His breath, his music and his religion are one. Each day there's "a need for an even freer dialogue," says award-winning composer Omar Sosa. And every step must begin with an appeal to the unseen. At concerts his ritual seldom changes — neither does his all-white, ceremonial attire. Clad in a full-length, gown, Omar Sosa strolls on stage bearing a lit candle cloaked in a red and black scarf. Red and black are the colors of Eleguaa, the orisa, or divine spirit of the Yoruba religion that opens and closes all doors and guards the crossroads. And the light cast by the candle informs spirits that "we are here to give something," says Sosa in that soft, raspy voice of his. "Please come!"

An invitation from Sosa can be hard to resist. The first time I attended his performance, I got the distinct feeling that another force, another energy, another will, was among us. I tried to leave after the first set. Heading home, Stephanie, my wife, and I drove for several blocks only to find ourselves turning around and heading back to Yoshi's nightclub in Oakland for the second smoldering set of the evening. Several years have elapsed, and I still find myself returning again and again, but it's not just for the music for which he's garnered numerous accolades and awards — I'm also drawn to what lies behind his art — the unrelenting pursuit of the sacred.

Born in Camaguey, Cuba in 1965, Omar Sosa "is one of the truly illuminated minds of world jazz", says Philip Van Vleck of Billboard magazine. And Fernando Gonzalez of the Washing-ton Post says, "at the core of Sosa's music, there's the impulse to connect disparate sources, to explore old links, to make an ancient world whole again by pushing it forward." Africa is that ancient world — it's the heart of the music, says Sosa, "the blood, the backbone." Yet he draws freely from other genres: rap, classical, hip-hop, jazz, folklore, poetry, chants, lullabies and the varied rhythms and harmonies of Latin America and other regions of the world are all assured a place at Sosa's expansive table — so are we.

"I stay open to everything," he says," "In a state of total availability. Everything impregnates me, and the music passes through me. I fight not to be swallowed by the imperatives and prefabricated limits of society. Freedom is the condition sine qua non. The first condition."

But make no mistake. Outstanding musicianship won't necessarily land you a gig with Omar Sosa. Technique, while desirable, is not enough. "The only condition to be in the band is to be spiritual. That's all I ask," says Sosa, adding that he has sent musicians home, who, apparently, were not evolved enough. "The point is not me, the point is not you, the point is how do we translate the message?" And almost every CD, it seems, gives credit to "those who send the message, every day, every instant: our spirits, ancestors, and orisas," says Sosa in the liner notes of Prietos, one of his early albums. "Don't imagine I do it by myself," he explains, "I'm a mere vector."

I feel enriched and impoverished all at once while listening to Sosa. I often struggle as an artist whereas Sosa seems to draw effortlessly from a spiritual and creative well that can never be exhausted. How can one being possibly hear so many voices and channel so many messages? I've often asked myself, and what does this omen portend for the rest of us? I scour the liner notes for insights when I purchase his CD's, then I allow myself to be swept wherever my emotions aspire to go.

"Passion demands reason, reason demands song, song demands the heart, listen to the voice unceasingly," he says in the liner notes of the album Bembon. "The cleansing of the spirit is the only thing capable of translating an ancestral message with total clarity and liberty," he says in La Mar. In Ayaguna, Omar says: "it is peace that illuminates and moves things." And in Free Roots, he says: "Peace light and love are all I want to offer."

I wanted to believe in peace and light and love so badly when I met Omar for lunch several years ago at Milano's, an Italian restaurant in Oakland, but I found it difficult because the U.S. government had just begun the illegal and unwarranted attack on the people of Iraq, and very little light, very little love and very little peace exists in George Bush's agenda for our world.

At the age of 18, Sosa witnessed the ravages of war up close as a musician playing for soldiers in Angola. There are no "winners and losers," he says wryly, "Only losers. The energy of the world goes down, the spirit goes down, that's why we need to give light and love." But as U.S bombs shattered thousands and thousands of lives as well as the sovereignty of Iraq, I felt nothing but despair as I sat with Sosa and the "unity of races and cultures" that he often espouses, struck me as well-meaning, but naive and futile.

I asked Sosa how he maintained peace amidst all this destruction. "That's a good question, brother," he responded. "I pray — every second I pray for peace, not only for me but for everybody. Also, I look inside myself every single second, to give light, to be clean. It's hard to be clean with all the noise, the media, cars, music but when you look at everything in a positive light, you give beautiful things to people."

He thinks of his concerts as a "meditation. It's about music of the heart. It's not about playing good or bad. The most important thing is to feel the energy and to share it with the crowd," and if the feeling isn't there he sometimes cries. "You can't imagine how bad I feel," he says. But he can also be provocative. During one show, images of the commercial airliners slamming into the World Trade Center flashed on large screens alongside images and soundbites of George Bush and Tony Blair justifying their attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. At another show, Bro Los, an Oakland-based rapper and activist blasted U.S policies abroad, and racism and other injustices at home.

Rather than rushing to seek vengeance after Sept. 11, Americans should have paused to reflect on the root causes of the anger being directed at this country, Sosa says. But now with 150, 000-plus war related casualties (by some estimates) in Iraq alone, abuse of inmates in the prisons of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and no trace of weapons of mass destruction to be found, fear, no doubt, will be our constant companion for sowing and cultivating this long and bitter harvest of death.

A waiter interrupts our conversation briefly to ask if we're ready to order. We opt to finish the interview first but graciously accept a refill of iced water in the meantime. Raised in Camaguey, Cuba, Sosa began studying percussion at the age of eight. His first love was the marimba, but since it wasn't offered as a course of study at the prestigious Escuela Musica in Havana, he later switched to the piano. In addition to a steady diet of European classical music, some of his early influences included Nat King Cole, Orquesta Aragon, Conjunto Folklorico National and Los Amigos. Later, he would be inspired by Thelonius Monk, Chucho Valdez, John Coltrane and other jazz legends.

"When I hear the music of Coltrane I hear many messages," he says, "just one note -- but how do you approach this note?" Sosa doesn't explain what he means by this, but intuitively, I sense he's asking the same question that has consumed artists for eons. How can we say a lot with very little? Writers are taught to pare down unnecessary words. "More is less," we say. Photographers zero in on a specific area of focus, and Omar Sosa, "more often than not, puts his virtuosity aside to play the simplest single note melody," says Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune. Not only does Sosa know how and where to find our emotional center, he also knows when to strike. "Three Notes," a composition that appears on several of Sosa's albums often comes to mind when I think of his legacy — it's one of his signature pieces, a gentle, deeply-moving bolero. I'm enamored with the Yoruba language version of Three Notes that's featured on the Sentir CD, and I listen to it often.

Lately, however, I've rediscovered two gems — the wistful and evocative tracks La Mar and De Alla Lejos — both sung by Venezuelan vocalist Maria Marquez on the CD La Mar. Marquez's otherworldly vocals on the track La Mar (the sea) has to experienced — this is not an occasion for passive listening — and the bass line, the crashing waves, the screeching seagulls, and Omar's introspective and grand flourishes at the piano soulfully capture the mystique and the majesty of the sea.

I was hoping to avoid the trap of selecting a favorite CD; somehow it seems so unfair, and I doubt I'm up for the task. But if forced at knife point in the middle of the night to make a decision, perhaps I would say Bembon.or maybe it would be La Mar. It's really hard to say for two reasons: 1. I haven't heard his two latest albums. 2. There's no knife pressed against my throat at the moment. The word bembon means thick lips — as in the sensuous lips we Africans have. The CD Bembon is yet another one of Sosa's tribute to the rich and diverse musical traditions of the African diaspora — it's a theme he returns to again and again.

In 1993, Sosa moved to Quito, Equador for several years where he immersed himself in the African-derived folkloric music of Esmeraldas, a region along the northwest coast that's renowned for the marimba. Sosa is currently based in Spain where he lives with his partner, Shirma, and their three-year old son, Lonius (named after Thelonius Monk). Ironically, he says, his interest in Santeria, the popular Afro-Cuban religion of his forebears, blossomed while living in Oakland, California. As a "son" of Obatala, the orisa, or divine spirit that symbolizes justice, purity and wisdom, Sosa always dresses in white, the color associated with this deity.

But not everyone welcomes Sosa's spiritual focus. One journalist in New York mocked him for having a candle on stage. "I always have the candle. I need to have the candle. I don't care whether it's a small gig, big gig. This is my life. My religion, my breath, my life and my music are one and the same thing."

And although Sosa received a lifetime achievement award from the Smithsonian Institution in 2003 for his musical contributions, this GRAMMY nominated artist with 11 recordings to his credit is sometimes leery of the music business. "A lot of people want to be in the game. Success means money and fame, but what about the spirit? What about the meaning of the music? What about the meaning of art?"

I still ponder the questions Sosa raises about conviction, artistry and the possibility of being an instrument or "vector" of a force greater than ourselves. He insists that our ancestors always have the last word. Although we often seek support and validation from others along this journey, there are some things, some voices deep within that only our souls can validate.

After talking to him for 11/2 hours, Sosa somehow manages to convince me that despite his obvious genius, he's just a "regular guy." We're finally ready to order lunch. I opt for the seafood pasta and Sosa chooses the pasta with chicken and cream sauce. Finally, I pose the question that's been nagging me for months. "How do you hear all those messages you write about?" I ask. "It's simple," he says, "I'm no God. I just listen. Some people don't listen."

He pays for our meal, and I share some of the photographs I took during my first visit to Nigeria — images of sacred sites and wise elders in Yorubaland, Southwest Nigeria. He selects two of them after I tell him to feel free to take whatever he wishes I also share one of my aspirations: to be as creative in my photography as he is in music. "Just be open," he says. "The more free you are, the more opportunities you have to translate the message. The message comes in the moment. You know, people are always striving to get this, and this, and that," he adds. "But in the end, when you pass away, what stays alive is not what you get -- but what you give."

James Weeks is an award-winning photographer based in Oakland, California. He is the author of an upcoming book on African Shamanism.

Copyright© 2003-2007,   Tamarind Years,  James Weeks.   All Rights Reserved.
Web Design by Camara Rajabari &