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Purity, Light, Sound and Food
Carolina Amoruso talks with Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa
"Tutto comincia alla tavola."

Photo: Massimo Mantovani

On my way to meeting with Omar Sosa, late one afternoon as summer waned in New York, I rolled back my memory to recall our first interview in 2002, just before el maestro’s pivotal appearance at the Blue Note. Sosa left the City a marquee name, his virtuosity, creativity and anima certified by critical fervor. His is a broad spectrum of talents, including pianist, bandleader, composer and arranger, percussionist, and advocate for what one used to call brotherhood among us all.

Sosa had been immensely prolific during those years, gigging and recording, growing his keep of a world of sounds: traditional, exploratory, Afro-Cuban, within the shape-shifting genus of jazz. He was currently on tour in celebration of his latest project, called Food, a collaboration with Italian jazz trumpeter, Paolo Fresu. Here in New York, he’d be playing three sets with a new combo, Quarteto Americano, at Dizzy's Place, the dedicated jazz room of Lincoln Center, and I was to meet him nearby.

After climbing a narrow, dark staircase, Sosa led me to an ancient apartment, spotless and spare. Bright light flooded from naked bulbs onto walls multilayered in opalescent thick white paint. I could feel that sealed beneath those layers was a century or more of over-, mis- and loving use, testaments to the misery, the sacrifices and achievements of its early inhabitants, immigrants overwhelmingly.

The surrounding stillness and calm in those rooms was remarkable as New York thundered and shrieked outside. And it became clear that, with its simplicity, quiet and light, it was here where this unassuming offspring of the Cuban Revolution would more likely rather stop than in nouveau New York’s gentrified luxury.

We spoke at length. Remembering Sosa as a reflective person, one who could speak about his art from the inside out, I asked him to recount the intervening years, emphasizing the journey. He replied somberly, saying he’d come in from Cuba the day before after a number of years’ absence, and would only now shed his long-standing reluctance to discuss the Motherland because the trip had given him pause. Having observed fundamental changes and finding them disheartening, Sosa was struggling to reconcile the island and people of his early years with today’s Cuba. Cuba had planted the seed and overseen the blossoming of his talent, affording the young musician superior training, from Western Classical to African traditional, whether at school or on the streets of Camaguay, his home town.

Sosa’s spiritual godfather, an elder of the Santeria belief system, conveyed in the emerging musician reverence for the roots and retentions of Africa. You have a mission, he’d say. “It’s to let the people know that Africa is a bird, it’s a breeze, it’s a beautiful melody.” These words have never evanesced, for no matter what he plays, Afro-Cuba shines through.

“Cuba was a country with a lot of pride,” Sosa reflects. “The people here, they ‘represented,’ they found a way to look good. Outside and inside. We didn’t have many things, basically nothing. But we always smiled. We always were happy. And I see the people are not happy today. They’re to the point where their main goal is to leave the island.” Sosa characterizes the shift in Cuban life and life-style as the “degradation of some beautiful ideas.”

Assuming his gamin-like sparkle now, Sosa declares in Italian, “Tutto comincia alla tavola." It all begins at the table. And then, laughingly, “Mio italiano č pazzesco!” My Italian is nuts! Sharing splendid if not stately offerings around an Italian table sealed the enduring, “hundreds of years” bond between Sosa and Fresu. Meals are extended events when band members and friends share heightened camaraderie and can be themselves as real people apart from their music.

Sociability and food also form a cornerstone of Sosa’s relationship to another prime collaborator, Sénégalese master kora player, Seckou Keita. In Keita, whom Sosa met soon after discovering Sénégalese rhythms, Sosa found an ideal collaborator, for here was a virtuoso thriving in his niche, yet open to reinventing the sounds of his heritage, giving them broader dimensionality and complementing Sosa’s vision at the same time. “Seckou interested me because he’s got a really open mind,” he says. “And he’s an amazing musician who cannot doubt his traditions.”

Significantly, Keita introduced Sosa to Sénégalese cuisine, especially that of his native region, Casamance. Perhaps the most evolved and flavorful in all of West Africa, Sénégalese food is highly seasoned and laden with rich sauces in locally grown, hand harvested rice. Sosa was captivated by the fact that meals in Sénégal are partaken communally around one round, abundantly mounded platter. Sosa and Keita were able to escape much of the worst of COVID lockdown together, decamping to Menorca to work on their collaborative album Suba, while hosting their kids and preparing Sénégalese and Cuban food.


Sosa and Fresu
Photo: Roberto Cifarelli

Food, the album, pairs Omar Sosa and Paolo Fresu in an innovative and seductive escapade. With sound engineer, Marco Melchior, the two spent a year haunting Italian kitchens and wine cellars, gathering sound bites, so to speak. “People cooking and all [that] you hear there,” is how Sosa describes it. They recorded the stirring of macerating grapes in their vats, the sound of chicken roasting and crackling over a wood-burning country fire, even capturing a knife surgically slicing a truffle. In the studio they distilled each sound down to one nearly unrecognizable from the original. After that year of hunting down, sampling and reducing sound, it took only 2 days to record the album. “We didn’t record the record in one day,” he says in mock regret, “because we gave more time to eat and drink.”

“It was a beautiful effort,” Sosa says in summation. Food is a subtle blend of sound, evoking back yard gardens, the earth’s color and bounty, and intimate times. An exceptionally fetching track is “Greens,” with sounds from the electronic trove suggesting the mechanical rhythms of marching boots, liquid falling into a goblet warmed by flannelly electronica, intermittent dripping. These artifacts are given flesh by DC rapper, poet and producer, Kokayi, testifying in impudent and accusatory, true rhymes to our wanton decimation of the planet. And “A Çimma,” with famed Italian vocalist, Cristiano de André, is idyllic and deeply penetrating..

Sosa portrays his expansiveness as a musical artist and person dressing under voluminous bubus that allow him to open wide his arms to his audience, embracing the whole of humanity and its African roots. He reflects, with superlative and vanguard sound, as do a good number of interpreters of the jazz idiom, a communion of us all under a world-view that uplifts humankind through art. Like in that humble home away from home, and in his work, Sosa surrounds himself in purity and light.

Find the artist online:
Omar Sosa

Further reading and listening:
Omar Sosa and Paolo Fresu - Food
Chango Spasiuk - Eiké: Entrar en el alma
Luzmila Carpio - Inti Watana: El Retorno del Sol

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