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Pianist Omar Sosa plays 'child trickster' in divinely inspired musical journey

 Omar Sosa
Fabrizio Cirulli
Courtesy of the artist
Omar Sosa

The unorthodox pianist Omar Sosa lives in a world of dynamic opposites. If you visit his artist page on a streaming service, you'll find that his most popular songs are moody, controlled and contemplative — stylistically almost giving off a New Age vibe. This could reflect Sosa’s deep spiritual life.

On the other hand, if you see him in concert, you’ll likely find yourself in the middle of a rambunctious party, a spontaneous musical event on the precipice of chaos. (In his younger days, he might jump on the piano bench and play with his feet.)

An improviser in the purest sense of the word, he'll likely shoo away any sheet music put in front of him. Yet he can write a work for a symphony orchestra and be scouted out by modern classical giant John Adams. He pridefully declares himself a jazz musician but also boasts not knowing any standards. He’s a piano man who prefers not to be called that, as the title of a documentary film about him, Omar Sosa’s 88 Well-Tuned Drums, makes clear.

These narratives have always made him difficult to classify, but these are also his greatest strengths as an artist. A Sosa concert can evoke a myriad of moods. There could be Arabic vibes, American hip-hop and swing, Malian blues and, of course, fragments of Cuban dances found in his homeland, arranged in his trademark off-kilter way.

In this episode, we try to understand Sosa’s deeply oblique yet profound artistic sensibility. What we found is that his artistic choices are informed by his deep spirituality. He tells a story he rarely shares, part of his Santería initiation ceremony, which he says makes him the deeply intuitive and unpredictable artist he is today. We discover that Omar Sosa is Elegguá, the child trickster deity worshiped in his ancient Cuban and African faith.

Set List:

All songs composed by Omar Sosa.

  • “Eleggua in the Road - live” (from the album Ayaguna)
  • “Angustia with Tumbao” (from the album Omar Omar) 
  • “Kharit” (from the album Suba by Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita)
  • “Moradía de Babalú” (from the album Iroko by Omar Sosa & Tiganá Santana) 
  • “Rojo Changó” (from the album Sentir)
  • Medley of Eleggua / Dame Un Tiempo” (from the album Dame Un Tiempo: Live in Bremen 2000)

Credits: Simon Rentner, writer and producer; Christian McBride, host; Sarah Geledi and Trevor Smith, producers; Ron Scalzo, episode mix; Nikki Birch and Mitra Arthur, video producers; Steven A. Williams, executive producer; Suraya Mohamed, executive producer of NPR Music; Keith Jenkins, vice president of visuals and music strategy at NPR.

Copyright 2024 WBGO

For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.