Interview: Omar Sosa – Food and Music for Thought (November 2017)

We grew fonder and fonder of Transparent Water, the fourhanded album released by Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita in February, blending together Caribbean and West African traditions with musical spices coming from all over the world. So, after having reviewed the album, interviewed Seckou Keita and previewed the ongoing UK tour of the project, it was natural to close the circle and have a 360-degree chat with its ‘head chef’: Omar Sosa.

The pianist and composer from Camagüey (Central Cuba) guided us through a music degustation and helped us to understand what music means for him, his artistic relationship with Seckou Keita and the ever-present connection between music, food and wine.

If I need to describe my sound, I always say that I’m a musician of the world. Music is my way to express what I feel inside and what I see in front of me. Over the years, I’ve lived in different parts of the world and different countries, so like they say in Spanish, ‘yo soy un musico de la tierra’, I am a musician from the Earth. For me, it’s really important to create music to translate what the spirits and ancestors tell me [Omar is a Santeria follower]. Then, it’s about sharing my tradition and heritage with different musicians from the whole planet.”

You don’t need too long to experience the welcoming character of Omar – something that is also exemplified by his music and his creative process fully explains it.

First I need to be free inside; free inside myself. Only in that way I can welcome everything that comes to me. I need to be free to receive with a totally open attitude. I need new sounds every day, new spices and new smells. This is why I’m not a supporter of secessionist or separatist ideas. I’m a weird human being, but I firmly believe that we are in a period when we need to be together and try to figure out a way to understand each other, listen to each other and respect each other. Through music and the arts, we can tell people: ‘It’s possible to do this, don’t matter what religion you practice or what language you speak’. For example, that’s what happens in Transparent Water. Seckou, Gustavo and I (the core of the project) all speak different languages. I speak English with Seckou, Seckou talks to Gustavo in French and I talk to Gustavo in Spanish. It’s the United Nations! Also, when the Japanese lady comes to play with us, we speak a little bit in English and a little bit in French. And it’s not over because, when we are in France, our sound engineer is French, so we speak in French with him. But, when we go to Italy or outside Europe, the sound engineer is always Italian, so I try to speak in Italian with him. This is what I love! It’s all about sharing, starting from the language you use.

Besides the fact that Omar Sosa is truly a ‘musico de la tierra’, he’s also quintessentially Cuban. He’s born in Camagüey, studied in La Havana and, even if he is no longer living on the Caribbean island, he fully preserves his Cubanía.

Cuba is a special, special country. For many years we had this crazy economical situation, but even with all these problems and frictions, people smile all the time and, when you go to a house, they are going to give their best to you. If they have a little piece of meat, they save it for two months, so when you go to visit them, they’ll take out the meat, cook it for you and give you its best part. This is one of the things I love of my country. Even if people sometimes don’t have anything, they give you all they have. They welcome you; they don’t segregate you and will never say that you’re not from there. Of course, they also wish that you can give something back to them, that’s part of the reality, but they give love and they give their best.

Music is everywhere in Cuba. You go to the countryside, you see people singing and you know that if you go there bringing them a pork or a chicken, they’re gonna say ‘ok, let’s do a party now!’ We’re Caribbean! The weather, which is good all year round, helps us. In this way, people can have a good time and that gives people hope. They say ‘since we don’t have anything, let’s have fun at least’. Basically, in Cuba, people try to survive every single day, but they survive, in my humble opinion, with lots of dignity. They say ‘ok, we’re here, so we need to fight for what we have and hope that everything can be better’. Everything is indeed starting to be a little better now, even if the hurricane a few weeks ago brought back many problems. Anyway, even if the storm was really strong, people quickly restored all the tourist places. That’s why I say that the desire, force and the strength of Cuban people are incredible. Instead of crying, criticising and supplicating ‘we need, we need, we need’, Cuban people say ‘let’s move on, let’s move ahead!’ That’s something that has always happened; for many, many years Cuban people do this every day in their life. They try to move ahead and look for better days.

As much as he’s linked to and fond of his country, people and tradition, Omar can also be considered as an atypical Cuban musician…

“When you speak about Cuban music or you refer to Cuban musicians, it’s easy to fall into stereotypes: people relate Cuban music to a particular type of Latin music, which is loud, rhythmical and meant to be danced. Even if you say Cuban jazz, it has to be energetic, pure fire. But we have a great variety of styles in Cuba. Recently, I’m listening a lot to a guy called Harold López-Nussa, who’s a young Cuban piano player. Then, I like a project called Interactivo, which is not a new project and they’re not young musicians, but through Interactivo you can connect to what happens in Cuba today. Unfortunately, I don’t live in Cuba anymore, but I still have contacts with many Cuban friends. So you can meet and listen to Cuban musicians all over the world nowadays.

“When it comes to my music, I have a classical background, so this is why melodies are so important for me. I love rhythm because Cuba is full of rhythm, but I love melodies too! Melody for me is one of the subtlest voices of your soul. Even when you go to Africa, even if they don’t have so much variety on the harmonic side, you can listen to so many beautiful melodies anyway. Sometimes the compositions have only one or three chords, but the melodies are always intense and reflecting the local tradition, nature and religion. This is why I love so much to play with people who come from different parts of the planet because they all bring the spices of their countries with them when they create music. And this is also why I love so much food! Through food you can hear the music and feel the tradition. You can understand how deep and felt a tradition is. It’s so important for me to meet people from all over the world and taste their food, because through that I can come out with new inspiration.”

Despite classical music representing his first approach to music and formation, jazz quickly became his “rule of life” and Thelonious Monk a sort of guiding spirit.

First, I have to say that I have a strong classical influence but, at the same time, one of my heroes, considering the philosophic aspect of music, is Thelonious Monk. Why Thelonious Monk? Because when I turned to and started listening to jazz I read a book about it in which there was a chapter about Thelonious Monk. One of the phrases he said was ‘jazz is freedom’. That phrase has been stuck in my head since that moment. I said ‘wow, if jazz is freedom then jazz as a philosophy is going to give me the opportunity to put all the elements I want inside the music I want to create’. This is why I say that I’m a jazz musician, even if I don’t play it straight-ahead or I play bebop. So, I’m not a jazz musician because I play that style of music, I’m a jazz musician considering the philosophic aspect of jazz. Jazz is freedom and when you have freedom you’re not tied to anything: everything is welcomed inside jazz.

The “jazz philosophy” is glaringly mirrored by Omar’s latest project Transparent Water, which is the portrait of freedom in music, defying sound boundaries and integrating together world’s apart traditions. The “legend says” that everything started in a Summer night of more than five years ago at CLF Arts Café in Pechkam, when he firstly met Seckou Keita…

I need to start from the moment when I met Seckou. I met him through Marque Gilmore. At that time, Marque was the drummer of my band (The Afri-Lectric Experience) and invited me to play with his group in London. I remember the moment when a guy [Seckou Keita] arrived with a kora, just before we started playing and we didn’t basically have any music ready. So we just got on playing and improvising and the chemistry we had together was wow – I say wow! It was like we were playing together for a long time and when we finished the concert, I told Seckou, ‘Hey man, we need to make something together. Are you open to start a project?’ and he said yes. But you know, in our world this happens a lot of time. You feel chemistry with somebody, then you’re like: ‘Hey man, we need to do something together,’ but usually that never happens. A lot of times that’s because of the emotion of moment and adrenaline you have… So, you say that, but you also don’t take it too seriously. While on this occasion, one week later, I called Seckou and said ‘Hey, I have a studio available, are you free to do something?’ and he answered yes! So, we dealt with the business side of things, had a talk with our managers and went to the studio for one week in Osnabrück, in Germany.

For one week we stayed in the studio and lived together in a house with our engineer. We slept there, cooked and ate there and we played our music. We went there and said to each other, ‘Let’s put our energies together and create: let’s come out with something’. As a matter of fact, we wrote and played music in the same way we cooked and ate food every day. As much as our food, also our songs were at times too spicy or there was too much garlic in them. So we had to correct the flavours or water them down a bit. By doing so, the project came out naturally and we decided to call it Transparent Water. That was the main reason why we call it that way, because the way we worked was transparent and clear. Then, in our traditions, water as an element is fundamental. In Africa, one of the biggest problems is water. To find and drink clean water is an everyday issue. Also in Cuba that was a problem until a few years ago and even today we still have to face water shortages. In addition, in my tradition – the Yoruba tradition – we initiate every ceremony dropping water to the floor and it needs to be clear and transparent water. That happens in West Africa too.

The credit for the Transparent Water’s tasty recipe doesn’t only go to its two main cooks, but it has to be shared with all the “kitchen staff”, who added original ingredients to the music delicacy.

After those days in Germany, after Seckou and I recorded the basic tracks of the album, I spent a little bit of time doing the production. Then I went to China to meet with and record Wu Tong. He’s a Buddhist priest and, in Buddhism, transparent water is essential too. After that, I went to Paris where I worked with Mieko Miyazaki, who’s Japanese and played the koto on the album. She explained that clear water and bamboo are key elements in Japanese culture. I also worked with Gustavo Ovalles, who’s an old friend – an ‘old brother’ to me. He’s an amazing musician and follows the Afro-Caribbean tradition too, but on the ‘Venezuelan side’. In his country, they also use bamboo and water in the rituals. The same happens in Korean culture represented by E’Joung-Ju, who plays the geomungo. In the end, the concept behind Transparent Water was philosophical. I asked the musicians, ‘What does water represent for you guys? What does it mean in your traditions?’ When I produced the album, I didn’t give any direction or any request, I just asked the musicians ‘How can you say through music how important water is for you?’ And everybody simply and naturally played what they felt and Transparent Water is the outcome.

Five years since its inception, or five years since the Transparent Water pot started cooking and being stirred, Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita finally released the album. But we discovered that decantation is a common practice when it comes to Omar’s releases.

For me music needs time, just like wine. With music, when you start a new creative project, that will become part of your life and will stay with you forever. For example, I’ve recently finished three records and I know that one of them will be released in September or October 2018, then another one in 2019 and the third one in three or four years. I always say to myself, if I have the message to express already inside of me, why would I need to hold it? As long as I can express the message, as long as I can transmit and include it into my music, I’m done. Then, whatever happens with the production, label or distribution, I don’t care because the message is already there and will stay there even after two or three years, when I’ll finally release the album.

What I can’t do is holding something inside of me: I need to empty a glass of wine before filling another one. For example, it’s summertime and the weather is hot and you have a glass of white wine in front of you. You need to drink that wine fresh, just after you have poured it because, if you’re in the sun, the wine will become hot and it’ll lose all its flavour. The same happens with music. When I feel that I have something to create, I need to bring it into existence immediately. I need to clean my house myself and get all this information out. I need to look at and listen to them in different positions, through different perspectives because, when I’m into the creative process, I feel that I’m too much part of it, so I can’t be objective. That’s why I’m making so much music, because when I write it, I need to play and produce it.

Another crucial concept when you talk with Omar Sosa is time. Not just because, with him, you lose its sense through being bewitched in hour-long chats, but also because of the notions of past, present and future, which are constantly blended and harmonised together.

Your past sometimes is your future and your future sometimes has something to learn from the past. We don’t often think about it, because when we think about the future, we usually think about it just to move ahead, while it’s important to consider the direction you’re going to move. For me, in music, it’s important to look at the past because the past represents your roots: somebody came before us and it’s important to learn from what they did and to understand why they did it.

Transparent Water is all this and is what its title says: it’s about time and space. It’s about silence, feelings and emotions that we try to deliver through our music. There’s nothing complex about it; it is just contemplative music, full of love, traditions and conversations between them. It’s about welcoming and listening to each other and having always present our roots. It’s about mutual respect, sharing and being in communion with each other.


It goes without saying that a chat with Omar Sosa gives you enough food for thought to eat your fill. We can’t wait to sit at the Transparent Water’s tour table in a few days time at Milton Court in London.

Photo ©: Thomas Kruesselmann