Omar Sosa has a particular relationship with the ancestral sprits. Many musicians—Patator Valdez, Hassan Hakmoun, Boukman Eksperyans, for example—have been guided by the spirits through the creative gates and kept them safe within. But for Sosa they have opened wide a universe of sound to plumb, one so vast even the ancestors might not yet have traveled it.
Born of African descent in Camaguey, Cuba, this brilliant pianist, arranger and composer was certain to have the orishas bred in his bones. He owes his musical calling to them. “I don’t do nothing,” he confesses. “I listen to the message of the spirits ancestral and I put it on tape, and that’s all.”
When we met, Sosa’s neck was festooned beneath an arsenal of gris-gris. In view were unaffiliated tchatchkes of stone, shell, beads and silver, while under his shirt were tucked the real deal: two strands of ilekes—traditional beaded necklaces of the Santería religion—green and black for Oggun, red and white for Changó. Over his pate, shaven except for a sprig of locks, long, beaded and reaching out like antennae, Sosa sported an Eric Dolphy-insigniaed baseball cap, signaling that jazz, too, was his game.
This long, lithe, bespectacled man, his seeming youth betrayed by but a scraggle of gray hairs peeking out from his sculpted beard, while sliding, listing and hopping in his seat to punctuate his thoughts, reports he originally wanted to be a folkloric dancer. But, says Sosa with a shrug of his shoulders, his father, “a really amazing father,” and usually as obliging as the spirits, discouraged the choice. “It was a kind of machismo.”
Sosa studied percussion at the Escuela Provincial de Musica in Camaguey, then moved to Havana where, for seven years, he studied percussion and piano. He experimented with a germinating hip-hop generation in the late ’80s and early ’90s and worked as musical director for avant-garde singer Xiomara Laugart (who now sings with Yerba Buena in New York). But Sosa was restless. “We Cubans, we have one problem,” he says almost ruefully. “The ego is in our way.”
Cubans are so proud, he explains, of their great musical heritage, that they’re loath to explore the gifts of other cultures. “I like avant-garde music, and to go and mix between cultures,” he understates, “but we are so closed with our music.” Later, Sosa retracted some, suggesting that things are changing now on the island—he’s been away for 10 years—that contemporary and extra-national influences are infusing the traditions.
In 1993 he set out to explore: first stop, Afro-Ecuador and the Esmeraldas coast, where he was able to absorb the rhythms and marimba of an atavistic African enclave. From Ecuador, he found Afro-Venez