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Omar Sosa: The Afro-Cuban Alchemist Of Jazz

Childo Thomas plays the Kalimba, or thumb piano.
Christopher Toothman
/
NPR
Childo Thomas plays the Kalimba, or thumb piano.
Sosa's performances are deeply moving, profoundly musical and often full of surprises.
Christopher Toothman / NPR
/
NPR
Sosa's performances are deeply moving, profoundly musical and often full of surprises.

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 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.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.