Omar Sosa: Sentir

[16 September 2002]

By Maurice Bottomley

Omar Sosa is (yet another) talented Cuban pianist. However don’t expect variations on Chucho Valdes or Tony Perez. In fact, don’t expect anything in the way of Latin jazz in its current profitable form. This is something very different; oceans deep and definitely Diasporic. Cuba meets Venezuela meets North America meets Morocco meets West Africa in a celebration and a synthesis of African forms and influences that is so unlike anything currently doing the rounds, it is worth investigating for its imaginative reach alone. It is not just the distinctiveness that should draw your attention to Sentir though, this is jazz-based music of the most superior kind.

In fact, if it were not for one grating element in an otherwise magical mix of styles, this album would be an instant classic. Even there, some may find said flaw less annoying than I did. I refer to the five tracks that contain, to these ears, some of the wettest freestyling (god, I hope he’s freestyling) rap-poetry I have ever heard. It took me a while to get past it. If you can put up with the so-serious-it’s-silly, sometimes semantics-free gibberish of those contributions, then Omar Sosa and his gifted collaborators will provide you with an experience that is both intense and extremely exhilarating.

The collective players, the organising concept and the authoritative piano of Sosa are the foundation of Sentir’s success. Each of the musicians and singers imparts a particular style and musical tradition to the mix and then inter-acts wonderfully with the others to create a richly textured but unforced fusion of traditional and modern elements. There is a profundity here that means that this is a set that no amount of listening is likely to exhaust.

The team include a strong Moroccan contingent who play a bewildering variety of instruments and add immeasurably to the spiritual and folkloric feel of the music. Sosa himself augments his piano work with a number of string and percussive extras. Special kudos go to Gustavo Ovalies, representing the music of Venezuela, and Martha Galoragga, whose Cuban-Yoruba vocals offer the most sublime moments on an album already full of special things.

The conceptual frameworks are built around the notion of feeling (Sentir) and the resonances of African religion, primarily through the symbolic and actual legacy of Ellegua/Legba. Ellegua, in various forms throughout the post-Slavery Americas, usually signifies movement and communication and is often represented as a gatekeeper or a messenger. Musically, this figure can be found from Bahia to the work of Robert Johnson, though rarely in such a conscious and cleverly articulated form as in Sosa’s usage. Other influences are the gnawa tradition from North Africa, long favoured by the more Afri-conscious jazz masters, and a spellbinding set of dialogues between Yoruba and Moroccan religious song. All of this adds a grandeur and a very complex sub-text to the proceedings. Happily, none of it is at the expense of the flow and friendliness of the material. Far from it, these ideas give pattern and shape to the diversity of the sounds.

A genuine work of syncretism then, in its post-colonial rather than biblical sense. Disparate elements are brought together, shown not to be as disparate as they might appear and the resultant montage and juxtapositioning delivers something that is more than simply the factors which feed into it.

Even if you find the Mother Africa sentiments at the heart of the project a little too pat (and it can be argued that the real link between Morocco and West Africa is Spain rather than any direct ,essential Africanness) the music completely convinces. From the indicative Pan-Africanism of “Opening for Ellegua” (and note the similarity to New Orleans’ standard “Iko Iko”—from the same sources) to the achingly beautiful piano and vocals of “Sucesion en Blanco”, there are riches galore. Try the bouncy and aggressive “Roja Chango” or meditative opening of “Tres Notas en Amarillo”—you will hear little finer in either jazz or world fields this year.

Subtle and multi-layered percussion, vocals that are “soulful” in its more spiritual sense and the serene and sonorous piano combine effectively in number after number. New patterns and moods become apparent with each fresh hearing. It is a remarkable album and not one to be simply filed away as this month’s piece of experimental “exoticism”. I just wish the rap-poetry (which rhythmically works pretty well) hadn’t been quite so intrusive—two tracks would have been fine. That it doesn’t stop this still being a “best set” contender is tribute to the creative management of a multitude of other inputs, so artfully achieved by Sosa and his gifted ensemble.

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