The Return of the Shaman

Clockwise from left: Ernesto Simpson, Childo Tomas, Leandro Saint-Hill, Omar Sosa

Clockwise from left: Ernesto Simpson, Childo Tomas, Leandro Saint-Hill, Omar Sosa.

The New Mexico Jazz Festival brings Cuban pianist/composer Omar Sosa to the Outpost on July 23 and 24 with his New AfroCuban Quartet, with Leandro Saint-Hill (saxophones, flute), Childo Tomas (bass), Ernesto Simpson (drums). For me, Sosa is one of the clearest and most profound voices on the planet—a shaman who is capable of connecting us with a deeper reality—and I was thrilled to be able to interview him.

At the end of May, I reached him by phone at his home in Barcelona at 10:00 p.m. his time and found him in the process of “dealing with my kids.” He issued rapid-fire instructions in Spanish off-line before turning his attention to our call.

The following conversation is very lightly edited. Sosa speaks excellent English—thankfully,
because my Spanish is rusty in the extreme—with a Cuban accent. I have tried to transcribe his words accurately, and I apologize for any errors that my untuned-to-Spanish ears might have introduced.

Sosa speaks with the same urgency, warmth, humor, generosity, and passion with which he plays the piano. Our easy-going half-hour chat touched on his musical approach and intentions, some personal history, his artistic philosophy, and a forthcoming album.

MM: How are you?

OS: OK. I’m dealing with a kid here. He’s in a computer world, and it’s not easy to do, man. It’s something, man.

MM: You’re probably responsible for that.

OS: Anyway, man, I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m responsible for and what I’m not. (laughs)

MM: I know your son’s name is Lonious. What’s your daughter’s name?

OS: Iyade. She turned nine now. Lonious is going to turn 12, so he’s in the beginning of
something. (laughs) But he’s cool, he’s cool, he’s cool. The only thing, he’s really deep in the computer. He plays with people—I don’t know—he played with somebody from New Zealand, with another guy from New York, and they don’t even know each other. But you know, this is the new world, man, the new world.

MM: Yeah, it’s speeding up, isn’t it?

OS: Yeah, yeah, yeah, everything is going too fast, and for them, being in front of the screen is like their life, it’s their life, it’s their life.

MM: I’m going to start probably the same way I started last time. I have to tell you, Omar, that your music is so important to me and so valuable. It touches me deeply.

OS: Thank you. I appreciate this. Sometimes it’s good to hear this. (rueful laughter)

MM: It’s a refuge for me. It’s a place I go to recharge myself, it’s a place I go to celebrate. It touches me in places that other music doesn’t, and I’m not quite sure how you manage that, but you do.

OS: I think in the end it’s simple. It’s trying to be honest with yourself and try to spread what comes to you. And actually, don’t try to demonstrate nothing, just to translate what comes to you. This is pretty much what I try to do. Now I’m working on my new record. It’s going to be called il [ee-lay]. It’s a Yoruban word which means “home,” it means “earth.” Actually what I do in the new record is try to go back to my traditional music, like a conga, bolero. I did a version of one traditional son, really really important in my life. It’s called “La Tarde” de Sindo Garay [Cuban composer/musician, 1867–1968]. But I did it in a kind of crazy rumba way. So I’m
working on this record now almost every day without a break. (laughs) But this is a way I try to respond to your question. Everything is based in emotion. Every record I do is based in
something that comes to me. Sometimes there are problems, sometimes they are beautiful things that happen to me, but I always try to translate this in the best poetical way I can
manage. So some people like it, some people hate it. But thank you, you are one of the guys that like it. (laughs)

OMAR SOSAMM: Yes, I like it very much.

OS: Thanks. (laughs) I appreciate it.

MM: Three of your last four records—leaving out Eggun, which was a commissioned piece—but Alma, Calma, and Senses, all three of those are very interior records and very quiet records. What happened? What led you down the path to those recordings?

OS: You know, it’s a lot of things, man. You know, first, peace is something I see we all need. The whole world needs peace. Like I told you a few seconds ago, everything goes too fast.
Everything goes fast with the Internet, everything needs to be in the moment. Of course, I love technology, I use technology. But I think art sometimes needs to reflect what the human being feels and what the human being needs. In that case, I try to translate it in my own way. So
personally I need to say, you know, every time I hear some music—especially here in Europe, the only thing you hear is kunsh  kunsh  kunsh  kunsh  kunsh  kunsh [techno pounding]. It’s loud and kind of aggressive in a way, even if some beautiful thing happens underneath. But here the house and all these kinds of heavy beats—actually in a way come from Africa, because this kind of heavy beat comes from the bougarabou rhythm—but here they take this kind of crazy beat and this kind of aggressive music to keep the people kind of awake. But with these records—with Alma, with Calma, and with Senses—I try to make music, first, for me to listen to some
music I want to listen to. And after, you know, if I can share it with some people, it’s amazing. But personally, I need peace, man, peace is something I miss. Every time I go to the airport, I see a lot of faces, and everybody’s angry, and you say, “Please excuse me.” “What are you doing, what are you doing, what are you doing?” Because everything goes too fast. I say again, the
people don’t have time to relax and to say, “OK. I want to give a break for myself. I want to give something for myself. I want to enjoy the beautiful morning.” No, the people don’t have time for this, but through the music, you can find the opportunity because everybody has headphones. Everybody listens to music on mp3s today. Everybody has their headphones all the time, in the subway, in the airplane, in the airport, in the bus, in the street. So at least I can deliver
something that maybe some people are going to enjoy, and maybe some people want to listen to in some moment.

MM: Yeah.

OS: But on another side, you know, Senses was an interesting period. I had a kind of— I don’t want to say “depression,” because this is a fashion word today. Everybody has some depression in one way or another. But I was a little down in a way about things around me. You know, my family. My mom was really sick. You know, she passed three weeks ago.

MM: Oh, I’m sorry, Omar.

OS: No, no, it’s part of life. Now I feel a release. Because she was with heavy Alzheimer’s for more than 10 years, and for me, it was kind of— What I need to say: Too much, man. Because it was something beyond me. I wasn’t able to do nothing to support her, except to try to send my love, to be there when I can, and try to give everything material I can give to her. But even if I give all the material things, yet this situation is never going to change. I need to say, fortunately, she’s in another level now, and I need to say, I feel some release. But in that moment, I had pain inside of me. I went to the studio. Actually, it wasn’t a studio. [It was the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, which gave Sosa the use of a Yamaha concert grand.] I played for 24 hours by myself from about 12:00 in the night to 3:00 in the morning. I was just healing myself with the piano because, I need to say, man, I think the piano is the only thing today that I can heal myself with when I have something. Because I sit at the piano, and I try to express whatever comes to me. I always say, If you give love, there’s no reason you don’t receive love back to you. So this is pretty much what I try to do with the music that comes to me. I don’t want to impress anybody. I don’t want to make a record for the people to say, OK, look how good this guy plays or how bad he’s playing or what complex music he does. I want to do the record just for me to listen and for other people to
listen to the record, top to the end. No playing the first track—no, I don’t like the second track, I’ll go to the third track—no. I try to have a journey. I try to go from one place to another. You know, delicate. It’s like when you do a really well organized tour, you go from one city to another city. You don’t go from one country to another country and fly 10 hours to play a concert. This is not a good tour. (laughs)

Omar Sosa. Photo by Massimo Mantovani.

Omar Sosa. Photo by Massimo Mantovani.

MM: You know, I’ve been listening to Real Live this week [a promotional release featuring the New AfroCuban Quartet], and one of the things that struck me about that record is that it really is a journey. There’s a very definite structure to how those songs are organized. You start with “Iyawo,” and that’s kind of an
invocation, and by the time you get to “Muévete en D,” you’ve gone through some tough times, and you come out with an
affirmation of life and good feeling. So it really is a wonderful journey.

OS: This is the idea. This is what it is. There’s really no mystery behind this. It’s really simple, man. You try to follow your instinct and try to follow your soul. Try to listen to your soul, try to listen to the voices of the spirit and the ancestors and light. They are always going to put you in a duration, and you have like a wave. You’re in a boat in the middle of the sea, with a beautiful day. And this is what I try to recreate with the music that comes to me: a beautiful day.
Sometimes it comes out sad, but it’s completely out of me. I don’t have any control to say, “OK, I’m going to play this beautiful music because I want only beautiful music.” No. I let my body go, I let my soul go, and after this, you know, I organize everything the best way I can to make a, let’s say, lovely and peaceful music, man.

MM: That’s one of the things that I love about your music, Omar. You drop down into a very
different place. You just said you let your body go, you let your soul go. You enter a different realm, it seems to me. I’ve watched you play on stage, and I’ve actually seen it happen, where you move from the reality of the stage into a deeper reality, and you carry all of us with you.

OS: But this is what I live. I say what I live. I translate what I live. I approach my life in, let’s say, a free way if it’s possible to say. Even if nothing is free today (laughs), and everything has a
structure, and we need to follow the rules and blah blah blah blah. But in music, so far today, you know, I don’t follow any rules. I need to say thanks to the Supreme Force because I do what I like to do. I don’t sign with any major label to tell me you need to do this record now, you need to play with this, and you need to do this. I just do what I like to do, and so far, all my life until today, I have this gift—because I need to say it’s a gift. It’s an important thing to have a good team around me. I have an amazing and wonderful manager [Scott Price]. He’s my friend, he’s my brother, and sometimes he’s my father. (laughs) We are only two persons, and his family and my family, so we need to deal with a lot of issues, but it’s only two persons that need to deal with these issues. So we have the gift and the blessing to be a good friend—thanks, God—until today. I hope it’s going to be forever. You never know, but I look for this. And the music in a way reflects this. You know, we are not so famous. I am not so famous. (laughs) But I survive. I put food on the table, I can pay my rent, I can pay my bills. I think it’s OK, you know. Sometimes with a big scene, sometimes you can go completely out of your mind. You don’t have any
control. Thanks, God, I have the opportunity to play the music I like to play, and record what I want to record.

MM: Let me ask you about the new quartet. What was your objective when you pulled these four guys together, including yourself, and why these guys?

Left to right: Saint-Hill, Tomas, Simpson, Sosa

Left to right: Saint-Hill, Tomas, Simpson, Sosa.

OS: The direction I have now is to go back to my Cuban roots and to give some homage to my hometown, Camagüey. For a long time, you know, I tried to create a mostly Cuban band, but you know, sometimes there’s no time, sometimes you don’t have the right persons, sometimes it’s difficult. But this time I had the opportunity to put together three Cuban guys and one African guy, and actually two of them come from my hometown.

MM: Leandro and Ernesto are from Camagüey?

OS: Sí. Ernesto Simpson is from Camagüey, and Leandro Saint-Hill is from Camagüey, and
Childo Tomas is not from Camagüey. He’s from Mozambique, and we have worked together for more than 14 years. This is the next record. Actually, Real Live was the previous— It’s not even a record. We call it a promotional record to put the band together and let everybody in the band— “Hey, guys, we have some sound!” We have some soulful sound. We have some street sound. We have some African sound. We have some traditional sound. So now we’re almost finished with our next record. It’s going to be out in the beginning of February. It’s called ilẹ: Camagüey ni Maputo. I have on this record good friends—they almost all come from my hometown. We have Yosvany Terry—he’s from Camagüey.

MM: Oh, I love his playing. Fabulous saxophonist.

OS: Yeah, he’s one of my men. We have Yosvany’s father, Don Pancho Terry on chekeré. We have another Cuban guy. He’s one of the top percussion players today. He’s not from
Camagüey, but he’s a Cuban 100 percent—Pedrito Martinez. He’s the man in New York now, man. He plays with everybody now. Today, he’s one of the most knowledgeable guys in our
traditional music, with open and big ears, and he can put everything inside of any
contemporary context. So this is going to be the next record. I need to give some homage to my hometown, to my heritage, to my ancestors, to my masters—and actually, to ourself (laughs)—because we all are in our 50s. Ernesto is 50. Childo is 50. I am 49 now, and I’m going to turn 50 in the beginning of the next year. Leandro is a younger guy—he’s 46.

MM: He’s a baby.

OS: (Laughing) He’s a baby! Don Pancho is almost 70. I got to say I got the key from the blessed to dedicate this record to my mom because my mom passed two days after we recorded this record. Actually, this is going to be the first record where we have a casual cover—like when we go to the beach in Cuba. It’s like a casual thing, and the music is more— Even though it has a lot of deep moments, the foundation of the music is the Cuban rhythm—the conga, the rumba, the danzón, the chachachá, the bolero—and they’re all mixed together—and with traditional music from Mozambique. So this is why the record is called Camagüey ni Maputo because, yeah, we’re going to listen to the connection between traditional music that comes from Mozambique and contemporary music played by Cuban guys, especially from Camagüey, on traditional
instruments like chekeré, like conga, like kalimba. I’m working, I’m still working on the record.

MM: How did you meet Childo Tomas?

omar_9062OS: Well, I met Childo back in the day, almost 15 years ago. He was a sub in a band here, playing in a club called La Boîte, here in Barcelona. Yeah, this club is out of business now, but I saw this bass player playing funk and a cool groove, and I said, “Whoo! You know what? I’m going to meet this guy.”
Actually, when he got a break between sets, I introduced myself: “Hello, my name is Omar Sosa. I’m a Cuban piano player. You don’t know me, but you know, I’m going to give some music to you. If you want to play with me, let me know. If you don’t want to play with me, let me know. I like the way you play. I think together we can come out to some interesting sound.” And he called me two weeks later and said, “Man, I love your music. This is the music I want to play.” And now we play for 14 years.

MM: He’s such a beautiful player. That opening, on Real Live, of “Iyawo” with just the two of you— Oh, my God. It’s so beautiful. He makes that bass just ache. Such a beautiful sound that he gets out of that instrument.

OS: Today, in my opinion, he’s one of the solid and unique electric bassists, with his own sound. He doesn’t imitate anybody. You know, we all have limitations. Sometimes, if we use our
limitations as a gift, we can come out with a unique sound. Most of the time, every electric bass player, they try to imitate Jaco Pastorius or Marcus Miller or Victor Wooten or all these big names. He’s unique because he listened to all of them, but he comes out with some deep African sound. I need to say, over all of this year, we have a focus in the African tradition, and we always say Africa is our motherland. We’re going to die before we go deep inside of what Africa needs to tell us. So we need to develop every single second our knowledge base in the African tradition. And this is what we do. This is what I do. This what he does.

MM: You know, I heard that so clearly on Eggun—that kind of searching and development was very clear on that record.

OS: This is the idea. This is the idea. Actually, il is going to be the same, but is more oriented to our Afro-Cuban tradition and the Mozambique tradition. But you’re going to hear a lot of stuff. You’re going to hear Satie. You’re going to hear Bill Evans.

MM: Did you just say “Satie”?

OS: Yeah, Satie is my hero.

MM: I love Erik Satie.

OS: Yeah, this is my man. He’s beauty, and he’s a flower in the morning. I call his music “flower in the morning.”

MM: You know, I think that’s one thing we share, Omar. Two of my favorite composers, I think, are two of your favorites, and that’s Thelonious Monk and Erik Satie. We talked about this the last time we spoke, a couple of years ago.

OS: That’s all right, man. (laughs) The one guy is rough, and the other guy is completely sound and refined and perfect. These two together, they’re amazing, and if you put Chopin in the
middle . . . (laughs)

MM: We’re on the same wavelength.Omarquote

OS: Yeah, this is the vibe, man. This is the music I try to make. Rough music with delicate attitude.
Something is going to come out. It’s hard, it’s hard.
Because how we live every day, it’s always convulsed and crazy, but there’s always a beautiful and nice
window to be delicate and to be refined. You don’t need to be completely sophisticated, you can be delicate. And with this beauty, you can touch people’s heart, and you can touch, first, your heart. And if your heart is happy and smiles, the people’s heart is going to smile, too. This is my philosophy, man.

MM: It’s a good philosophy, Omar, and it comes through loud and clear in your music.

OS: This is what it is, is what it is, is what it is. And I need to say thank you every single second to my spirit in life and to my ancestors because they give me the opportunity and they give me the force to continue in one direction. Because, you know, it’s a really strong fight in this world to be a success. A lot of people fight every single second in their life to be a success. I always say
success is one thing that’s going to come to you if he wants to come to you. But you need to work, and you need to be honest with yourself, to represent and to put out what comes to you, and success is always going to look around. And he or her—I don’t know if it’s a man or woman (laughs)—is going to pick out a person. Like Lorca says, if the success arrives, I will be hard working. Work every day. Because you know, I don’t look for success. I look for happiness, and happiness has nothing to do with success.

MM: Well, Omar, I’m going to let you go. You’ve been very generous with your time. Thank you.

OS: Anytime, anytime.

Omar Sosa and the New AfroCuban Quartet
Wednesday and Thursday, July 23 and 24, 8:00 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $35/$30 member/student
For tickets or more information, click here, or call 505-268-0044.

© 2014 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “The Return of the Shaman

  1. Rick

    Thank you for the enlightening interview w/Omar. I was fortunate to be @ the Outpost on Thursday night to take in his new Quarteto and musica. The music soared and lifted my spirits and for this I have to say one more time, thanks!

    1. Mel Post author

      Glad that you enjoyed the interview, Rick. He’s a pleasure to talk with. The music Thursday night was transporting, no? They were on a different plane compared to Wednesday’s performance.

  2. Brandon Kennedy

    Thanks for all your writing, Mel! I’m hoping to have Omar on KUNM for a live interview on Thursday afternoon Freeform after 3 PM and your interview is extremely helpful….

  3. Tom Dellaira

    Oh, my goodness, Mel. What a trove of love, beauty, and artistry. Thank you for your skillful conduit-ness.


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