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Indybay Feature

Omar Sosa's 88 Well-Tuned Drums

by John Malkin
Interview with Afro-Cuban pianist/composer Omar Sosa, who is on a world tour that includes Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz on Monday, April 1 and Birdland in NYC April 9 to 13.
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88 WELL-TUNED DRUMS: Omar Sosa Plays Kuumbwa and Celebrates Film

Omar Sosa is dedicated to making music that promotes worldwide peace. Born in 1965 in Cuba’s third largest city - Camagüey - Sosa originally studied percussion and marimba, later adding piano. He moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1995 and later relocated to Barcelona. Sosa has recorded many multi-cultural albums with African and Latin American musicians like Paolo Fresu, Seckou Keita, Gustavo Ovalles and Yilian Cañizares.

“Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums” is the new documentary film about Sosa, directed by Soren Sorensen. It will be released on streaming platforms on April 20 and the accompanying soundtrack album will be released the same day on Oakland-based Otá Records.

On Monday, April 1 at 7:00 and 9:00 PM Omar Sosa returns to Kuumbwa Jazz Center with his Afro-Cuban Jazz group Quarteto Americanos; Sheldon Brown (saxophones), Josh Jones (drums) and Ernesto Mazar Kindelán (baby bass).

PLAYING PIANO WITH A GUN ON
JM: One interesting part of the film is when you performed with a gun slung across your shoulder. Tell me about going to Angola and Ethiopia in the 1980’s when you were doing your required Cuban military service, performing for troops.

Omar Sosa: It's a really strong image, a strong feeling. Looking back at that now I have a different angle. I was young and basically everybody was trying to figure out a way to go out of the country. (Cuba) The four opportunities were to go to the Congo, Nicaragua, Ethiopia or Angola. Three of these – Nicaragua, Ethiopia, and Angola - were in a war at the time. I try to look at the world in a positive way, but I went to the war.
That time in Ethiopia was one of the first times I said to myself, “Where am I?” I was in the hospital of the people in the war. I almost died in Ethiopia because I got amoebas in my liver. People came to the hospital with no legs. I started to have a caution inside of myself to say, “War is not the way. It’s all about peace, not about war.” There’s no reason for war; it doesn’t matter what happened, we can’t kill each other as humans. Believe it or not, man, we still live in this problem today in different parts of the planet. And for me, this is unacceptable. I'm a peaceful person.
Playing piano with a gun was normal because I need to keep the gun with me. But inside of me, I’m thinking, “Something’s wrong here.” Something's wrong because we don't even know why we were there! It’s basically what happens sometimes with young people in Israel; they're in the army at eighteen, nineteen years old.

JM: Now there are major wars in Sudan, Ukraine, Yemen and Israel/Gaza. I appreciate when people conscripted into the military refuse to participate in war.

Omar Sosa: Most of the time, this is not their work. It’s nobody’s work. War comes from the economic people around the planet wanting power and resources like land and oil. All the wars in Ukraine, Israel and elsewhere. This is going for centuries and centuries and we haven’t been able to learn. It doesn’t matter if you don't like what someone says or does. You can say, “I don't like that.” But you don't pick up a gun and kill another person because you don't like what they do. It’s all about power and who owns the resources of the planet.
Peace can be the solution because we have no choice! We need to live together! No matter how rich you are or how much power you have, we need to live together. Maybe in ten years that guy from Tesla will go to the moon. But today, everybody's here on the Earth and we need to deal with the reality here. And the first thing that we need to do is protect our resources and pray to find a balance. No more “Take, take, take” without sharing.
I’m not agreeing with war. Peace can make us more calm and able to communicate with another person in a way they can understand us, or at least feel our peaceful energy. If the creator has given us words to communicate with each other, why we don't communicate without wars? We can bring people together in a peaceful way.

ACROSS THE DIVIDE
JM: One of the many beautiful and powerful projects you've done is Across the Divide. (2009) This album explores the history of slavery and the roots of American folk music in Black culture. It combines early Blues and spirituals with Jazz, Afro-Cuban rhythms and spoken word clips from people like Langston Hughes. I wonder if you might be considering re-releasing Across the Divide?

Omar Sosa: We are connected! I’m working on a new album with Tim Erikson called Atlantica. It is beautiful, simple music full of soul. If everything goes right, it’s going be out in 2025. We plan on touring with a small quartet. Tim will play traditional instruments and he has a beautiful, unique voice. We're also planning to release a record in October that I did in South Africa nine years ago called Badzimo' with South African percussionist Azah and singer Indwe.

FIVE OR SIX JINGLES
JM: Early in your music career you wrote jingles for TV commercials.

Omar Sosa: I need to tell you that this was the best money time in my life! And I was so ignorant! I spent a lot of money in restaurants and I had a lot of friends. I had a table in different restaurants in Quito (Ecuador). Everyday I was writing five or six jingles and they paid $2000 or $3000 for ten seconds!
But in Cuba we never had education to tell us that money is a tool. Our education was to work with the government and every month they’ll give you a salary. In a way this is something interesting because you focus on what you want. And in Cuba, I was focused on creating music. I was a musical director of Xiomara Laugart, one of the most famous singers at that time in Cuba.
I created a band with a couple friends called Entrenoz (Between Us) and the first music I wrote for the band sounded like a jingle! I said, “No! This is not what I want!” Later I made a band with a friend from Palma de Mallorca, Spain. He called me, “Omar, I want you to be the piano player.” I say, “OK.” So, I told my boss in the jingle studio, “Hey brother, I'm done.” He said, “You want to leave all this money?” But the only thing I was doing was eating and drinking, drinking and eating.

GOOD FOR MY SOUL
JM: I learned from the film that you lived on the streets in Cuba for a while.

Omar Sosa: Being homeless in Cuba, you still had some opportunity because the weather is great. It’s never very cold like New York, Boston or Canada. But when I split with my first wife it was a hard time. I need to say thank you to my spirit and my Santería religion. No matter how difficult any moment is in my life, they always send me a little light that can illuminate a window where I can see the clarity of what is good for my soul. If my soul is in good shape, my brain is going to act properly. But if my soul is down, my brain starts to create some image that’s not healthy. Life was hard and I learned a lot. Like I was saying in the movie; the street is tough, brother. It’s not good. I wanted to sleep somewhere quiet and I chose a funeral home. It was quiet, clean and smelled good. Because you know, when somebody dies, the families and friends bring flowers and the flowers smell beautiful. But it was a tough time.

JM: I’m happy that your life got better and better. And that you have made all this beautiful music around the world.

Omar Sosa: I need to give a big credit to my religion. My father told me when I was initiating in the Santería religion, “Omar, music is your life and you have a mission to make an influence so that all cultures come together in a peaceful and human way.” This is what I do. I simply combine cultures and try to live peaceful myself. No matter if you were born in Burundi, Palestine or Singapore; we are all humans. In one way or another, all of our traditions connect. Art and music are one way to create unity. A lot of people don't believe in unity but we need to be together. It doesn’t matter if we have different religions, skin colors or different political parties. This is my mission. I am going to die doing this. I want peace.
§Omar Sosa
by John Malkin
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