The Spirit Flows: Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita’s Transparent Water

– by Don Macica –

There’s little chance that, on encountering him for the first time, you would mistakenly guess that Omar Sosa is anything other than Cuban. Dressed in white, he’s a practicing santero whose personal Orisha is Obatala, the deity of purity, wisdom and the light of consciousness.  He often begins his performances with a lighted candle which he then extinguishes, wafting the dissipating smoke over his piano as something of a blessing to the instrument. In the santería faith, music and ceremony are one.

Yet Sosa is very much a global citizen. Though born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, he’s lived abroad since 1993, first in South America, then the San Francisco Bay area (where he established himself as a major force on the local Latin jazz scene) and now Barcelona, Spain. More than that, though, he tours and records around the world almost without pause, releasing albums at an astonishing rate of almost two a year, ranging from solo piano to big band sessions.

Transparent Water, his collaboration with Senegalese musician Seckou Keita that he’ll bring to the Old Town School of Folk Music on March 15, isn’t even his newest album. That would be Es:sensual, recorded with Germany’s NDR Bigband and arranged by the legendary Brazilian producer Jaques Morelenbaum. Both albums are the product of Sosa’s globetrotting ways and ceaseless artistic curiosity, as is yet another already recorded album that will be released this September. (More on that below.)

Fortunately for Chicago, Sosa has found time in his schedule to put together a tour for Transparent Water with kora player Keita and a frequent collaborator, Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalle. As you might imagine from the title, Transparent Water is a meditative invocation of the flowing of the human spirit, and the Old Town School’s flawless acoustics and reverent audiences are a perfect match. (It was at OTS where I first heard Omar Sosa live almost 15 years ago, and that indelible performance remains my favorite.)

I reached out to Omar Sosa with a few questions about the album and the creative spirit that brought it into existence.

DM: The last time you visited Chicago, it was on the heels of your album ilé with your Quarteto AfroCubano. And while that album was billed as a “homecoming” because it celebrated your Cuban roots, it was anything but inward looking or strictly bound to Cuba. Now, with Transparent Water, you are directly engaging with Africa in the form of kora player Seckou Keita and extending that to Japan by utilizing the koto and China with the sheng and bawu.  What are you looking for in these sounds and collaborations?

OS: I first heard and played with Seckou Keita in London in March 2012, when I was invited by drummer Marque Gilmore to a special show he was producing called Exhibiton of Sound.  I was completely captivated by Seckou’s kora playing – it’s propulsive but gentle rhythmic qualities, its sophisticated but accessible melodic and harmonic elements.  I felt a really good chemistry with Seckou that night, so I was inspired to invite him to join me for a recording project.  About a year later, we gathered at a studio in Osnabrück, Germany and shared song ideas and co-created and prepared the music we recorded that same week.

Just prior to meeting Seckou in Germany, I had been invited to participate in a multi-artist residency in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, curated by Spanish bagpipe player Christina Pato.  One of the musicians there was Wu Tong from Beijing, who plays a traditional flute-like instrument from China called the sheng.  Again, I was captivated, and the extraordinary bending sounds of the sheng stayed in my head and I started hearing them mix with the recordings that Seckou and I made.

As fortune would have it, I was invited to a festival in Shanghai in September of 2013 with my Quarteto AfroCubano, and was able to arrange to travel to Beijing after the show and visit with Wu Tong in his home studio and record tracks that we used in the mixing of the basic tracks with Seckou, and Wu Tong and I recorded a few new pieces as well.

At some point during this process, I saw a show in Paris of the Vietnamese guitarist, Nguyen Le, who has long been a hero of mine.  In his ensemble was Mieko Miyazaki, the koto player from Japan, and yet again, I was captivated by her sound and expressiveness.  As I was planning to mix the Transparent Water tracks in Paris with my producer friend, Steve Argüelles, I was able to invite Mieko to come to Steve’s studio and contribute a few parts to the project.

So, to a large extent, I do not have a fully formed conception or vision of a musical project mapped out in advance.  I am open and susceptible to incorporating sounds into the creative process that I hear along the way.  It’s a matter of being flexible and curious about how various sounds can combine.

DM: Similarly, you’ve gone back to Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles multiple times. What is it about his playing that works with your approach to music?

OS: Gustavo’s exceptional musical sensitivity playing the folkloric percussion instruments from his homeland and the closeness of those instruments to their roots in Africa has always attracted me greatly.  He is a master with the maracas, and quitiplas, and culo’e puya.  And he’s such a swinging ensemble player, always listening carefully, and never trying to overplay, which can happen with drummers.  Gustavo will also be joining me on the touring portion of an upcoming project with Cuban violinist / vocalist, Yilian Cañizares, who lives in Switzerland.  Yilian and I have recorded a CD called Aguas which will be released in September this year.

DM: You’ve put out close to 30 albums is a little over 20 years. Why are you so prolific? Is there a common theme that runs through all of your projects?

OS: There is so much amazing music on the planet, and everywhere I go (upward of 100 shows on five continents a year) I’m inspired by the new sounds and new instruments I encounter, often in traditional and folkloric contexts.  So many of these sounds inspire me to want to create new music!  So there really isn’t a common theme involved, except the expression of my own musical roots in the ritual melodic and rhythmic elements of African music that came to Cuba on the slave ships.
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Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita, Transparent Water | Old Town School of Folk Music, Thursday, March 15. Tickets at oldtownschool.org.

Concert review: ÌFÉ and Mulatu Astatke at Concord Music Hall

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photo by Charlie Billups

By Don Macica –

We still have a couple of “must-sees” on our list for World Music Festival Chicago. Still, we’ll be really surprised if we encounter a double bill as strong as the one that played Concord Music Hall on Saturday.

In a sense, the two acts couldn’t be more different. ÌFÉ is a brand new electronic music concept out of Puerto Rico that hasn’t even released their first album. Mulatu Astatke, by contrast, is known as the father of Ethio-jazz, which first flourished in the 1970s, and he is still composing, playing and recording compelling music to this day. Dig just below the surface, though, and you discover a trans-Atlantic range of sound that emerges from a mixture of Africa and the Americas, one that is showing no sign of becoming a historic relic.

The musicians of ÌFÉ come from various backgrounds ranging from dance music to rock, hip-hop and reggae, but they come together here united around a very traditional form: Cuban rumba. The distinct clave and rhythmic patterns form a foundation for a bold experiment in sound by being transformed electronically into something like a new tribal music, ancient and modern at the same time.

photo by Charlie Billups
photo by Charlie Billups

The group is led by Otura Mun and filled out by three additional percussionists (Anthony Sierra, Beto Torrens and Rafael Maya) and two singers (Katherine Cepeda and Yarimir Cabán A.K.A. Mima). Rather than play traditional drums, though, they employ a collection of electronic drum pads mixed with wired acoustic instruments on which they combine several variants of rumba patterns in both familiar and unexpected ways. The result is a sometimes bone-rattling, sometimes celestial experience infused with an intense groove.

It’s safe to say that the large crowd in attendance knew little about the band coming in because of the lack of recorded material, but each song was greeted rapturously. The group finished their performance by setting aside the electronics for a pure rumba session playing, as Mun remarked, the music they love and still gather to play every Tuesday night back home in Casa ÌFÉ Santurce, Puerto Rico.

photo by Charlie Billups
photo by Charlie Billups

There was a lengthy break between ÌFÉ’s departure and the start of Mulatu Astatke’s set, but that’s pretty understandable in light of the size and complexity of Astatke’s orchestra, which was made up of musicians from the U.S. and Europe. The leader’s main instrument is the vibraphone, but he also plays electric keyboards and percussion, all of which were arrayed in a semi circle in front of him. Add another keyboardist, two horn players, bassist, drummer and a second percussionist (Chicago’s own Juan Pastor, who leads the South American flavored jazz ensemble Chinchano) and you have a very powerful sound.

Astatke’s personal journey is instructive of the way music travels and cultures are exchanged. Born in the western Ethiopian city of Jimma, Mulatu was musically trained in London, New York City, and Boston where he combined his jazz and Latin music interests with traditional Ethiopian music.  In his music, then, you have two streams of the African Diaspora flowing back to the continent from which they sprang to create something new.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica

There was a sizable Ethiopian contingent in the audience, gathering to enthusiastically welcome a hero, and they were especially excited when the band, on the third song of the night, reached back to the 70s for Yekermo Sew. This was no nostalgia fest, though. Astatke’s music has seen a revival in this millennium, and the man has used this opportunity to create anew, recording albums as both a leader and collaborator. The musicians for this show are working on yet another new album project. A case could easily be made for a headlining slot at the Chicago Jazz Festival (and someday they absolutely should), but tonight, hearing this amazing mix of jazz improvisation matched to Ethiopian scales and rhythms in the company of several hundred Ethiopians, Puerto Ricans and world music fans was blissfully intoxicating.

photo by Don Macica
photo by Don Macica