Interview with Pianist/Composer Omar Sosa: Messages from Spirit, Light, and the Ancestors

Omar Sosa

Back in 2004, when Cuban pianist and composer Omar Sosa released his masterwork, Mulatos, I described him as the otic equivalent of the Very Large Array, and as the years have progressed, his ears have only gotten bigger. They suck in electronic and acoustic sounds from North and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, Arabia, and Asia, which he weaves into organic sonic tapestries on the warp of Afro-Cuban–inflected jazz, often in collaboration with artists from around the world.

This week he brings his Quarteto AfroCubano—his musical home base, if you will, featuring Cuban saxophonist Leandro Saint-Hill, Mozambican electric bassist Childo Tomas, and Cuban drummer Raul Pineda—to the Outpost. I had the opportunity to interview him a couple of weeks ago. His positive energy is infectious, both on the phone and at the piano. He spoke with great animation and frequent laughter on topics ranging from his musical mission to his latest recording (the sublime Transparent Water, reviewed here) to the profound influence of Thelonious Monk.

Our edited conversation, along with details about the upcoming concert, follows.

MM: How are you?

OS: We’re good, good, man. I have the opportunity to be at home for a couple of days, and actually, every time I have this window, I say, Wow, it’s so good to be home. But you know, it’s better to be on the road, too.

MM: You’ve been traveling all over the place the last year or so.

OS: Well, I need to say thank you because it means we have the opportunity to spread the message, to share in the spirit and the music, and it’s good.

MM: Spreading the message—what is that about for you, Omar?

OS: Well, you know, it’s our mission, it’s my mission. For me, being part of this musical world has given me the opportunity to express what my spirit and light and the ancestors tell me all the time. You know—please be yourself and listen to the voice, and basically this is what I do. I listen to the voice of my spirit and light and the ancestors, and I say it. I don’t try to impress anybody—no, no, no. It’s just a message we want to give. What is the message? The message is peace, love, and unity between different traditions. This is basically what I do with my quartet; with Transparent Water, [which] is my latest project; when I play with Italian trumpet player Paolo Fresu; with GFS Trio—with Trilok Gurtu from India, Paolo, and myself. It’s like this, man—this is how I think I need to do what I do.

MM: Well, right now, that’s an important message because the world is in a difficult place.

OS: Yeah, difficult place because we as human beings put it in a difficult place. We as human beings have a road to take care of the place, the world we live in. Answer to your question: we need to put attention on this to have a better world. Because the world is always going to be there. We are the persons who need to really think what we’re going to do with the world in the time we’re going to live, the time we’re going to stay in the human race, you know. I don’t know if I answered your question.

MM: No, you did, and you mentioned Transparent Water. From the very first notes of that record, I was captured. Such peace. It’s just a beautiful piece of work.

OS: Thank you. I appreciate it.

MM: You keep expanding. You’ve included musicians from Cuba before, from Africa before, from South America before, but now, on this record, you’re reaching out even farther, and you have these people from the other side of the world, and you make it all come together.

OS: I don’t know what is the question you ask, but whatever it is, you already give the answer. (laughs) You know, it’s so simple, man. The idea was this: Transparent Water, if we all come together, if we all share what we have, sharing the knowledge we have and the traditions, and be honest and put it on top of the table and respect each other, always something good will happen. So this, in a way, is what we try to prove with Transparent Water. Because there was basically no music around. We created the music based in how we think the clean and transparent water is going to be for us. How this element is inside of our soul—how we can translate the significant soul of the element through the music. This piece of music came out, and I’m happy, I love it. I listen a lot to it, too (laughs), because this is peace, man. When you see all the problems in the world, how the people try to divide cultures, divide traditions: I come from this; I’m rich, you’re poor; you’re white, I’m black, I’m Chinese, I’m Asian— Wait a minute, man. At this point in the human race, we start to come back to those kinds of things? We all need to be together to face the real problems that humanity has. So I think through music, we try to tell [this]. . . . We can be together. We all can share everything. It’s not a problem where you come from, it’s not a problem what religion you come from—just let’s be together and be clean and transparent, something will happen positive.

MM: That’s something that you continue to do with your music.

OS: I say again, it’s a mission, man. We do what we need to do. We need to be honest with ourselves, be clean and transparent with ourselves, and say what we really feel inside, without any border. . . . It’s nothing complex. (laughs) This is what I live in my life.

MM: I wanted to ask you about Mr. Thelonious Monk again because his 100th birthday is two weeks from today.

Thelonious Monk crossing hands. Photo taken from the album “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Courtesy of Arnaud Boubet — private collection.

OS: Man, you know what? He’s a hero. He’s one of the most revolutionary musicians I ever met. I didn’t meet him personally, but for me, listening to his music is like having the guy in front of myself. . . . He showed me how important is the freedom inside of every note you are going to play.

MM: Yeah.

OS: He is saying jazz is freedom, and freedom is a philosophy, and jazz is a philosophy. Jazz is the philosophy of freedom. You know, I get this in my mind like a stamp, man. Every single moment that I put myself in front of the instrument or in front of a piece of paper to write music, this is the first thing that comes to my mind: Jazz is the philosophy of freedom. Don’t be shy with yourself. Say what you want to say. This is for me, you know, like a stamp—boom, boom, boom—and I’m happy, man, to have this stamping inside my brain and inside of my soul because it’s one less thing that can make my backpack heavy. You know, when you are free, your backpack is light. Freedom has given me the opportunity to be light.

MM: You’ve written a couple of tunes that you dedicated to Monk. What are those?

OS: One is an old song called “Remember Monk,” and I have another song. It is called “Lonious and Thelonious.” [Lonious is his son’s name.] “Remember Monk” is part of [the album] Spirit of the Roots, and I recorded it again in the first big band record I did with NDR Bigband, Celebration. You know, I like the version with the Bigband—this majestic sound, with a lot of horns. Wow, this was a whoo! One of my favorite big bands, period. Trumpets and trombones and saxophones—I love it. It’s like you’re surrounded with great people, great musicians, and we all have a good time. It’s like a big party. I really love this version.

MM: So I see that you have a different drummer on this trip: Raul Pineda, the young Grammy-winning drummer from Havana.

OS: This is one of the main differences of the quartet because for years, I tried to play with Raul. I know him from Cuba, but we never got the opportunity to play together. The difference of this quartet is going to be how we are going to integrate the sound of Raul Pineda. Because something that I love in musicians [is] when they have their own voice, their own sound. For me, this is a fundamental. We all are a band together, but everybody imprints their own sound. . . . Playing with Raul is all dreams come true, and we’re going to have a good time. You know, one of the pieces we’re going to do in the program and that we don’t play for a while is “Remember Monk.”

Leandro Saint-Hill, Childo Tomas, Raul Pineda

MM: Oh, great. Speaking of Monk, you know César Bauvallet [Cuban trombonist, percussionist, and sonero who introduced Afro-Cuban salsa to New Mexico with his superb band Son Como Son].

OS: Oh, yeah, right, this is my own brother, man.

MM: César did a show at the Outpost this summer, and he did a version of “Well, You Needn’t” with the clave.

OS: Yeah yeah yeah.

MM: “Well, You Needn’t” and the clave go together like they were made to be together.

OS: Yeah yeah yeah, it’s no mystery behind the music with Black and deep African roots. They all can be together, they all can fit together, and they’re all going to be together. This is why the clave was inside of the piece, and the piece was inside of the clave.

MM: It worked so beautifully, and it was a great concert. César is a wonderful musician.

OS: Yeah, he’s a master, right? Back in the day, I called [César and his colleagues] “the old farts with a great groove.”

MM: I can’t wait to tell him that.

OS: Give my love to him, man.

MM: Will do. Omar, thanks so much for your time. I’ll let you get back to relaxing at home. I love you, man. I’m so happy you’re in the world.

OS: Yeah, I love you, too, brother. See you in a few days.

Omar Sosa Quarteto AfroCubano
Thursday, October 12, 7:30 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $35 (general)/$30 (member/student)
For tickets or more information, click here, or call 505-268-0044.

© 2017 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Interview with Pianist/Composer Omar Sosa: Messages from Spirit, Light, and the Ancestors

  1. Jamie W

    I just loved reading your fantastic interview; you are a lucky man, Mel Minter. Omar has such a powerful, kind and loving spirit. I can hardly wait to see him at the Outpost.

    1. Mel Post author

      Thanks, Jamie. Glad you enjoyed it. And you’re right about Omar. I’m looking forward to the ceremony with great anticipation.


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