In a career spanning more than 20 years and two dozen recordings, Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa has methodically constructed a distinctive style. It draws from many sources, including Impressionist composers such as Ravel and Debussy, Cuban pianist Rubén González — an old master who found international fame late in life with the Buena Vista Social Club — and jazz icon Thelonious Monk.
But what truly sets Sosa’s music apart is his broad pan-African approach, in which hip-hop is treated as a dialect of Cuban rumba and North African rhythms can turn seamlessly into a Brazilian groove. In blurring borders and traditions, mixing new technologies and ancient instruments, Sosa often seems to be attempting nothing less than to connect the various expressions of the African diaspora in the New World — and to link all of them to their African source. Renewal here comes from thinking forward and looking back.
It’s an approach that has now brought Sosa back to where he started: the classic styles of Cuban music, his old neighborhood and a childhood friendship. The result is his new album, Ilé.
“The title sums up everything I wanted to say. Ilé, in Lucumí [a Yoruba dialect] means ‘home,’” Sosa said recently. But going back to Cuban music tradition has nothing to do with nostalgia. It’s about paying a debt. “It’s about gratitude,” he says.
Sosa and his Quarteto Afro-Cubano perform Saturday at The Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse in Wynwood. The concert, presented by Miami Light Project and FUNDarte, is the closing event of this year’s Global Cuba Fest.
The Quarteto Afro-Cubano features longtime collaborator Childo Tomas, from Mozambique, on bass; Leandro Saint-Hill on saxes and flute, and Sosa’s childhood friend Ernesto Simpson on drums.
Simpson and Sosa, who celebrates his 50th birthday on Friday, have known each other since they were 5 years old. They grew up in Camaguey playing baseball, going to the beach together and spending vacations at each other’s homes. By the 1980s, their music careers took them in separate directions. Simpson, who Sosa notes “had always been very advanced and even early on played with people like [trumpeter] Arturo Sandoval,” left Cuba in 1998.
Meanwhile Sosa worked as a keyboardist and musical director with Cuban vocalists such as Vicente Feliu and Xiomara Laugart, touring and recording in places as diverse as Angola, Congo, Nicaragua, Ethiopia, Spain and México. In 1993, he moved to Quito, and two years later, to the San Francisco Bay area. In 1999, he settled in Barcelona, where he still resides.
When the old friends reconnected for a performance in Spain two years ago, it made the pianist “look at our experiences and think about how that music we grew up listening to would sound now, played by us, after all we’ve lived through.”
“We literally grew up listening to the same music. I remember both of us at my house in Calle Garrido, in Camaguey, listening to whatever records we could get in those days on my old RCA Victor record player. We couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old. And that’s how it all started for us.
Leaving Cuba opened unexpected views into the culture of Africa and its diaspora.
“In Cuba, black history is all around you — in the religion, in the music, in the food, you name it — but it’s all so close that you don’t appreciate it,” Sosa says. But when he arrived in Ecuador and was introduced to the culture of the Afro-Ecuadorians from the Esmeraldas region on the northern coast, it was an eye-opener.
“For me it was like, ‘Wait a minute, this is very close to what we have back home, but we don’t know about them and they have no idea about us. What’s going on here?’ And from then on, it became an obsession. Now, there is nothing I do that doesn’t have its roots in Africa.”
Meanwhile, Simpson, after living in Miami and New York, ended up settling in London.
“I would see his name in festival programs all over Europe. He was very busy, very active,” says Sosa. “It’s crazy, but in all these years, we never played together. It’s only now, at 50, that we get to play. About two years ago, I needed a last-minute replacement for my drummer, I thought of him and said ‘Why not?’ Miraculously, the schedules worked out — and it was so easy, it felt so natural. So right then and there I told him that we needed to do something to give thanks for the tradition, for what we learned as kids, the musical experiences we’ve had.”
Ilé not only features the quartet but also several guests, not all of them Cuban, and pre-recorded samples. The album includes Sosa’s takes on conga, bolero, mambo and cha cha chá as well as four improvised interludes built around African field recordings.
A lyrical player with a forceful but elegant touch, Sosa readily concedes that competing in technique with the dazzling, fast-and-faster young Cuban pianists coming up “might be a problem,” he says, breaking into a hearty laugh. “But what we do have and bring to the music are scars — the scars in our soul, in our feelings, in our mind — and because of them, every note tells a story.”
The Miami Herald, April, 2015