Omar Sosa: The Afro-Cuban Alchemist Of Jazz The jazz pianist and longtime collaborator Childo Tomas pay a visit to NPR's Studio 4A to play music steeped in the Afro-Cuban tradition, but fueled by Sosa's teeming imagination and eclectic inspirations.
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Omar Sosa: The Afro-Cuban Alchemist Of Jazz

Hear Omar Sosa perform in NPR's Studio 4-A.

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. If you looked up world music in a dictionary, Omar Sosa could be on the first page. He grew up in Cuba, but has lived all over the world, including in 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.

His latest album, "Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry," connects the sounds of the African Diaspora to those of the Americas. And he's here with us now in NPR's Studio 4A. He's accompanied by Childo Tomas. Welcome to you both. Thank you for joining us.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. OMAR SOSA (Jazz Pianist, Composer): Thank you for the invitation.

MARTIN: You're known for your collaborations, and I'd like to ask how you start them. Do you begin with a sound, an idea or a person that you want to work with?

Mr. SOSA: 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 work for nine years non-stop. And this is one of the ways we use to collaborate.

Another way is in a dream. Sometimes 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. What about this album, which is a collaboration with Tim Eriksen, who's a specialist in native and adopted American musics? How did that come about? Was it a dream? Or…

Mr. SOSA: Both. Both. Both. Both. We did a (unintelligible), and he teach a class, I think in musicology or something like this. and he started his class, and he sings, and the students. There's only 50 students, something like this. I was in shock because he put all the students, (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of humming)

Mr. SOSA: And he starts singing. The only way I can find to be inside of the class is go to the piano and start to follow him. And when we finished, I tell him we need to do something. And now we have this live recording in Blue Note.

I need to say I'm proud of this, because we went deep in the sort of music I used to listen a lot, with traditional Indian-American, traditional African-American music, and he brought me to this kind of area. Now I'm in love. I want to do another record like this with streams.

MARTIN: And you mentioned 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. Well, a kalimba sounds like this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SOSA: Okay, okay, in the 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 know never know what's going to happen until they play. We don't know what's going to happen now until we play.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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 each work. I talked to Tim about this, and he told me, don't worry. The only thing that we need to do is play what we feel inside of us. So we are together in the (unintelligible) tradition, but not with any complication or crazy phrase, because the songs, the lyrics is for the 18th century or the 17th century. And I think it's a gift for us to have the opportunity to see and live this moment when African-American come up 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. They all listen, 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. But we have a couple of songs in the record. You have the really, really strong Cuban tradition. And one is "Gabriel's Trumpet." And I use some traditional rhythm and - we don't use a lot in Cuba, but it's really African, (unintelligible). It's called Makuta(ph). It's pretty much this here.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SOSA: It's really African, but we developed in Cuba 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. And I notice on this "Across Africa (Dream)" is a song I dedicate to the deities, and another song is "Eleggua (Eshu)." It's one of our main orishas in Cuba - I mean, the deity. I don't know how you call it here.

MARTIN: A deity. A deity. Sure.

Mr. SOSA: I always close - or 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, well great.

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

MARTIN: I think we'd better.

Mr. SOSA: Yeah. Okay?

(Soundbite of song, "Promised Land")

Mr. SOSA: (Foreign language spoken)

(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 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 giving 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. I call it (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Omar Sosa was kind enough to join us in NPR 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 And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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