It’s been four years since the Buena Vista Social Club concluded their “Adiós” tour and almost three since we last saw Omara Portuondo in Chicago. So it was with a measure of both excitement and trepidation that I greeted the news that the legendary Cuban diva was returning to Chicago on May 1. Excitement, because unlike her 2016 concert at Symphony Center, she would be performing this time at the intimate and acoustically perfect Old Town School of Folk Music. Trepidation because the concert’s title was “El Último Beso (The Last Kiss)”. Could she, at the age of 88, finally be retiring? In an interview that I did with her for Agúzate in October 2016, she stated flatly “Retirement? I’m just a young girl! There are some good things happening, a documentary movie, a lot of ideas, recordings… I’m grateful to do what I love most.”
Whether or not we ever get to see Omara Portuondo again in Chicago is unknown, so this might be our last kiss. But as she makes clear in this new interview, it is certainly not hers. One thing is for sure. You will want to be at the Old Town School on May 1 when they present “Omara es Cuba – El Último Beso”.
DM – Last night I heard someone refer to the Chicago concert as being part of your farewell tour, and, of course, “El Último Beso” is in the title. Say it isn’t so!
OP – Well, I’m not retiring, the Last Kiss is my last worldwide tour, which will take a couple of years and will visit a lot of countries. But I will keep performing, probably not on long worldwide tours, but music is my life!
DM – I understand that this tour will run until 2020 and truly be global, with stops in Asia, Europe and South America as well as North America, and then ends up back home in Cuba. Does the worldwide popularity of Cuban music surprise you?
OP – That’s correct; I’m really looking forward this tour. It’s going to be really special for me. I’m not surprised by the connection Cuban music has. This is because our music has so many influences, tradition and connects very well with the audience.
DM – I feel that we are incredibly lucky that you are mostly playing smaller, intimate theaters and clubs on this tour, as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing you in larger concert halls. Was this a deliberate choice?
OP – I’m happy performing, true though that on clubs the connection is very close and intimate. It’s priceless to see the audience reaction, their smiles and dance with them. My heart is full of joy to meet again with my American fans.
DM – You are once again being supported by Roberto Fonseca and his band. Fonseca is that rare musician who completely understands the core qualities of classic Cuban music yet is also strikingly adventurous and globally attuned in some of his own work. What has it been like working with him for the past several years?
OP – He is a unique human being. So gifted and talented. That’s our musical heritage and education, young musicians have a profound respect for our musical tradition but at the same time they are open to new sounds and influences. My connection with Robertico is simply beautiful. His personal way to perform is so unique, I feel dancing when singing with him.
DM – As I understand it, the repertoire on this tour will focus on classics, including songs from the Buena Vista era. Can we expect any surprises?
OP – Oh, definitely yes. I’m listening to all my albums, talking with the musicians that will be with me in this tour and I’m putting my heart to get a unique set list that will be unforgettable! But it’s a surprise, so you will have to come and see it!
Omara Portuondo, Old Town School of Folk Music, Wednesday, May 1, 8 PM – oldtownschool.org
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.
Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita, Transparent Water | Old Town School of Folk Music, Thursday, March 15. Tickets at oldtownschool.org.
It can be argued that Cuba has produced more innovative pianist/composers per capita than any other country on earth. A distinctly syncopated Cuban style emerged out of the blending of European classical music seasoned with African rhythms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous composer of this era is the orchestra leader Ernesto Lecuona, who wrote the classic tune Siboney, among many others. By the 1940s jazz was flavoring the stew along with a more overt reference to rhythms of African origin, leading to the development of mambo. When the descarga scene, marked by lengthy improvisational jam sessions, emerged in the 1950s, pianists Peruchín and Bebo Valdés often were often leading the band. It’s a tradition that continues to this day in the person of young pianists like Alfredo Rodríguez and Harold López-Nussa.
In between those early days of mambo and the emergence of this new generation, however, there are two pianists who tower over the rest.
Bebo Valdés’ son Chucho emerged in the 1970s as a founding member of the groundbreaking Irakere, arguably one of the best and most influential bands to emerge from post-revolution Cuba. The group, which also included trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, might very well be called Afro-Futurist today in the way that they combined deeply spiritual Afro-Cuban rhythms to forward thinking jazz and electric rock band energy. Chucho Valdés kept Irakere going after Sandoval and D’Rivera left Cuba for the United States, but he also grew as a solo artist and leader of several jazz ensembles, moving over to acoustic piano as his main instrument.
Meanwhile, another pianist from a musical family, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, was growing up listening to Valdés and Irakere. In the 1980s, he formed Grupo Proyecto, one of several young fusion bands inspired by the pioneering Irakere. By the end of the decade, Rubalcaba also turned to acoustic piano and was soon part of a trio that included American jazz giants Charlie Haden and Paul Motian (later Jack DeJonette). He made his international debut in 1991 with the album Discovery: Live in Montreaux. That album was put out by the legendary jazz label Blue Note, who also released Chucho Valdés’ U.S. debut Solo Piano the same year.
Both pianists went on to stellar jazz careers that nonetheless have the heartbeat of Cuba at their center, regardless of whether they are playing solo, small ensemble or big band dates. Both have proved adept at the two-piano format. Chucho’s 1998 duet album with his father Bebo, Juntos para Siempre, is a gorgeous masterpiece that stands as a testament to what can happen when you get two Cuban pianists in a room together.
On February 23, that room will be the stage at Symphony Center when Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Chucho Valdés, two brilliant pianists and composers with a historic relationship within the Cuban piano tradition, present Trance, a collaboration that explores the profound spiritual connection at the very heart of Cuban music. Expect an open-ended, respectful conversation between two friends whose mutual admiration for each other leads to careful listening and thoughtful response, adding as needed until ultimately they almost speak as one.
And lest you think this will be some laid back recital, be assured that there will be plenty of sonic fireworks from these master musicians. After all, their hearts beat to the rhythm of Cuba.
Chucho Valdés & Gonzalo Rubalcaba: Trance Friday, February 23 at Symphony Center, Chicago Tickets at cso.org.