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An evening with Omar

Tuesday, May 27, 2014
Omar Sosa claims Chopin, Bartok and Satie along with Monk, Coltrane, Parker, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea as some of his early influences. PHOTO:  ANDREA DE SILVA

I’m on a mission spanning more than 15 years. It began last century in Martinique, meeting Cuban colossus of the keyboards Chucho Valdes at breakfast and picked up in Havana, where he’d invited to me to the Jazz Plaza festival. 


From those days I’ve been eating, dreaming, dancing, singing and even listening to every scrap of Cuban music available from Peruchin, Ernesto Lecuona, Arsenio Rodriguez, Beny More, Omara Portuondo to countless others. Briefly—I’m insatiable, can’t get enough. Exiled in London at the beginning of the new millennium, it was live Cuban gigs which sustained me through long melancholic winters. 


Circa 2004 I went to hear my favourite Malians—Toumnai Diabate on kora, playing with the late king of the African Blues, Ali Farka Toure, at London’s Barbican Centre. Sharing the bill that night was a slim Cuban santero on piano, accompanied by another favourite and old acquaintance from Martinique Jazz days: another late great—conguero Miguel “Anga” Diaz. I’ve never recovered from that sublime set—Omar Sosa floating searing melodies, summoning spirits like a Vodou oungan, with motifs to weep for, over Anga’s polyrhythms, propelled by his six conga drums. 


His 2005 album Mulatos, featuring Cuban maestro Paquito D’Rivera on sax, became my London soundtrack, a constant companion addressing dislocation, pain and loss, yet suffused with all the redemptive healing power of the ancestors—a perfect paean to the human condition.


Returning to the Caribbean, I plagued every festival programmer, promoter and anyone who would listen, to bring Omar to the Caribbean. A difficult task as he’s been based in Barcelona since 2001 and when he’s not in Catalonia he’s on a permanent world tour. This muchacho is muy caliente y sabroso. And so as the Chinese book of divination puts it: perseverance brings success, and finally Omar made it to this year’s St Lucia Jazz and Arts Festival.


No way he was going to be on island and I wouldn’t get to meet him. Honeymooning, I took my newlywed along for the interview—con mucho corazon. We traversed the length of the island to rendezvous in the far north exclusive resort of Cotton Bay Village. The taxi deposited us inside an apparently uninhabited gated compound; no sign of reception. Consulting the evening breeze, we turned into a pathway and within seven steps encountered two men approaching. Even without his white santero robes and Afghan headpiece I was immediately able to identify and greet the duo: “Omar Sosa, I presume. And you must be his manager, Scott Price.” 


The rest of the evening into night segued into a conversation, attended by the ancestors and animated by Omar’s warmth, lucidity and humour, well lubricated by a bottle of his favourite Bandita red wine. 


“When I get to places like this I feel home,” he began expansively, his neck and wrist festooned with the coloured beads of the Orishas; a small tuft of hair perched on one side of his otherwise shaved head. 


“If you know the taste of mango, you know one of the best flavours of the creator,” he continued, eyes brimming with the succulence he still craves after years in Europe. 


He needs no prompting, acutely attuning to my unspoken questions: “My gift is music; Santeria brought me to a level where I can translate what my ancestors say. They brought me (both to this place St Lucia, and success).” 


Talk inevitably shifts to a shared obsession: Cuban pianists, particularly my old amigo Chucho Valdes. “One of my heroes and friends,” he echoes, recalling a project he worked on last year as a tribute to Chucho’s father Bebo. 


“With Chucho we all learnt what was happening with contemporary Cuban music.He was one of the first to combine traditional Afro-Cuban music with Jazz,” he continues reverently. 


“When I heard his Misa Negra (a Santeria take on the Roman Catholic mass) when I was young I said; ‘One day I’m going to play this music.”


Although raised in a Catholic family led by his philosopher/Marxist historian father, Omar’s grandfather, Julio Palacio, was a Santeria devotee and at around the same age (11 or 12) that he first heard Misa Negra, he was intuitively drawn to Santeria music: “I wanted to dance.”


His musical training however, began with the study of Classical percussion and the marimba (a wooden version of the vibraphones, similar to the African balafon) at the conservatory in his home town Camaguey, the foundation for his teenage piano studies first at Havana’s Escuela National and subsequently at the Instituto Superior de Arte. 


Almost insouciantly, he detonates the first bomb of the night, with his confession: “I’m not a piano player. I consider myself a percussionist who likes to play the piano.” 


With this Omar touches on a truism of Cuban musicianship—all instrumentalists are thoroughly trained in percussion—a rhythmic and melodic ground zero; additionally they are also trained in the Western Classical as well as Cuban folkloric and Jazz traditions. This accounts for Cuban musicians’ facility in moving easily between genres, beyond the labels which often constrain both western trained classical musicians and North American jazz players. “In Cuba we have strong western roots but we’re 60 per cent African.” 


With this heritage in mind, it’s hardly surprising that among his formative influences he includes Chopin, Bartok and Satie along with Monk, Coltrane, Parker, Oscar Peterson, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. His catholic tastes and disregard for labels account for his eclectic work as a composer. He’s produced orchestral works like the 2001-2, three movement From Our Mother suite for symphony orchestra; the 2009 Oda Africana commissioned by the Spanish town of Girona and the 2012 tribute album Eggun, commissioned by the Barcelona Jazz festival to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis’ definitive Kind of Blue album.


Viewing jazz as “a mix of classical music with a little bit of Africa” and “a philosophy of freedom”, has led to many collaborations with African, Arabic, European, Indian, Latin and North American musicians and 22 albums recorded since 1997, ranging from the fusion of jazz, classical new music, ambient and electronica of the Latin Grammy nominated 2011 Calma, to the 2012 Alma recorded with Italian trumpeter Paolo Frescu and Brazilian conductor/arranger/cellist Jacques Morelenbaum. 


Now approaching 50, Omar retains a remarkably simple and humble approach to life and music. “I learnt this through the ancestors and the music. Any strong emotion, event, goes into our DNA. Everything was written and we all have our own book of life. The ancestors ask for honour and respect; they need to receive a message of thanks, otherwise they can’t communicate.” 


Daily meditation and yoga aid in maintaining his communication with the ancestors but again there’s insouciance in his claim: “There’s no mystery behind Cuban music, if you look at your roots and learn.” Like the blind tres player Arsenio Ridriguez, who incorporated the rhythm of the conga drum in his strings, launching Afro-Cuban son, the progenitor of salsa, Omar knows where he’s from and why: “I’m in the place that I am because of my heritage.”


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