so Sosa’s appearance at the venue as part of Celtic Connections’ celebrations of Kelly’s legacy, on the fifth anniversary of the promoter’s death, has a special significance for the Cuban.


“We’ll be dedicating the concert to Billy,” he says. “After that first gig he brought me back every year until 2006, when he arranged my first tour of Scotland, and I want to thank him for all the beautiful experiences he made possible but most of all I want to thank him for believing in this crazy Cuban who never brought the same band twice. He understood that I have all these different ideas about people I want to work with – as musicians, we owe it to ourselves to try every possibility that comes along – and he believed in my music enough to accommodate that, and that takes a special person.”


Sosa’s subsequent Glasgow dates included a return to the duo format, this time with Sufi singer and oud player Dhafer Youssef, and possibly the highlight of the Kelly years, the night Sosa, the late Cuban percussionist Miguel ‘Anga’ Diaz and the brilliant guembri (or bass oud) player and singer El Houssaine Kili, from Morocco, transformed the unlikely setting of Glasgow Royal Concert Hall’s exhibition hall into the hippest world music-jazz club on the planet.


Coincidentally and without knowing about the connection, Sosa was also to hook up with another of Kelly’s protégés, Sardinian trumpeter Paolo Fresu, whose quintet toured Scotland for Kelly in 2004, following a meeting that was, in its own way, as memorable as the Victorian Bar gig.


“Paolo runs a jazz festival on Sardinia every year and he invited me to play a solo piano concert there, outside this church high up on a mountain,” says Sosa. “We hadn’t played together before but it’s a lovely place and I was just sitting there onstage, playing piano on this beautiful afternoon when suddenly I heard a trumpet playing along with me. I could hear it but I couldn’t see it and then I caught a gleam of light coming from just to my left – and it’s Paolo, playing a duet with me half-way up this tree. Crazy.”


The duo’s first album, Alma, has just been released hard on the heels of Sosa’s previous recording, the solo piano, Grammy-nominated Calma (take heed: he’s a fabulous musician but keeping up with him isn’t easy – or cheap) and just a few months ahead of the one he’s mixing as we speak, Eggun, which features the quintet he’s bringing to Glasgow this weekend. Eggun translates from Yoruba as “ancestors” and while the music it features reflects the computer age, it’s dedicated to the spirits of those who have departed, having contributed to Afro-Cuban music’s rich legacy.


“I’m calling this band Afreelectric,” he says, “because we use samplers and electronics but the music is also true to the Afro-Cuban tradition. I’m really excited about it because I have two old friends, drummer Marque Gilmore and bassist Childo Tomas, who I’ve worked with a lot and are almost like family, and two newer acquaintances, Leandro Saint-Hill on saxophone and Joo Strauss on trumpet, who are both great players with really creative ideas. It’ll be the first time I’ve had horn players with me in Glasgow in ten years, so I think it’ll be a really special gig and a really special tribute to Billy.”


From The Herald, February 2, 2012.



Omar Sosa - Making the music come true


It’s a question straight out of a pub quiz: to which family of musical instruments does the piano belong? Omar Sosa has no hesitation in answering, “percussion.”


The Cuban pianist, who makes his Edinburgh Jazz Festival debut this year, has a well-earned reputation for producing exciting concerts, where his hands become a blur as he trades rhythms and phrases with his drummer. He can play with extraordinary delicacy, too, creating melodies like the most sensitive love songs. When Sosa gets into percussion mode, however, it’s best to fasten your seatbelts.


“You hit the key and the hammer hits the string. The end is melodic but the means is entirely percussive,” he says with an air of friendly certainty to back up his answer. “I was a percussionist before I became a pianist and the only thing that’s changed, really, is the instrument.”


Sosa was actually a child prodigy on marimba, the African xylophone, in his home town, Camaguey, Cuba’s largest inland city. He studied at Camaguey’s Escuela Provincial de Musica between the ages of five and twelve, then progressed to the national music school in Havana. There, in his mid-teens, he needed a second instrument, so he chose piano.


“I’m a late starter compared to Mozart and all these great composers who were creating major works when they were still children,” he says. “But I’m glad I did it this way. When I started playing piano, I listened a lot to Chopin – I still do. But then I heard Chick Corea and Keith Jarrett, McCoy Tyner and Thelonious Monk. I knew the great Cuban pianists like Ruben Gonzalez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, naturally, but it was Monk who showed me that the piano is an African instrument.”


Africa is Sosa’s spiritual home. At a time when Cuban music still enjoys huge popularity partly due to the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon, to say nothing of salsa dancing’s enduring appeal, he could cash in by playing the dance music card. He knows salsa and son intimately from his time as musical director to popular Cuban singer Vicente Feliu. But he prefers to dig deeper into the music that the African diaspora brought to the island and has made field trips to Morocco, Burkina Faso and Senegal to study with local musicians.  


“People ask as why we don’t play salsa and I tell them, we can but we just want to approach it from a different direction,” he says. “I love Cuban music and Cuban musicians. They’re my heart. But my brain is Cecil Taylor. One of my hands is Frederick Chopin, the other is Thelonious Monk, and I want people to hear my whole body.”


The group he’s bringing to Edinburgh features Mozambican bassist-vocalist Childo Tomas and Senegalese percussionist-vocalist Mola Sylla. Sosa describes this as a trio-plus, the plus being the audience.


“We can practise to make sure it’s right ‘upstairs’ in our heads but where it matters is ‘downstairs’ when the audience and us play together,” he says. “We play the instruments but it’s the audience who make the music come true.”


From Edinburgh Festivals Magazine, Summer 2008.


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