They Came as Explorers: Listening to Omar Sosa's "Across the Divide"

(Boing Boing guestblogger Ned Sublette is a writer, historian, photographer, and singer-songwriter based in New York.)

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I heard some good records this year, but one stands out for the way it compelled me to listen over and over: Cuban pianist Omar Sosa's Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm & Ancestry.

I don't listen to all that much recorded music, though you wouldn't know it from the way my apartment is bulging with recorded music in every format known to man or woman. About an hour a day, usually, not counting my work, which entails studying music. I prefer my music live, in the presence of other people hearing it with me. And if I play a recording, I listen to it. I don't play recorded music while I'm doing something else, unless it's a routine task.

I must have thousands of CDs, but there are about thirty I play repeatedly–my comfort records, so to speak. By which I mean, when I want to relax with an old friend, I put this one on. My idiosyncratic, impulsively personal selection goes beyond the constant parade of r&b and salsa oldies on my computer to albums that have an arc, an identity, and a context of their own.

João Bosco's Zona de Fronteira. Big Sam's Funky Nation. Lecuona plays Lecuona. Alicia de Larrocha plays Albéniz's Iberia, though I wish I could hear a ripping new interpretation of it with close miking. Everything by Dr. John, and Coco Robicheaux's Spiritland. Cash Money Greatest Hits. George Clinton's T.A.P.O.A.F.O.M (The Awesome Power of a Fully Operational Mother Ship), and another acronymic title, Miles Davis's E.S.P., King Tubby. Boukman Eksperyans's Kalfou Danjere. Terry Allen, Joe Ely. And my favorite Christmas record of all time (because it doesn't sound like a "Christmas record"), El Gran Combo's Nuestra Música. And, previously, one record by Omar Sosa, the elaborate, African-orchestral Afreecanos (2008).

Sosa's Across the Divide was my only new comfort record this year. It's a powerful, spiritual record that features Tim Eriksen, who sings traditional Anglo-American ballads with musicality and soul, and plays a nice banjo too.

Superficially, it resembles one of those mash-ups of legacy singing voices with new tracks (of which, Little Axe's underappreciated 1995 release The Wolf That House Built, is the best I've heard.) But this is not a mash-up; it was recorded live on stage at New York's Blue Note jazz club, together with the singer. It's on the Blue Note's label, Half Note; the album's producer, Jeffrey Levenson, also contributed first-rate liner notes.

It's not a bunch of overdubs stacked up over programming. I saw Sosa's group in April, with Eriksen, and I'm here to tell you they played it live, including the Langston Hughes samples that Sosa triggered from the piano.

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The samples figure in the album's first cut, "Promised Land," Sosa's setting of an 18th-century Welsh hymn in Eriksen's repertoire. (You can read more about Sosa and Eriksen's collaboration here.) Recalling the free blacks who emigrated from Seville to the Americas (negros curros, they were called in Cuba), Hughes speaks from beyond the grave, the way ancestors do: "By the early 1500s black explorers were coming to the New World. They came as explorers." A trailing echo underscores the word: explorers… and Eriksen's voice returns.

There's something going on here besides a Cuban piano virtuoso with a band to match. The music proposes the paradox of hemispheric history. Sosa is telling a story, or maybe it would be better to say he's exploring a question through music, not only across the divide of black and white, but also of two great musical-cultural regions of the New World – the former empires of England and Spain, with their distinct associated African legacies. Eriksen's banjo is in the "white" tradition, but the banjo is an African-descended instrument. The album's standout, "Gabriel's Trumpet," passes the goosebumps test. But more than that–it begins with just banjo and maraca. Which sounds good, but then you think: wait a minute, I've never heard these two instruments playing together before. And you haven't, because they come from different traditions. The banjo is as absent from the folk music of Cuba as the maraca is from black music in the United States. Moreover, they come from different parts of Africa (more about that in my book Cuba and Its Music.)

Tonight, Omar Sosa is playing with his group in Nairobi. On December 16th, he'll be in Mauritius.

Next time: Principles of Postmamboism, and continuing excerpts from The Year Before The Flood.