Omar Sosa has been passionately interested in exploring African musical cultures and their connections with his Afro-Cuban roots since early in his career – subtly blending traditional and contemporary sounds on many of his recordings. He has forged collaborations with Gnawa musicians in Morocco, and with musicians from Senegal, Mozambique, Mali, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, and South Africa, et al. Highlights include his 2002 GRAMMY-nominated recording ‘Sentir’ (OTA1009) featuring Moroccan singer and Guimbre player El Houssaine Kily, and his 2008 CD release ‘Afreecanos’ (OTA1019), which served as a point of departure for his East Africa project.
The journey began in 2009 when Omar’s French booking agency 3D Family arranged a concert tour of eight Alliance Française locations in East Africa with support from the French government (Culture France) in Trio with Senegalese singer Mola Sylla and Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas (Afreecanos Trio). Additional support from France Ô TV and CNC (Centre National du Cinéma) made it possible for a film crew organized by Amos Rozenberg (Barking Dog Productions) to follow Omar in Ethiopia, Sudan, Burundi, and Kenya. The result was a lovely documentary shot and edited by Olivier Taïeb entitled ‘Souvenirs d’Afrique’ that debuted in France on MEZZO TV in October 2010.
Not surprisingly, Omar was eager to meet and record traditional musicians in each of the concert locations on the tour! His hosts at the Alliance Française organizations were instrumental in helping him connect with a wonderful array of local musicians, and Omar’s sound engineer on the tour Patrick Destandeau brought his mobile recording equipment along, beautifully capturing sounds on the fly!
First stop was Antananarivo, Madagascar (November 22, 2009) where Omar recorded three songs with Rajery, an established Valiha player and singer currently touring with world music trio 3MA, and Monja Mahafay, a folkloric musician living 625 miles to the far south of Madagascar in the bush outside the town of Ambovombe-Androy. Rajery’s traditional instrument, the Valiha, is a bamboo tube zither with 18 strings. His Malagasy song titles translate like this: ‘Tsiaro Tsara’ (track 1) means “good memories”; ‘Dadilahy’ (track 2) is the name given to the spirit-possessed traditional healer using medicinal plants to cure the sick; and ‘Veloma E’ (track 3) means “goodbye”.
Monja’s instrument on ‘Eretseretse’ (track 4) is a Marovany, a box zither with 24 steel strings. The Ntandroy language song title means “inspiration”. On ‘Sabo’ (track 5) he plays a 3-string traditional violin known as a Lokanga. The song is intended to invoke the Kokolampo, or nature spirits, who help bring the soul of the departed to the entrance of the world of its ancestors. The song features Monja doing a special throat-clearing drum sound technique called Drimotse. All of the recordings in Antananarivo were made on the stage at the Centre Culturel Albert Camus.
The next concert location was the Alliance Française in Lusaka, Zambia, where the recording session took place in a library room with folkloric elder Abel Ntalasha singing in Lenje, a Bantu language of central Zambia. His song ‘Shibinda’ (track 6) tells the story of a young man who plays his indigenous instrument, the Kalumbu, throughout the night to let his parents know he’s ready to get married to a girl he likes or to one his parents help find for him. The instrument, similar to the Berimbau in Brazil, consists of a single kudu sinew or wire string on a slightly curved stick about five feet long which is resonated by an attached gourd (calabash). Once the young man is married, he destroys his Kalumbu!
Omar’s adventure continued in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he met Sileshi Demesse, a well-known master of the Krar, a traditional 5-string bowl-shaped lyre, who sings in his native Oromo language. Two unique songs were recorded in the small theater at Alliance Ethio-Française. ‘Tizeta’ (track 7) is about the beautiful women of Addis Ababa, surrounded by mountains, while the singing on ‘Che Che’ (track 8) imitates the galloping rhythm of horseback riding. Omar’s connection with Sileshi was so poignant, he invited Sileshi to join Afreecanos Trio for the concert next day.
Omar and company flew next to Khartoum, Sudan, which proved to be an exceptional experience. The visit was carefully choreographed by his hosts at the Centre Culturel Français, including a visit to the home and studio of Dafa Alla Elhag, crossing police controls and with restrictions on the use of cameras. The band had a chance to see and play a number of traditional ‘tambour’ instruments, including the Umkiki (a spike fiddle with a single horsetail string), the Kunyon (a tambour from the Nuba mountains), the Abangaran (from the Blue Nile region), and Pasankok (from the larger tribes in southern Sudan). In the end, Omar was not able to make a new recording in Khartoum, but received digital files of two lovely songs previously recorded by Dafa Alla. ‘Meinfajria’ (track 9), in Arabic, is about a farmer who goes very early to the field with his tools and works hard to produce his own food – not needing to ask others for help. ‘Elrababa’ (track 10) is a tribute to the diversity of traditional Sudanese instruments, in the language of the Xhosa tribe.
Next stop: Bujumbura, Burundi, where Omar met with singer-songwriter and master Umuduri player Steven Sogo at the Centre Culturel Français. Steven’s song, Kwa Nyogokuru (track 11), tells of a mountain setting, late at night and very cold, with his cousins around the fire at grandmother’s house. This type of traditional gathering is an opportunity to receive wisdom from one’s elders. The language is Kirundi, a Bantu tonal system involving high and low sounds. Like the Kalumbu in Zambia, the Umuduri is a musical bow with an attached gourd for resonance.
Continuing northward, Omar and company arrived in Kenya on December 10, 2009. A day following their concert at Alliance Française, the band met with singer and Nyatiti player Olith Ratego at Ketebul Music, a recording studio in Nairobi run by Tabu Osusa. Olith is from the Luo region in northwestern Kenya and his gospel song, ‘Thuon Maok Loga’ (track 12), written as he recovered from an illness, tells how God strengthened him in his fight to get well. The Nyatiti is an 8-stringed lyre from western Kenya used in traditional ceremonies, a 5-string version of which Olith makes by hand and calls an Okoddo.
The final recording on the tour was made on the island of Mauritius with percussionist and singer Menwar, a pioneer of traditional Sega music featuring the Ravanne, a large frame drum made of goat skin and heated before playing. Menwar created his own interpretation of this traditional music called Sagaï, often called the blues of the Indian Ocean. The recording, entitled ‘Ravann dan Jazz’ (track 13), was made at Menwar’s home studio near the beach of Pointe aux Sables. Menwar had a Motif keyboard in his studio, so he and Omar were able to improvise the song together. “Ravanne meets jazz”, as Menwar put it. The spoken word elements are in Creole.
Upon returning to Barcelona after the tour, Omar gave the recordings to his Paris-based co-producer, Steve Argüelles, and the two started listening and communicating about how to edit, arrange and augment the material – taking a less-is-more, let-it-breathe approach. One of the early and persistent ideas over the decade-long road to completion was to write small ensemble string arrangements for the pieces, but the logistics and costs for that were always daunting. In the 2010 documentary (‘Souvenirs d’Afrique’), Omar actually predicted it might take a decade to finish the project!
Omar and Steve were finally able to focus in earnest on editing the songs when they were together in 2016 to work on Omar’s ‘Transparent Water’ CD. By 2018, Omar was eager to push toward realization, and with Steve continuing to advocate a subtle, minimalist treatment, two recording sessions were scheduled at his studio in Paris. The first overdubs involved Steve on drums and percussion, and French multi-instrumentalist Christophe Minck adding keyboard-bass and electronics. A second session was set for Omar to add acoustic piano – his notes arising from the silences, allowing the traditional recordings to shine. -DSP