Cuban pianist, marimbist and composer Omar Sosa plays up and down the tree of music, sounding its deepest African roots and the greenest buds in its ever-spreading canopy. Every note summons listeners to a joyful ceremony of communion.
“I don’t want to impress anybody,” Sosa says, adding with his ready, infectious laugh that “there are too many good piano players in the world. I want to play what I feel. I want to play what touches me. I always say, if something in the music touches me, maybe it can touch somebody [else].”
On Thursday Omar Sosa’s Afreecanos—with Mola Sylla (vocals, m’bira, xalam, kongoman), Childo Tomas (electric bass, kalimba, vocals) and Marque Gilmore (drums, vocals)—will conduct the ceremony at the Outpost.
For Sosa—who grew up in Camagüey, Cuba, and trained at the Escuela Nacional de Música and the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana—music is an exercise in translation. “In a way, every time I write music, I feel a message that comes through me. The only thing I do is try to translate this. I’m a religious person. For me, the music is like a prayer, is like going to church. ... Every single melody, in my opinion, is one way to God.”
Religious he is, but not solemn. Sosa’s music celebrates and soothes through lambent melodies, intense rhythms and richly expressive harmonies that open onto a space richer, wider and deeper than the everyday.
We need to smile in this life,” says Sosa. “Life is full of many hard and dark things. The more fun we have, the more clarity we are going to have to see things.
He draws on a wide variety of traditions and styles—jazz, hip-hop, trance, Brazilian, classical, electronic, et cetera—which he blends into an unselfconscious and instantly identifiable sound that is at once rustic and urban, folkloric and progressive. His 2008 release Afreecanos (Otá Records), for example, uses 21 musicians from five continents on ancient and modern instruments. Across the Divide (Half Note Records), released in 2009, seamlessly combines West African traditions and church music from Maine. His latest release, Ceremony (Otá Records), places his quartet and polytraditional music in an orchestral context with the renowned NDR Bigband.
Working with such a wide array of material and musicians is predicated on Sosa’s trust in his colleagues. “As long as you feel the soul of somebody, the only thing you need to do is to let him do whatever he feels. Freedom is one of the most important things we need to find in humanity. Justice, freedom and peace—and love behind this.”
“In a way, they are kind of yin and yang,” Sosa says, laughing. “One guy on the crazy side, the other guy on the peaceful side. ... Monk in a way is the Picasso of the music. Every time I hear Monk I feel myself free. He developed his own language. The other thing I like about Monk is his percussive side. His melody was Cubist, but his rhythm was more African.”
As for Satie—“He’s slow, he’s space, he’s melody, but in the same time, he gets this complex harmony and this crazy intellectual touch,” he says.
One thing all three share is a disarming sense of humor. “We need to smile in this life,” says Sosa. “Life is full of many hard and dark things. The more fun we have, the more clarity we are going to have to see things. Sometimes when we are angry, we don’t see anything in front of our faces. The only thing we see is problems, and of course, life is a problem. But besides this problem, when the sun comes, this is not a problem, this is a blessing, man.”