“My message is about creating cultural unity. Maybe this will help reach more ears,” says Cuban pianist Omar Sosa from his home in Barcelona, Spain, about getting nominated for a Grammy Award in the “Best Latin Jazz Album” category. With ten albums on Oakland-based Ota Records, including his latest, Ayaguna, the nomination for Sentir is fitting recognition for a world-class talent who catapulted onto the international jazz scene from the East Bay.
Since arriving from Cuba in 1995, Sosa has conjured a collage of imagined African sounds based on his Afro-Cuban heritage. With a percussive piano style that echoes Thelonious Monk (he even named his son Lonious), Sosa ties together the African branches of Morocco, Venezuela, Ecuador, and the United States with an improvisational fury of ambient folk chants, spoken word, and rhythms.
Now Sosa is embarking on a new musical adventure called From Our Mother, a symphonic work in collaboration with Michael Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony that debuts this Friday (8 p.m., 510-444-0801) at the Paramount Theatre. For Sosa, the music goes back to Mother Africa. He describes the piece as having the concept of Sentir, but on a much larger scale. The work includes a full orchestra, chorus, percussion, various soloists, and three hourglass-shaped bata drums.
“The bata drums will tell the story,” Sosa explains, “as I attempt to bring all these rich ethnic traditions into a classical setting. But perhaps more than the music itself is the artistic work of putting American classical musicians, who perhaps know about the bata drum, with the drums sounding at their side. I’m sure very few have had that happen.”
The drums are the spiritual voices of the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion — something Sosa has been hearing since he was a child in Camaguey, Cuba. He attended provincial music schools before enrolling in the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Musica (National Music School) in Havana, where he majored first in percussion, switching later to piano.
Sosa started his first group, Tributo, in 1986 and toured Angola, Nicaragua, Congo, and Ethiopia. In 1988, with the group XL Talla Extra featuring singer Xiomara Laugart, he began fusing jazz and funk with such Cuban beats as songo. Moving to Ecuador in 1993, he taught in the Esmeraldas region on the Pacific Coast and got into Afro-Ecuadoran music. A brief move to Spain intervened before Sosa landed in East Oakland, where he lived until 2000.
“Oakland for me is the place where I began to see things clearly. In Cuba, we have an imagined idea of what the United States is. But when you enter into it as an integral part, you see things differently and realize the American dream that Hollywood markets doesn’t express the realities of blacks and Latinos. That’s why I think it’s a blessing of the orishas [spirits] that the debut of this symphony is at the Paramount Theatre with one of the few black conductors in the world.”
From Our Mother will feature many special guests, including Jackeline Rago, Maria Marquez, Hafez Modirzadeh, Stephen Kent, Michael Spiro, Benigno Medina, and the distinguished folklorist Lázaro Galarraga, a world-renowned teacher and founding member of the Conjunto Folklorico Nacional de Cuba.
“I don’t know how it’s all going to turn out,” Sosa muses. “I’ve only heard it in my mind and dreams. But this is a dream come true. The important thing with this symphony is that it brings us all to the table and opens our souls. What will carry us will be the spiritual energy, and not the notes that are played.”