One of the many magical moments from the documentary “Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums” comes when Cuban jazz pianist Omar Sosa combines with kora (21-string harp lute) player Seckou Keita of Senegal and percussionist Gustavo Ovalles of Venezuela in performing music from their 2017 album, “Transparent Water.”
It’s music for the soul, conveying a sense of peace that passes all understanding while still being tuneful and something someone could dance to.
“Clear water has a lot of meaning. When you are able to see under the water it means everything is possible,” Sosa said during a recent interview. The music could be called a fabulous fusion of jazz, Afro-Cuban, African and Venezuelan traditions — with “beautiful melodies,” Sosa said.
The Clark connection
“Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums” was directed by Clark University professor and filmmaker Soren Sorensen, who put together the documentary over the course of several years after becoming transfixed by Sosa’s music. The film debuted at film festivals last year, including a test screening at Razzo Hall at the Traina Center for the Arts at Clark University during the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival.
The main participants will be reunited during the course of two events at 7:30 p.m. April 16 and 17 as part of the Clark University Visual and Performing Arts Department’s annual Geller Jazz Series held at Razzo Hall.
On April 16, Sosa will perform with Keita and Ovalles, who have followed up “Transparent Water” with a 2021 album titled “SUBA,” which is “sunrise” in Mandinka, the native language of Keita. They are performing as the SUBA Trio.
Then, “Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums” will be screened April 17, followed by a Q&A session with Sosa, Keita, Sosa’s manager Scott Price and Sorensen, associate teaching professor and program director of screen studies at Clark University.
The Geller Jazz Series will also feature New Orleans-born saxophonist Donald Harrison with his quintet at 7:30 p.m. April 19 in Razzo Hall.
‘We need to tell people another world is possible’
Sosa was interviewed on the phone recently from Barcelona, Spain, where he now makes his home, two days before embarking on his current world tour, which among other stops is bringing him to Clark University.
Sosa is regarded as one of the most versatile jazz artists on the scene today, noted for fusing a wide range of jazz, world music and electronic elements with his native Afro-Cuban roots to create a fresh and original sound with a Latin jazz heart. He has released more than 40 albums, seven of which were nominated for Grammys or Latin Grammys.
With “SUBA,” Sosa said “we continue to try to stress unity, peace and love between humans.”
Less is more with the music, as the musicians seem at peace and don’t display a need to show off in ego-inflated solos.
“When you see the world today, with war, money, power … we need to be together,” Sosa said. “We need to tell people another world is possible. We need to have peace in ourselves to have peace outside.”
Asked when he first met the now London-based Keita, Sosa said, “Now I kind of forget .. I always say time doesn’t exist.”
However, Sosa said that “I met Seckou in London. In that gig we didn’t have any rehearsal. We played the whole night.”
A big soccer match was taking place in London that day, and there “was no one there” at the gig venue. Still, they played until 1:30 in the morning and then agreed, “Let’s do something together,” Sosa said.
Reviewing “SUBA”, Michael Tucker wrote, “the sunrise evoked by this music must be one spread far and wide, over deep and limpid water.”
“We continue to spread our message in every single part of the world,” Sosa said. “The music is full of peace, love and contemplation. That’s the place I’m in now.”
No Cuban or Latin music
Sosa was born in 1965 in Camagüey, Cuba’s third-largest city. His father used to play vinyl records of American music at home, but in Sosa’s youth in Cuba American standards stopped playing on the radio. Sosa went to the prestigious Escuela Nacional de Música and later the the Instituto Superior de Arte, both in Havana.
Sosa said he saw no future performing as a percussionist in Cuba, but looked around the music school and saw “a piano in really bad condition. I talked to the piano — (I said) ‘We’re going to have a long relationship.’ “
Sosa and a fellow percussion student would alternate paying piano/percussion together every day. “We started to develop our way of playing,” Sosa said. At the school “you could choose a complementary instrument (to your major),” so Sosa’s became the piano.
However, the piano became something else in Sosa’s life entirely.
“I need the piano,” he said. “The piano to me is an extension of my body, soul, spirit, heart.”
Sosa moved to Ecuador in 1993 where he had a job composing jingles while also immersing himself in the folkloric traditions of Esmeraldas, the northwest coast region whose African heritage includes the distinctive marimba tradition. He relocated to the San Francisco Bay area in 1995 and soon invigorated the Latin jazz scene with his adventurous writing and percussive style after starting with basically nothing. He began a partnership with manager Scott Price that continues to this day. In 1997 he released his first solo piano recording, “Omar Omar.”
A move to Europe came following a discussion with his former wife.
“Barcelona is a cool city. Good weather, amazing food, great wine,” Sosa said. His studio is only 20 minutes from the airport, which is apt since “I spend two months here (Barcelona)” a year, on average — touring and playing the rest of the time.
Sosa’s spirituality can be seen in the way he uses candles before a performance. It can be heard as well as absorbed in the music.
As Felix Contreras noted, “When he performs live, Sosa makes a point to prepare the stage and his space for any spiritual visitations that might take place in him or the audience. It’s far from a cheesy, halfhearted nod to ancient gods. Ask anyone who’s been to one of his shows: If the spirits speak to anyone, it’s Omar Sosa.”
In an interview last year, Sorensen recalled filming a Sosa concert for the first time in 2013 at the South Orange Performing Arts Center in New Jersey. The performance was a duo with Sosa, piano, and Italian trumpet player Paolo Fresu. As mesmerizingly captured in “Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums,” at the end of their joint composition “Rimanere Grande!” Fresu extends a long final trumpet note for seemingly forever, while Sosa improvises on the piano. The film lingers on the interaction and the viewer/listener never wants it to stop. “That was one of the moments that sticks with you. So beautiful. So minimalist at the same time. Pretty unforgettable,” Sorensen said.
‘The time doesn’t pass’
“Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums” had its official world premiere April 23 last year at the USA Film Festival in Dallas. Both Sorensen and Sosa attended.
Since then “we’ve screened ‘Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums’ at 30 festivals, won several awards and are slowly figuring out a distribution plan. It’s been an incredible ride. I’m not sure this is ‘official’ but we’re working on a soundtrack LP too,” Sorensen said last week.
“The screening at Clark on April 17th will only be the second time Omar and I have watched the film together,” said Sorensen.
“It’s bittersweet, you know, having worked for so long on a project like this. It’s been part of my life for over 10 years — our first shoot was in February of 2013 in South Orange, New Jersey. That was before I started to teach at Clark.
“Omar and his manager, Scott Price, have become true friends during this long process. I always look forward to seeing them. I look forward to seeing them just like you might look forward to seeing a college buddy or a person you keep in touch with via Zoom or social media, but don’t see in person on a regular basis. When we get together now, we’re friends and, as Scott says, ‘fellow travelers.’ It’s like Omar says in the film: ‘The time doesn’t pass.’