Omar Sosa: “A River That Never Rests”

October 10, 2016

Cuban music has been described as a marriage (successful) between the guitar and the drum. An excellent metaphor, but not entirely accurate because they forgot to mention the piano since there are few countries who have pianists as gifted as Cuba. From the 19th century, with the likes of Cervantes, Saumell,  and Espadero to the 20th , Cuba was blessed with figures such as Roig, Romeu, Lecuona, Lilí Martínez and Peruchín, not to mention Bebo Valdés, Rubén González, and Frank Emilio Flynn. They were followed by a host of other pianist-composers like Chucho Valdés, Ernán López-Nussa, Hilario Durán and Emiliano Salvador. (1) Born in Camagüey in 1965, Omar Sosa is one of the great followers and innovators of the Cuban pianistic tradition, a composer whose work ranges from a deep lyricism that evokes Chopin or Ravel, to rapid-fire riffs and guajeos of the son montuno, to the oceanic spirituality of Afro traditions (Cuban and otherwise), jagged jazz improvisations, along with R & B riffs, funk, and hip-hop.

Without forgetting his Cuban roots, one could argue that Sosa is an example of world music in the best sense of the word, not as a gimmicky marketing term of record companies who group together Yossou N’Dour, the Throat Singers of Tuva, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Uakti under the same rubric. A song from Sosa’s album La Mar (2002) will suffice to indicate its global beauty and relevance. Recorded with Puerto Rican percussionist John Santos, the first track, titled “El niño santo” (The Holy Child) is a haunting exploration, musically and spiritually. Is the Holy Child a reference to Jesus? Not exactly. The song begins with Sosa plucking the strings inside the piano, playing the melody of “Frère Jacques”, a universally recognizable tune.  What could be more appealing than a lullaby? Yet Sosa and Santos —through the use of odd sounds and a little dissonance— give the melody both an appeal and off-centeredness that is almost Brechtian.  In the first minute or so Sosa combines a music box tingle with deeper notes on piano, augmented by Santos’s use of percussion, rattles, and other “small instruments”. A minute in, the piano assumes a more lyrical tone, punctuated by Santos’s percussion work that includes dolls crying and the sound of toys; it is followed by a short improvisational riff by Sosa, more squeaky toy sounds and then a song-like interlude with more toy sounds, another riff, a melodious passage; at about two and a half minutes a chant to Elegguá bursts in with a clave beat and Sosa sprinkles notes like fine rain, which become sharper and more percussive. A minute later Sosa’s runs turn into a montuno riff, while the chant to Elegguá persists. About half way through the piece the chant ends and Sosa and Santos trade off with rapid fire playing (piano and conga); about two minutes later the chant returns with a call-and-response format, while Sosa maintains a montuno rhythm with one hand and improvises with the other, and in the final minute or so complete improvisation, using both hands. Towards the end, he reaches into the piano again and plucks the strings, but does not play the “Frere Jacques” melody.  

This stunning composition could be read as a journey in sound that in eight and a half minutes travels the globe, both musically and spiritually. The holy child (el niño santo) turns out to be Elegguá, the orisha of the crossroads, who in one of his avatares or caminos (avatars or pathways) is a mischievous child that likes to play tricks of fate on people. After using the lullaby to evoke the child, it is through the lucumí chant, powerfully sung by Guillermo “Negro” Triana (doubling on the clave) that Elegguá’s presence is fully established for the rest of the piece, but overlaid with son montuno, elements of free jazz and lyrical passages that evoke Satie. The composition brings together European, African, and US music by way of a lullaby, filtered through Sosa’s Cuban sensibility.

Part of that sensibility is Sosa’s practice of Regla de Ocha, or santería, the Afro-Cuban religion with deep Yoruba roots. It is remarkable how little this is mentioned in discussing his work, exceptfor explaining the title of songs in Yoruba that might make reference to an orisha, a ceremony or ritual. But in his liner notes to albums he almost always thanks his padrino (godfather) and often finishes by saying aché, peace, and light or Maferefún Egun, Maferefún La Ocha (Praise be the ancestral spirits, Praise be the Orishas). As if that were not enough, Sosa’s public appearances reinforce that message: he dresses in all-white robes frequently with a white turban, bedecked in his santero collares, worn on the outside. As I tell those who ask about the necklaces, they are not there for decorative purposes. The point is not that Sosa’s compositions are religiously inspired in a traditional sense, or that what he composes is ritual music. On the contrary, it might be easier to understand Sosa’s aesthetic in terms of a spirituality that infuses his creativity and allows him to enter into these traditions (musical, sacred) and both re-work them from within and make them function within a contemporary context. What is exciting and encouraging about Sosa’s spirituality is that it actively seeks out other spiritual traditions, from Taoism and Afro-Ecuadorean choral music to the Gnawa music and religion of Southern Morocco. Of course, he also reworks secular traditions as well, like the Cuban son montuno and rumba, R & B, and jazz masters like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, all of this revealing Sosa’s commitment to exploring the Afro-diasporic traditions form many different lenses .

A wonderful example of the re-working of the Ocha tradition is one of his most memorable compositions “Iyawó” (on Mulatos but also live on Ayaguna and a live solo performance in Aleatoric EFX, the latter two with the title “Días de Iyawó”). Iyawó is Yoruba for the person who has become an initiate into Ocha, and for a year that person must wear ritual attire (white), as the initiation process implies a physical and spiritual cleansing that lasts many months. It is easy to spot iyawós in Cuba since they are dressed in white from head to toe (even the umbrellas are white!) and people in the street sometimes call out to them or respectfully nod or cross there arms and gently bow in recognition.  Most iyawós walk around with a visible glow that people notice, revealing the calm and serenity they seem to bathe in as a result of their initiation. The iyawó’s glow or serenity is what Sosa captures in his composition (Mulatos version), beginning with a slow, beguiling melody, joined by tablas, acoustic bass, and gentle drumming. Although many Ocha ceremonies are accompanied by intense drumming on the batás (three, accompanied by a lead singer and chorus), Sosa has wisely chosen to have the much softer sound of the tabla and either the muffled drumming or use of brushes as his counterpoint to the elegant precision of his piano playing which sounds like a mix of Ignacio Cervantes, Bill Evans, and Satie. Somewhere in the middle there is a nice dialogue between piano and bass, the latter, in a flurry of notes, with earthy voicings, then bursting into a muffled cry. This flows into a section with very soft singing, a chant, but it is impossible to make the words out. The singing is almost a whisper, that of the orishas, maybe, or perhaps evoking the aché in which an iyawó is immersed? Then, with about two minutes left the humming and singing stops and the tempo changes, almost into a breezy quasi-danzón, punctuated by maracas, but Sosa maintains the gentle lilting melody on the piano with a short improvisatory segment, ending with a recapitulation of the central melody, a return of the tablas and ends with a gentle landing on piano and bass.  Only someone who has been an iyawó could capture the spiritual ambience and glow of that particular experience without using any of the ritual instruments, rhythms or melodies of Ocha, and using the chant as a whisper.

In 2009, Sosa took on one of the canonical works of jazz, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, also the best-selling record in jazz history. Commissioned by the Barcelona Jazz Festival’s director Joan Cararach, it was meant to be a tribute performance honoring the 50th anniversary of the recording and its release. His first reaction to the commission was “No, It’s a masterpiece already. How are you going to help me revise it? It’s impossible”. (Margree) But eventually Sosa understood tribute not to be a Latin jazz version of it or a rewrite. Instead he produced a composition that captures the freedom and spirit of the 1959 classic and it became a freewheeling but well-conceived fifteen tracks of which six are interludios (lasting anywhere from 33 to 65 seconds), based on Bill Evans piano solos. Dan Bilawsky suggests that despite the many tracks the recording (Eggún, 2012) should be seen as a “one long-form work” and that conceptually it brilliantly reveals the skills of Sosa as a “sonic architect”. Working with a large ensemble of eleven musicians (a drummer, three percussionists, three horns, two guitars, bass and electronics), Sosa has managed to create a variety of textures and rhythms that is constantly changing, and while his keyboard work is topnotch, the piece reflects a more behind-the-scenes approach, of orchestrator instead of the dazzling soloist.

True to his Cuban roots the title of the album, released three years later is eggún, Yoruba for the ancestral spirits, always consulted before any important ceremony or ritual. Sosa has included Miles and Bill Evans as the eggún of this project, and presumably Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Paul Chambers, Wynton Kelly, and Jimmy Cobb as well. (2) Sosa rarely quotes or uses the Davis melodies and some reviewers were disappointed, but most were positive about his unusual interpretation. Sosa’s approach bears comparison to Chano Domínguez’s Flamenco Sketches(2012) and Mostly Other People Do the Killing’s (MOPDTK) Blue (2014). Domínguez’s fine album was also commissioned by the Barcelona Jazz Festival, and in it he performs the five compositions from the original plus two other tunes by Miles (“Nardis” and “Serpent’s Tooth”). It is chocked with Chano’s virtuosity and he is accompanied by flamenco artists like “Piraña” Suárez, Blas Córdoba and “Tomasito”.  Despite the rhythmic intensity of the flamenco-inflected compositions, all of the Davis compositions are recognizable. MOPDTK’s approach is both more literal and playful. Following the example of Borges’s short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” (from his celebrated Ficciones; English translation in Labyrinths), where a novelist decides to transcribe word for word Cervantes’s Quixote and pass it off as his own. The Borges text, a post-modern meditation on translation and creativity (as well as a warning not to slavishly imitate the classics) is used by MOPDTK to reflect on the jazz canon itself. After all, with classical music we have no qualms about a performer (be it soloist or a full orchestra) in playing two centuries later every single note from the score. But with jazz it is different, or so it seems, and re-playing Kind of Blue note for note (Irabogon plays both the Coltrane and the Adderley, Stabinsky both Bill Evans and Wynton Kelly) seems either like an elaborate post-modern prank, a re-make that is both pastiche and homage, or an extended meditation on the notion of interpretation, creativity, performance, and improvisation. (4)

Sosa’s Eggún is neither Dominguez’s (respectful homage within the latter artist’s own tradition) nor that of MOPDTK (Borgesian pastiche), but one of immersion into the spirit of the piece, a restless re-examination of its inner workings (and playing the un-played notes?). The Yoruba say about their culture that it is a “river that never rests”. The same could be said about Omar Sosa’s Eggún, (or, indeed, all of his work). Starting with the first track (“Alejet”), which quotes “All Blues” we know that Sosa has opted to take Miles for a long stroll. Joo Kraus on muted  trumpet evokes the eerie and sad tone that Miles  was known for. As Lee Konitz described it: “The sound hung like a cloud.” (in Berendt, 162) Sosa keeps some of the atmospheric elements associated with Miles, but in terms of instrumentation and texture Sosa’s band (not surprisingly called the Afri-Lectric experience) sounds more like the Miles of Bitches Brew and Live Evil when he was fully into his electric phase (pianos, guitars, bass, organ). “El Alba” slyly quotes “Blue in Green” since it is a slow piece with a muted trumpet, but rhythmically is a bolero and features a fine, mellifluous solo on sax by Peter Apfelbaum. Occasionally the pieces swell into a large big band sound, often succeeded by the interludios which are little gems, most of them featuring muted trumpet with bass, percussion, and drums. Some add clarinet or bass saxophone and “Interludio V” briefly quotes “Some Day My Prince Will Come”. The last track, “Calling Eggún” is a haunting mix of muted trumpet, piano, electronics, melodica, sax, vocals in Fon and then Yoruba looped in electronically with reverb. It evokes a trance, but one that is gentle, oceanic, and peaceful. One could argue that more than deal with the Miles of Kind of Blue, Sosa wrestles with the entire Miles legacy: the bebop Miles that played with Charlie Parker (1945-48), the cool jazz Miles (1948-1958), the hard bop and modal Miles (1955-1968), and the electric/fusion Miles (post-1969). This makes Sosa’s achievements in Eggún all the more impressive.

Subsequent to Eggun, Sosa has three new recordings, two with his new group, the Quarteto AfroCubano, (a live album in Japan, 2014, and Ilé, 2015), and a solo album (Senses, 2014). The quartet includes two fellow camgüeyanos. Leandro St. Hill (saxes, flute, clarinet), and Ernesto Simpson (drums, percussion, vocals, kalimba) and Childo Tomas from Mozambique (bass, kalimba and vocal). The later recording has invited artists such as Pedrito Martínez (percussion), Yosvany Terry (soprano sax) and Marvin Sewell (guitar), and also features flamenco artists and spoken word (Kokayi). In a Boston performance the quartet was breathtaking, moving from a gentle spirituality to edgy improvisation to hand-clapping son montuno with incredible ease.  The solo album, Sosa’s fifth, has the elegance and harmony of Bill Evans, but always inflected with Sosa’s unique pianistic style. His solo work is much more meditative and introspective than his work with smaller ensembles or large bands, evoking Ravel, Cervantes, Satie, and, of course, Evans. Speaking of Evans, Miles said: “Bill had this quiet fire that I loved on the piano. The way he approached it, the sound he got was like crystal notes or sparkling water cascading down from some clear waterfall.” (Kahn, 78) The same could be said of Omar Sosa’s solo piano work, although sometimes the fire is not so quiet. The aquatic imagery, at least for Sosa, evokes both river and ocean, and the sister orishas Ochún and Yemayá. The river of notes —and creativity— is gentle, but it never rests.


Notes

1) None of this is meant to slight reed players (Arcaño, Egües, Fajardo, D’Rivera), trumpeters (Chappotín, Chocolate, Sandoval), bassists (Israel “Cachao” López) or those known as bandleaders (Machito, Chico O’Farrill, Mario Bauzá) all who have made great contributions to Cuban music.   Sosa is joined by two near contemporaries, Gonzalo Rubalcaba (1963), and Arturo O’Farrill (1960). After, there has been a wave of younger pianists such as Roberto Carcassés, Aruán Ortiz, Roberto Fonseca, Rolando Luna, Elio Villafranco, and Aldo López Gavilán (born in the 70s) and Manuel Valera, Fabián Almazán, David Virelles, Alfredo Rodríguez, Harold López-Nussa, and Osmany Paredes (born in the 80s). In a future article for “Revista” (Harvard-Fall 2015), I will discuss these younger pianists.

2) Uncannily, most of the musicians in Kind of Blue died relatively young, except Miles Davis (65) and Jimmy Cobb, who is still alive (86). Chambers died at 34, Kelly at 40, Coltrane at 41, Adderley at 47, and Evans at 51.  

3) Mostly Other People Do the Killing consists of Peter Evans (trumpet); Jon Irabogon (alto and tenor sax), Moppa Elliot (bass) and Kevin Shea (drums). They were joined by Ron Stabinsky on piano for the Blue album.

4) MOPDTK is a group of impeccable musicianship that has always had a tongue-in-cheek relationship with the jazz tradition, which they often satirically express with their album covers. They have recorded eight albums; Irabogon and Evans have recorded additional CDs as leaders of their own groups. 

Bibliography

Berendt, Joachim  (1986) El Jazz, Fondo de Cultura Económica, México, D.F.

Bilawsky, Dan “Omar Sosa Eggun (2012)” in All About Jazz, January 4, 2013.

Kahn, Ashley (2007) Kind of Blue, The Making of Miles Davis Masterpiece, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA.

Margree, Paul “I Can See for Miles Omar Sosa’s Radical Reinvention of Kind of Blue” in The Bomber Jacket, May 8, 2013.

Relevant Links

http://omarsosa.com/video.php

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wTQJ9Rwnbg&list=UUm8N38AY2go9Q3EdYxRbayw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAG3l1rlG1M

Omar Sosa Discography

Omar Omar (1996) Solo Piano

Free Roots (1997)

Nfumbe for the Unseen (1997-1998)

Inside (1998-99)

Spirit of the Roots (1999)

Bembón (2000)

Prietos (2000)

Sentir (2002)

Identity (2002)

La Mar (2002)

Ayaguna (2003)

A New Life (2003) Solo Piano

Pictures of Soul (2004)

Mulatos (2004)

Aleatoric EFX (2004)  Solo Piano

Ballads (2005)

Mulatos Remix (2006)

Live at FIP (2006)

Promise- EP (2007)

D.O. A Day Off (2007)

Afreecanos (2008)

Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry (2009)

Tales from the Earth (2009)

Simba- EP (2009)

Ceremony (2010)

Calma (2011)  Solo Piano

Alma (2012)

Eggun (2013)

Senses (2014)  Solo Piano

Real Live: The New Afro-Cuban Quartet in Japan (2014)

Ilé (2015)

About Author(s)

Alan West-Durán
Alan West-Durán is Associate Professor in the Department of Modern Languages at the Northeastern University. He was born in Cuba and raised in Puerto Rico. He is a poet, translator, essayist, and critic. His interests and research are in Caribbean literature, Afro-Cuban culture (art, music, religions, and literature) and Latin American Film.