Cuban-born pianist and devout Santeria follower Omar Sosa and his signature flowing white tunic remain in constant motion as he coaxes bright chords from piano and Fender Rhodes. While a candle flickers atop his instrument, his sandaled feet work pedals triggering electronic loops singing and chanting the praises of the orichas. The sounds rolling from the stage at Miami Beach's Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club are funky and groove-expansive — a late-night transmission from a hip, '70s FM radio station when the DJ slips out to burn one and just lets the record spin.
"That was back in the day, man," Sosa says, chuckling at the memory of the gig, featuring veteran James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, which took place four years ago at Sandoval's. Time and space move quickly for the stylistically restless musician, speaking by phone from a hotel room in Milan. The week prior, Sosa performed with the NDR Big Band in Paris and then Hamburg, debuting his new joint production with the orchestra, Ceremony. This Saturday, his Afreecanos quartet featuring bassist Childo Tomas from Mozambique, Brooklyn-based drummer Marque Gilmore, and Senegalese vocalist and percussionist Mola Sylla performs at Miniaci Performing Arts Center in Davie.
"Every year, I never spend my birthday at home," Sosa, who turns 45 this month, laments in a warm, coarse-grained rasp bearing the accent of his birthplace in Camagüey, Cuba. "My family's a little bit bummed. But that's life, man. Time goes fast, brother. I never realized how fast the time can go until I had my kids."
With a wife, a 5-year-old daughter, and a 7-year-old son waiting for him at home in Barcelona, Sosa has reason to remain focused on the task at hand. But sometimes, projects come along that are just too tantalizing to pass up. Last year alone, he released evocative recordings with American-Indian folk-music expert Tim Eriksen and Jewish-American Latin-jazz flutist Mark Weinstein. His discography includes 21 recordings, none of which sounds like another, aside from strong ties to Mother Africa. His eclecticism is not by design. In a religious sense, he explains, he strives to listen to the voices of the spirits.
"This is what comes to me; there's nothing I can do," he relates. "A couple of record companies said, 'We'll give you a contract if you focus on the Latin side.' I said, 'You know what, [Latin music] is not a point of focus.' I don't know what's going to come to me."
Serendipity can also play a role, although Sosa may see more of a guiding hand at work. In 2008, German producer Stefan Gerdes invited the pianist to perform at radio station NDR's concert hall in Hamburg. Following the gig, Sosa's next date was in Poland. However, he had no visa and was held over another night until the document was obtained. Gerdes invited him to dinner.
"We started talking, and after the second bottle of wine, [Gerdes] said, 'Would you like to present your music with the [NDR] big band?' " Sosa recounts. "I said, 'Of course, man!' But it was after two bottles of wine, so I didn't take it too serious."
During that conversation, Gerdes also asked him who should pen the orchestral arrangements. Not thinking it would happen and well into their third bottle, Sosa named Brazilian-music vet Jacques Morelenbaum, a personal hero who worked with Antonio Carlos Jobim and Caetano Veloso. Gerdes called his bluff. A couple of weeks later, the producer turned up in Barcelona with Morelenbaum in tow, and it was on.
Sosa rose to the challenge, even arranging Ceremony's opening "Llegada con Elegba" and concluding "Salida con Elegba," which venerate one of the most important orichas in the Santeria religion. Hailing from Brazil, Morelenbaum deeply understood the connection to Yoruban ancestors. Afro-Ecuadoran and Afro-Cuban flavors spike the bright rumbas, son montunos, and cha-cha-chas brilliantly played by the 20-piece orchestra.
Sosa's recorded output can't keep up with his fertile musical mind. He's already thinking about a ballad compilation for which he will pen lyrics and an album of original music inspired by Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. Refusing to repeat himself, he says his upcoming tour with Afreecanos will likely be his last. Expect to hear a few tunes from Ceremony interpreted by the quartet, especially the moving "Luz in el Cielo" ("Light in the Sky"). And, of course, expect Sosa to keep a candle burning.
"If I don't have a candle [on stage], it's because the law of the place doesn't allow me to bring one," he says. "For me, it's important, just to let the ancestors know we are here to receive their voices. We're gonna translate what they want to say."