One spoke of the spirits of ancestors; the other spoke of a love for the red earth of Mali. Both — the pianist Omar Sosa and the singer Dee Dee Bridgewater — summoned Africa at the Jazz in Marciac Festival in southwestern France.
Their musical voyage on the evening of Tuesday, August 5, took place amidst extreme weather: The concert had to be stopped for an hour to due to rain and wind. But neither musician got flustered; they say they’ve found a soothing fullness, an “at homeness”, in the music of the black continent. And nothing could distract them.
Sosa communed with the sky. The tent covering 6,000 people pitched in the wind, but the Cuban pianist was jubilant as he listened to Mother Nature belt out thunder and gusts of rain. “That storm was a blessing,” he enthused in an interview the day after the concert. “We usually live far from Mother Nature and all that we are made of: water, air and fire.”
Sosa’s fascination with Africa is fully-enveloping, mystical, without reserve. “When I think that I’m going to die without being able to hear all the musical traditions of Africa, it gives me the blues,” he laments.
Listen to Omar Sosa:
In the steps of Randy Weston
The pianist discovered the links between African chants and the Cuban music he was taught in school in Havana during a trip to Congo’s Brazzaville. He experimented with the supernatural when a dance troupe initiated him to trance and voodoo.
“Twenty years ago, Cubans didn’t realise what Africans could bring to Caribbean music,” says Sosa. “Now it’s in style, but back then in Havana we knew many Nigerians, Cameroonians and Kenyans but we didn’t know their music.” The artists he works with — Senegalese singer and percussionist Mola Sylla, Mozambican bassist Childo Tomas, and fellow Cubans flutist-saxophonist Leandro Saint-Hill and drummer Julio Barreto — were chosen for their capacity to perpetuate an ancient musical tradition and bring it into a conversation with the contemporary sounds of jazz and Latino music.
Like pianist Randy Weston, Sosa’s “spiritual father”, he layers, intertwines and fuses.
“We don’t always realize it, but three or four cultures can cohabit the same song!” he often says.
Sosa doesn’t impose overpowering leaderships or tight constraints on his musicians, and their music is improvised on the spot. The 43-year-old pianist is amazed by the blend that comes about on stage, and he smiles blissfully witnessing music being created under his fingers.
“These days, jazz has become very intellectual,” he says. “I want to rediscover the beauty of its African roots, its irresistible dance, its trance.”
Dee Dee Bridgewater at Jazz in Marciac festival
Dee Dee in Mali
Africa dances for Dee Dee Bridgewater as well. But her music is not really a fusion; it’s more of a festive cohabitation with a dozen musicians from Mali and Senegal: percussionists, balafon and kora players, and well-known singers like Mamani Keita and Kabine Kouyate.
“I was attracted by African rhythm. I like how you can dance to it!” she enthused backstage a few hours before the concert.
Her love for Africa blossomed in Mali while recording her latest album, “Red Earth”. It was a trip she had been planning for years.
“I’ve known for a while, since 2001, as I was working on my album of Kurt Weill songs, that it was there — in Africa — that I would feel good. As I got older, the need to confront the issue grew more and more.”
Bridgewater hasn’t put the past behind her, however. She remembers the African incursions in jazz, and takes Wayne Shorter’s compositions and rubs them against the tradition of Malian griots. They take fire.
Her introduction to traditional Malian music is lauded in the world of jazz.
“Dee Dee seems to have finally reconciled with herself,” wrote Alex Dutilh in the monthly Jazzman magazine.
“I’ve followed Dee Dee’s musical path,” said Sosa at the breakfast table. “And with this Malian project, I feel she’s saying: ‘I’ve come home.’ I was at the jam sessions at New Morning in Paris where she prepared ‘Red Earth’. She’s in contact with the earth.”
The singer expects to go home in September. She will go to Memphis, Tennessee, her hometown, to immerse herself in the blues music of her ancestors. And to find there as well that certain something that ties her inevitably to Africa.