Omar Sosa: "Music Is the Answer"

Omar Sosa
"Music Is the Answer"

by Mike Zwerin

copyright © 2004 Mike Zwerin

Paris — Omar Sosa's genre-bending music incorporates — although he owns neither a cell phone nor a computer — electronically effected decay, warp, echo and phasing accompanying middle-eastern scales, a rock backbeat, a walking bass, African percussion, Yoruban incantations, Moroccan drums, strings, Cuban montunos and an Australian didgeridoo.

Born and raised in Cuba, the composer, pianist and bandleader emigrated from the island after marrying his second wife, who was of French, American and Ecuadorian ancestry. Sosa learned to speak hip-hop-accented English in Oakland, California, where he was granted a green card and still records. Now he lives with his third wife, a Spaniard, in Barcelona ("a good city"). "When you need to move on, you move on," he explained. "The love moves with you. My spirit moves with me." They have a son, and a daughter is on the way.

Mulatos (Ota Records), Sosa's 14th album in eight years, features an Indian tabla drum, a North African oud and the renowned Cuban jazz clarinetist Paquito d'Rivera.Mulatos has more space, less purely ethnic elements, and it is more romantic and complex and less commercial than Sosa's previous recordings. As always, his jazz roots are deep, though the style keeps getting more contemporary. Jazz is a common denominator between the musics of the world.

Musicians with Sosa's multi-racial, multi-national credentials tend to have their love of, and influence by, jazz in common. Recently, his cheeks were "wet with tears" reading a book about the making of John Coltrane's spiritual album, A Love Supreme.

"Music is the purest art," he said. "It does not need to be described. It just is. But there is less and less spirituality in music. That is one reason I cried reading about A Love Supreme. Starting, coincidentally or not, roughly at the time of Coltrane's death in 1967, thousands of foreign music students have come to hundreds of American jazz schools to learn the history and the vocabulary of "America's native music." Some of them went back home to start similar programs in such cities as Porto, Helsinki, Istanbul, Paris, Trondheim and Tel Aviv. Musicians from around the world have been mixing their acquired jazz culture with their native traditions for more than 35 years. The music goes round and round.

Sosa said that his music is a direct expression of the spirituality that comes from Santeria, a Cuban religion with mixed African and Christian influences. Santeria holds that your ancestors speak directly to you. Wearing his religion's amulets, chains and bracelets, he had the lean intensity of a true disciple: "Spirituality includes being able to receive messages from the other world. I sincerely believe this."

Composing a symphony for the Oakland Symphony Orchestra a few years ago, he began when he was "given" a B-flat. It came directly from his ancestors. He knew immediately that it was B-flat, even though he does not have perfect pitch. He then wrote the work quickly, with a pen not a pencil (he composes music the old-fashioned way, on paper), and, he said: "I don't remember doing it. It was like a visitation."

The first time he performed outside the US — in Athens, Greece — a 12 year-old girl came into the club with her mother, and they sat at a table close to the stage. The girl requested one of his songs — her mother later explained that she'd heard it on the Internet. "She listened and listened," Sosa recalled."It was a simple tune with only three notes. She was crying, I could see her tears. How just three notes can move somebody so much is a miracle."

Sosa, who is 38, respects gray hair — to the point of almost wishing he had it already. Gray hair implies wisdom to him. Wisdom was the first thing he noticed about Richard Avedon when the photographer took his picture for The New Yorker last year. The occasion was Sosa's performance during the opening weekend of Zankel Hall, the new chamber space in Carnegie Hall. "Richard heard my music and he liked it," he said. "And when he took my picture he told me something deep — that I should make sure to do everything I possibly can as long as I still have life in me. Only the spirit can give you enough force to endure for an entire lifetime.

"Don't forget, I was born in Cuba. When I say that, it means there were a lot of problems. My religion gave me the force, and the music is the message. I light a candle and put it in the piano when I perform — even in Carnegie Hall. This is my personal way to summon the spirits. Some people take heroin to communicate with their spirituality. I prefer to light candles."

Mike Zwerin writes in Paris for the International Herald Tribune.

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