A Jazz Legend's Unforgettable Visit To 'Tell Me More'

Omar Sosa To kick off the new year, Tell Me More revisits memorable conversations with musicians heard on the program in 2009. Legendary jazz musician and composer Omar Sosa has earned his ranking within a unique class of world musicians. Since his childhood years spent in Cuba, Sosa has been able to call many other places home, such as Ecuador, Spain and San Francisco. Along the way, he's soaked up various sounds and rhythms of the cultures he encountered. Back In April, Sosa dropped by NPR's Studio 4a for a performance chat in which he described his efforts to connect the sounds of the African diaspora with that of the Americas.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Happy New Year.

Over the course of this past week we've been asking contributors and newsmakers to weigh in on what they considered the most important news events of 2009 and the decade. We also share the comments you made over the year about stories that resonated with you. Today, though, we want to do something a little different. The staff wanted to give a second listen to some of our favorite music performances over the past year.

Coming up, we'll hear from two breakout stars - singer-songwriter Eric Hutchinson, who has been on tour with Kelly Clarkson of �American Idol� fame. And later, the acoustic duo Sam and Ruby. That is all later.

But first, Jazz pianist and composer Omar Sosa. He is the embodiment of world music. He grew up in Cuba but has lived all over the world, including Ecuador, Spain, and San Francisco. Along the way he soaked up the various sounds and rhythms of the cultures he encounters and teamed up with a range of impressive musicians. Back in April, Sosa along with kalimba player Childo Tomas visited us in NPR's Studio 4A to talk about the album �Across the Divide: A Tale Of Rhythm And Ancestry.� The music seeks to connect the sounds of the African Diaspora with that of the Americas. Sosa began our discussion by telling us how he finds the musicians to collaborate with.

Mr. OMAR SOSA (Jazz Pianist and Composer, Cuba): Sometimes, you see a person in a festival all over the world or in a record. You look for this person, but this person is not available. And most of the time, I hook up with a musician especially with Childo. Now we were for nine year non-stop. And this is one of the way we use to collaborate. Another way is in a dream. Sometime when I sleep, I have some idea. I wake up, I write on a piece of paper, and the next day I say, wow, this is why I don't sleep so well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Wow. Childo Tomas, who plays the bass. But he's also playing today, he's also brought a kalimba with him. Can you tell us a little bit about the instrument. And Childo, will you help us hear it?

Mr. SOSA: We will. Kalimba sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SOSA: Okay, okay, in United States, we call this instrument thumb piano.

MARTIN: Thumb piano, oh.

Mr. SOSA: In Africa, it's different kind of names, but the meaning is the same. It's always to celebrate some special events or rituals, to communicate with ancestors, and this is one of the voices of the ancestors. For me, it's one of the most beautiful sounds that you can find because you can listen on and on and on. Something I really like is the way every musician developed his own melodies because you never know what going to happen until they play. We don't know what going to happen now until we play.

MARTIN: Okay, we'll let's hear some. Let's hear - I think we're going to hear kalimba in a song, which is "Across Africa (Arrival)." Here it is.

(Soundbite of song, "Across Africa (Arrival)")

Mr. SOSA: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Omar Sosa. His latest album is called "Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry." This album is a bit of a narrative, you know, not literal - not a literal narrative. Interesting that you had to have started work on it before the election in the United States, right? Did you start on it before?

Mr. SOSA: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

MARTIN: Were you working on it while the election was taking place? Which was, of course, in this country an historic election, the first African-American president, really a son of the Diaspora in every way. Did that historical fact sort of inform the music in any way?

Mr. SOSA: When I started develop the music, one of the things that come out to me is, how we can do music simple but with tradition inside each note of this work. And I think it's a gift for us to have the opportunity to see and live this moment when African-American come out and be a president of United States.

MARTIN: There's always this question of - and one of the reasons I think it's interesting and relevant to this project is that this project is about creating the new, but drawing upon the past. And when it comes to history, oftentimes there's an argument about that. Some people say, well, you know, you need to leave that alone, because that - we don't, you know, we don't want to talk about that because that's all about pain and suffering. We don't want to hear all about that.

Mr. SOSA: Well, but, you know, if you don't listen to elders, if you don't learn the elders, you're never going to come out with something new and fresh. In the Santeria tradition in the religion of (unintelligible) Africa, we need to learn our fathers and grandfathers because they already lived all this here. We need to listen to voices. And music is one easy way to let the people know that tradition is important.

MARTIN: Speaking of fathers and grandfathers, as I mentioned, you were raised in Cuba. Is there anything on the album that feels distinctively Cuban?

Mr. SOSA: Oh, yeah. Well, first, the way I play. It's called Makuta(ph). It's pretty much this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SOSA: It's really African, but we developed in Cuba in and went in our own way. I use, as a link between the lyrics come from the African-American tradition and a new way to play with contemporary harmony. I always close -open my record with a song for Eleggua. We use the "Promised Land." It is an Indian-American prayer.

MARTIN: Well, I think we need to hear it, don't you? Because if we don't, I don't know, something could happen.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man: Eleggua.

MARTIN: Eleggua?

Mr. SOSA: Let's play something for Eleggua.

MARTIN: I think we'd better.

Mr. SOSA: Okay.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of applause)

MARTIN: Omar, I must say it's hard to - we're applauding, but this feels like prayer to me.

Mr. SOSA: Thank you. This is the idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Is it - is this how you pray?

Mr. SOSA: Well, yes. It's the way we found to translate the message.

MARTIN: Well, thank you for coming to spend some time with us today. It's been wonderful.

Mr. SOSA: Thank you. Thank you for give an opportunity to share this music.

MARTIN: What would you like to end our visit on? What shall we play to say a reluctant farewell?

Mr. SOSA: Well, we're going to play another song. Let's play the much traditional rhythm, call Todi dance song.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Omar Sosa was kind enough to join us in NPR's Studio 4A, along with Childo Tomas, who played kalimba and other instruments. To see pictures of the performance and hear full versions of the songs, please check at our Web site at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, soul singer, Eric Hutchinson. That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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Omar Sosa: The Afro-Cuban Alchemist Of Jazz

Kalimba i i

Childo Thomas plays the Kalimba, or thumb piano. Christopher Toothman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Toothman/NPR
Kalimba

Childo Thomas plays the Kalimba, or thumb piano.

Christopher Toothman/NPR
Omar i i

Sosa's performances are deeply moving, profoundly musical and often full of surprises. Christopher Toothman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Toothman/NPR
Omar

Sosa's performances are deeply moving, profoundly musical and often full of surprises.

Christopher Toothman/NPR

Just The Music

'Song for Eleggua'

4 min 46 sec
 

'Danzon'

3 min 44 sec
 

Jazz pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa's soul lies in his unique blend of Afro-Cuban rhythms. But within his poetic, swirling performances, you may encounter whiffs of everyone from Tchaikovsky to Bud Powell to Brian Eno. Sosa and his eclectic group of musicians combine electronic loops, found sound, children's toys and African and Middle Eastern instruments, all tastefully employed to create a colorful fabric of sound.

Sosa Primary (300)

Pianist, composer and bandleader Omar Sosa performs his eclectic blend of Afro-Cuban jazz in NPR's Studio 4A. Christopher Toothman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Christopher Toothman/NPR

Sosa and Childo Thomas (on kalimba, or thumb piano), his longtime collaborator from Mozambique, visited NPR's Studio 4A recently to play for Tell Me More, with host Michel Martin and an enthusiastic audience.

Sosa and Tomas played around with the traditional danzon rhythm. They found a snare drum in a corner of our studio and decided to incorporate it. At first, Sosa delicately placed the notes; then, with an ever-widening grin, he goaded Tomas on, guiding the traditional rhythm into wilder territory.

Sosa's influences and inspirations are as diverse as his music. His early interests were in progressive Cuban musicians such as Chucho Valdez, and later the free-thinking jazz giant Thelonious Monk. These days, Sosa says he's inspired by the moods and sounds of his dreams ("In a dream, you have another life / That's why I don't sleep so well") and musicians he meets on the road, like vocalist Tim Eriksen, who turned Sosa on to Native American music, and who appears on Sosa's new recording.

Sosa is also a deeply spiritual performer. He drapes a red cloth out from the inside of the piano, he often lights candles and he's always tuned to the voices of his ancestors. ("If you don't listen to the Elders," he says, "you're never going to come out with something new and fresh.") When Sosa plays songs dedicated to one of the Santeria Orishas, or deities, his performances become more like religious meditations than freewheeling jazz improvisations.

Sosa seemed genuinely touched when Martin asked him to play one of his more spiritual tunes — a song for Eleggua, the deity who determines fate. Sosa began by reaching inside the piano, plucking strings with one hand while playing the keyboard with the other.

It was, like so many Sosa performances, deeply moving, profoundly musical and full of surprises. At one point, both musicians stopped and beat out a complex, interlocking rhythm by slapping the sides of their mouths.

Omar Sosa's latest CD is titled Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry. He's currently on tour in the U.S. and Europe with his Afreecanos Quartet.

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