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Omar Sosa didn’t live in Oakland for long, but he made a profound impact on the Bay Area music scene, putting down roots that continue to bear extraordinary musical hybrids.
The Cuban-born jazz pianist came to the Bay Area by way of South America, where he spent several years exploring the little known Afro-Ecuadorian culture in the coastal province of Esmeraldas. He landed first in San Francisco in 1995, but before long moved across the Bay, where he forged deep ties with musicians such as percussionist John Santos, guitarist/producer Greg Landau, saxophonist Richard Howell, and Moroccan multi-instrumentalist Yassir Chadly.
Although mostly based in Barcelona since 1999, Sosa considers Oakland a second home, assiduously maintaining his creative ties to the city. Even as he’s built an expansive web of collaborators around the world, he always seems to find opportunities to renew his East Bay ties.
“My heart is divided between Cuba, Oakland, and Barcelona,” said Sosa, 55, during a recent Zoom call from the Oakland hills house of his longtime manager Scott Price. “Here, I have all my closest friends. Oakland for me was the inspiration to continue what I was doing. Every time I come here, I’m more productive.”
With Europe shut down due to the pandemic, Sosa is looking into the possibility of a year-long stay in the Bay Area if he can find the right residency or teaching position. On Sunday afternoon, he introduces his latest project, “Diaspora,” with a concert livestreamed from Piedmont Piano Company. Featuring a mix of solo piano, various duos, trio and quartet arrangements, Diaspora contains a multitude of improvisational possibilities, even as the band expands on Sosa’s pan-African diaspora vision.
Meeting in performance for the first time, the group includes Moroccan-born vocalist/violinist Bouchaib Abdelhadi, Afro-Peruvian percussionist Juan Medrano Cotito, and bassist Geoff Brennan. They’ll be joined on several pieces by Pierr Padilla Vasquez, a master of folkloric Afro-Peruvian dance.
“It’s beautiful to have the opportunity to bring friends together,” Sosa said. “Geoff was the bassist on my first four or five records, and Bouchaib was the singer on ‘Sentir.’” That album was the first to earn Sosa a Grammy Award nomination, in 2002.
Few jazz artists have better scoured South America for underexposed pockets of African culture than Sosa, whose musical adventures are often set to a galloping 6/8 pulse. The connection with Peru runs right through the East Bay, where he’s gotten to know Cotito, “the best jugador de cajón (player of the cajón, a percussion instrument) in the Afro-Peruvian diaspora,” Sosa said. “And Pierr is a great dancer from Peru. For me it’s like going to a celebration of the African diaspora.”
One reason that Sosa has thrived for a quarter century—earning seven Grammy nominations, releasing nearly three dozen albums as a leader or co-leader, and performing around the world—is that he possesses a gift for bringing together new ensembles that unite seemingly disparate musicians. His upcoming album “An East African Journey,” due out next month, documents a particularly ambitious endeavor.
Recorded over 10 years across seven countries, the project started in 2009 when he took his Afreecanos Trio with Senegalese vocalist Mola Sylla and Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas on a tour down the east side of the African continent. Supported by the French government, which sponsored concerts at various Alliance Française centers, the sojourn ran from Sudan and Ethiopia through Kenya, Zambia, Madagascar and Mauritius.
Built into the tour was a series of encounters with folkloric musicians, sessions recorded by the trio’s sound engineer. A 52-minute documentary directed by Olivier Taïeb, “Souvenirs d’Afrique,” captured Sosa’s experience in East Africa, but the new album was the ultimate objective.
Joined by artists such as Kenya’s Olith Ratego, Madagascar’s Rajery and Monja Mahafay, Zambia’s Abel Ntalasha, Burundi’s Steven Sogo, Ethiopia’s Seleshe Damessae, and Sudan’s Dafaalla Elhag Ali, Sosa described “An East African Journey” as “one of the most beautiful I’ve ever done in my life.”
“I’m pretty obsessive with the African diaspora. I want to pay tribute to my roots in the best way I can. I need to learn as much as I can about all of the traditions, and be a glue for all the different pieces that are part of the same soul, the same body. Mother Africa. I feel Cuba is another province of Africa.”
Often describing himself as a frustrated percussionist, Sosa can attack the keyboard with bracing force. But he’s also an unabashedly romantic player with a gift for impromptu rhapsody, which is the side he tapped into on “An East African Journey.” Working in Paris with producer/drummer Steve Argüelles and multi-instrumentalist Christophe “Disco” Minck, he added acoustic piano, harp, and some delicate percussion to the recordings made on tour.
“I always look for melodies,” he said. “I’m a percussionist, but I want melodies. We found all these beautiful traditional instruments and blended the African and Western strings. It took 10 years to finish the project. Every time I went into the studio I kept throwing arrangements away. Less is more. This was the philosophy behind the arrangements.”
It’s an aesthetic that will serve Sosa well in a crisis that has forced musicians to make do with minimal resources. If he ends up back in Oakland for a year, he’s ideally situated to find ways to forge a creative path through what he called “these crazy and convulsive times.”
“We need to take advantage of being together here in this beautiful city with a lot of people from different parts of the planet,” he said. “We need to embrace all the cultures and traditions. We need to sit at the table and present our spices and together we can eat.”