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An Afro-Cuban Pianist Radiates 88 Well-Tuned Drums

Omar Sosa
88 Well-Tuned Drums
A film by Soren Sorensen
Review by Carolina Amoruso

88 Well-Tuned Drums opens to a darkened screen and a deep-voiced invocation: “Maferefun Ogun, Maferefun La Ocha.” A faint light then appears, revealing a gracefully moving hand with long, slim fingers, its wrist cuffed in cowry shells. A cardboard-like silhouette emerges now of a young boy facing a cavern brightly illuminated with red and yellow light.

The hand belongs to Omar Sosa, and the image is of a young Sosa, about to begin his life’s journey as a pianist, percussionist, composer, and bandleader. Sosa’s story is told with warmth and intelligence in Soren Sorensen’s documentary film.

With a background in music and film, and being someone taken coup de foudre by Sosa’s music and its many aspects, Sorensen devoted 12 years to complete the documentary that grew from catch-as-catch-can funding, including a major Kickstarter campaign, and the dedication of a multitude, including Sosa’s forever manager/producer, Scott Price.

The film emphasizes the defining inspiration Sosa receives from the Afro-Cuban spirits, especially Elegguá, the impish guardian of the roads, who guides him till this day, and whose story will come to life alongside that of our voyager through captions, voiceover, and anime.

The first performance footage of 88 Well-Tuned Drums also comes out of darkness: Sosa is on an empty stage, anointing it with a devotional candle. The year is 2002, and he is to perform at New York’s premier jazz club, the Blue Note. For an artist whose influences and expression embrace jazz and so much more, it seems foretold that here would be Sosa’s springboard to worldwide recognition.

Throughout the narrative, Sosa will reminisce with gratitude about those who have provided inspiration, going back to his childhood when he listened with his father to records of jazz royalty—Basie, Ellington, Nat King Cole—and then surreptitiously in Revolutionary Cuba to those who changed the very sound of jazz: Monk, Miles, and Coltrane. The next major awakening was jazz fusion: Weather Report, notably Jaco Pastorious and Manolo Badrena, each one leaving him agog; and finally, the Afro-Cuban jazz fusion of Irakére with pianist Chucho Valdez, would provide a clear path to follow while coming into his own. Today, Valdez is succinct and proud in his estimation of his compatriota: “Omar Sosa is more than a great musician; he is a great artist.”

Later, on that same night in 2002, on the same stage, we witness a thrilling interpretation of a song that is quintessential Sosa: seeking a shared humanity by blending the gifts of diverse cultures into captivating musical works. “Promised Land,” a traditional Welsh hymn that traveled to the Black churches in the South, is sung mightily by American musican Tim Erikson. Sosa lets him fly, backdropping him with a languid African American Gospel theme. The message of redemption is made all the more powerful by samples of Langston Hughes’ terse, plangent verse like, “No man wanted to be a slave.”

Another live clip is extraordinary and indicative of the synergy between Sosa and his collaborators. Sosa and Italian trumpet player Paolo Fresu bonded nearly 15 years ago after Sosa heard the trumpeter straddling a tree branch overhead, riffing on Sosa’s melody in the midst of an outdoor concert. “You’re crazy!” Sosa looked up to exclaim, “We gotta do something together!”

Indoors now, in 2013, we see Sosa and Fresu alone on stage as “Rimanere Grande,” from their collaborative album, Alma, winds down, slowly, elegantly, and softly. Fresu plays a midrange note, holds it, his cheeks beginning to puff out in circular breathing, while he lifts himself off his chair and begins to trace a circle around Sosa at the piano as he finishes his lullaby. Fresu, still holding the note, continues walking for three full minutes until the song is ended and he is at Sosa’s side. Facing the audience, they blissfully smile. And then embrace.

Sosa shares a deep, intuitive communication with each of his primary collaborators. Mostly seen are Seckou Keita, kora player from Sénégal, Gustavo Ovalles, percussionist from Venezuela; and Fresu.

We see Sosa and Keita frequently traveling together, blackslapping and laughing. They seem like brothers. Their first collaborative album, Transparent Water, is a contemplative, “still waters run deep,” meditative ode to silence. Silence, says Sosa, “is the most powerful music.”

On the other hand, Ovalles rocks Sosa to the rafters, even when playing alongside the contemplative Keita. He takes Sosa back to his early years in Cuba, when he was a percussionist. At the Vienna Jazz Festival in 2019, Ovalles, with his hand drums, wood blocks and shakers, and Sosa, play off each other with friendly fire in their eyes. Yilian Cañizares’ violin adds even more punch to the audience-rousing set. Ovalles speaks as a person proud of his musicianship and his creativity, and credits Sosa with changing the course of his career, observing, “He gives you the freedom you can’t get anywhere else.”

One suspects it is by the design of both director and artist that Sosa’s wardrobe is instrumental in unveiling his persona. He dresses impeccably throughout the film, while adhering to the red, black and white of his spiritual icon, which Sosa enhances with little else but neutrals. His boubous and overshirts flow lyrically, and give him, tall and lean, an impressive presence throughout the film.

Sosa shares with us honest reflections about his life, as one not loathe to admit his foibles and concerns. “I'm a really emotional guy,” he confesses, broaching his insecurity as a father who longs for his two children, almost always far away; the difficulty of keeping himself whole when his art fractures him into different beings; and his preoccupation with his health since suffering a minor heart disturbance.

Despite the down days of concern and uncertainty, the frenetic lifestyle he both cherishes and rues, Sosa knows where to find solace: “When I feel down, for any reason… the piano is always there. And I try to transfer it [these feelings], and pass it on, to the piano. And the piano always gives me good energy back. Always!”

88 Well-Tuned Drums captures with heart Sosa’s extraordinary versatility and virtuosity. Sorenson’s vista, revealing Sosa’s art and unearthing his essence, has created a filmic tableau about the humanity of music.


Find the artist online.
Photos and illustrations are from the film.

Further reading:
Interview: Carolina Amoruso talks with Omar Sosa
Paolo Fresu / Omar Sosa: Food
Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita: Transparent Water

The trailer from the film

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