Attired in the snow-white robe and cap of a santero, Omar Sosa looks every bit the holy man while seated at the piano. This image is reinforced by the votive candle he keeps burning atop his instrument during performances. And though his music strives to communicate deeply held spiritual beliefs, he’s no ascetic.
“Look where I am!” the Cuban-born pianist says during a FaceTime conversation in mid-February, waving his smartphone about a seaside restaurant in Rome. With temperatures in the low 50s, it’s not exactly beach weather, but Sosa’s broad smile indicates he’s exactly where he wants to be. A waiter brings him a large glass of passito, an Italian dessert wine, and a dish of whipped chocolate and cream. “Grazie mille,” he tells the server, fully enjoying this mini-holiday with his wife, with whom he lives in Barcelona. “This life is full of good things, man.”
Sosa’s joyful embrace of life resonates through every note he plays, even on the quiet, introspective music of his 2017 release “Transparent Water.” A collaboration with Senegalese kora master and vocalist Seckou Keita, the collection of songs sparkles like sunlight on waves, the sound of the 22-string African lute perfectly balanced by Sosa’s lyrical piano and a subtle array of global instrumentation. Sosa, Keita and percussionist Gustavo Ovalles will be performing music from the album in Miami on Saturday, March 17, as part of Global Cuba Fest in Wynwood.
Sosa says he bonded instantly with Keita when they met in London in 2013 through drummer Marque Gilmore. The new friends repaired to a studio in Germany and began the process that led to “Transparent Water.”
“We were in the studio for a week, day and night,” Sosa says. “We live together. We cook food together. It was a real collaboration. He comes up with something, says, ‘Brother, you happy with this chord? Check this melody.’ There was no music written on paper. This is the way I want to work when I do collaborations. Just play yourself, and you’re gonna digest information that your brother is gonna give you and you’re gonna translate this information in your voice.”
Although Keita sings in the African Wolof dialect, Sosa — 52 and the father of two — didn’t need a translator to understand the emotional content of his partner’s inspirations, particularly when it came to opening track “Dary,” which was named for Keita’s son. The gentle “Zululand,” Sosa explains, was inspired by a recorded sample of Zulu singing. Still, the album’s title and concept came later, after Sosa recruited additional musicians to layer what he and Keita had laid down. As befitting the pianist’s world-unifying approach, he added sounds from China, Japan, Korea and India to his Afro-Caribbean palette. In each culture, he says, water is fundamental to their rituals.
Sosa, who was born in Camagüey and conservatory-trained in Havana, has long been a devotee of African music, even moving to Ecuador in 1993 to study African influences on the Esmeraldas region. And certainly, his devotion to Santeria, a religion that spread throughout the Caribbean with African slaves, draws him close to the continent. “Africa is Africa,” he says. “It’s my soul. It’s the source of what I do in my life.”
A world away, saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett is shaking off below-zero temperatures in her native Toronto. She and her husband, trumpeter and producer Larry Cramer, had returned from a trip to Toledo, Ohio, the night before and realized they had left a car window open. “Any other city but Toronto,” she says via Skype, “and the car probably would’ve been ransacked or somebody would’ve driven off in it.”
Like Sosa, the 62-year-old Bunnett, who will be performing with her all-female band Maqueque at Bailey Hall in Davie on Saturday, plumbs the African roots of Cuban music. She and Cramer have been traveling to the island for more than 25 years and performing and recording with a wealth of Cuban talent. However, most of those musicians were men, something the couple sought to remedy during a visit in 2014. For years, Bunnett tried to entice female musicians onto the bandstand, but with little success. “They were happy to sit on the sidelines and watch their boyfriends and husbands play,” she says. “It drove me crazy.”
Then, Bunnett met Cuban vocalist Daymé Arocena, and the seeds of Maqueque were sown. They auditioned musicians; assembled the group; rehearsed for their eponymous 2014 release, which won a Juno Award, the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy; and toured behind the album. Its followup, 2016’s “Oddara,” actually received a Grammy nomination for Best Latin Jazz Recording.
The album’s title is taken from a Yoruban word that translates as “positive energy,” of which the music is chock-full, and indeed African roots entwine throughout. Drummer Yissy Garcia’s composition “Changüí del Guaso” utilizes a regional Cuban form that incorporates African rhythms and instrumentation, while vocalist Melvis Santa’s “Power of Two (Ibeyi)” references a Santeria tale about twins. And chanting and percussion inject Afro-Cuban sabor into a version of Leon Russell’s ballad “A Song for You.” But Bunnett keeps jazz central.
“When I first got into jazz, it was really through listening to people like John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders,” she says. “And that music was really steeped in African music, the whole black power movement of the ’60s and ’70s.”
After traveling to Cuba in 1982 and immersing herself in Afro-Cuban folkloric music, Bunnett drew the connection even more clearly. “That was really the first music that I was introduced to that seemed really exotic and so out of my Canadian upbringing,” she says. “But I still heard the connection to jazz.”
Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita will perform 8 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at the Light Box at Goldman Warehouse, 404 NW 26th St., in Miami. Tickets cost $15-$50. Call 305-576-4350 or MiamiLightProject.com.
Jane Bunnett and Maqueque will perform 8 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at Bailey Hall, 3501 SW Davie Road, in Davie. Tickets cost $35-$45. Call 954-201-6884 or SouthFloridaJazz.org.