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Dimitriou’s Jazz Alley: A Conversation With Omar Sosa & Seckou Keita

Alicia Carrera

As the weather turns, flowers aren’t the only thing blooming in Seattle. Dimitrou’s Jazz Alley has been blooming with great artists, especially during Jazz Appreciation Month.

On April 25th-26th, Omar Sosa & Seckou Kieta Suba Trio, graced the stage. Along with Gustavo Ovalles, they blazed through their two studio albums, Transparent Water (2017) and their latest self-titled album, Suba. The trio’s joyful and happy chemistry was infectious, causing the audience to sway along to the soothing, classical sounds of what Omar calls “music from the soul.” Using an approach Sosa calls “minimalismo”, the concept is exhibited through the music, even down to their simple yet homely stage set. It was as if you were with them while they were recording in the studio.

Each member brings their own unique qualities to the trio, and in large part, is due to their musical upbringings. Sosa, who hails from Cuba, fuses classical training with elements of African, Latin, and Jazz. Ovalles, from Venezuela, offers mind blowing folkloric percussion (come to think, during the performance, it seemed he only played “traditional” drums for maybe a minute – no exaggeration!). And in the middle of it all is Keita, the U.K based Senegalese Kora master, who brings his traditional teachings of the Kora. The calm voice between the two chaotic instruments Sosa and Ovalle play.. Like a basketball team, they would pass along solo duties to each other, and they were all slam dunks. After an hour and a half of fun, meditative and spiritual music, Suba brought the spirit and message of Mother Africa: Music from the soul.

Artists perform on stage in a jazz club.
Terae Stefon
The Suba Trio exhibited so much joy during their performance. It was infectious! (L-R) Omar Sosa (Piano), Seckou Keita (Kora), Gustavo Ovalles (Percussion)

After a great show, I had the chance to sit with Omar & Seckou for a conversation. We talked about their music, their travels and how they influence their music, beautiful chaos, and much more. Below is a full transcription of our 15 minute conversation:

Terae Stefon: I’m here with the great Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita. They just finished a great show here at Jazz Alley. Are you guys used to leaving the audience this speechless?

Omar Sosa: Well, this is the mission. It’s important to bring hope, peace, unity and love. Our mission is to let a lot of people know that it’s Africa – it’s the motherland, man.

TS: There’s a lot of percussive elements in your music – how important is the “beat” when it comes to music, and overall life? It’s like you’re all in constant rhythm.

Seckou Keita: Well, like Omar said the “rhythm” is from the Motherland. We also have this belief that every human being has rhythm inside of them, the heartbeat is all about timing, right? Now, [in terms of] leaving people speechless; this music we do is really hard to describe. Is it African? Is it Cuban? Is it Jazz? Is it world? Is it classical? Simply, it is music from the soul. So people kind of absorb during the show, and when they get out, they don’t know how to express [themselves]. But sometimes, speechless is good! (laughs)

TS: You two are well traveled, performing in over hundreds of countries: Cuba, Africa and parts of Northern Africa. How much have those areas have affected you and your music

OS: Well, every new spice enrich the dish. But, like we say, we need to put the right amount [into our music]

SK: And sometimes, you have to take [it] out! (Laughs)

TS: And speaking of that, I was listening to Transparent Water and Suba – great albums. They’re very calm, meditative albums – which is the complete opposite when you’re performing live!

Omar chimed in

OS: [And brother], when you make a record, do they still call them that? (Laughs) When you go to Spotify or whatever, you can’t see the person. But when you come to a concert, you listen and at the same time, you feel the person – you feel the energy. That’s what it’s all about [the energy]. Listening to a song on your phone, or in your headphones, its frequencies. It goes through your brain, then your soul. When you see in-person, it’s human energy going through the soul. It’s something beautiful, man.

SK: Everywhere we go there’s a different energy. When we walk into the studio its different vibes. When we’re performing, it’s something else because it’s not just our energy, it’s also from the crowd, so now we’re sharing this energy. Then it gets to a level where none of us could expect the energy, out of the audience or ourselves. That’s when we know “this” is the moment!

TS: There are a lot of spontaneous elements to your show. Almost like a basketball team, you guys pass the ball to each other and each does their own thing.

SK: You got it! (Laughs)

TS: Going back to the “minimalissimo” approach. How are you able to translate that into a boisterous, live setting?

OS: When you play in the studio, you want to deliver a message that is going to stay forever. When you play live, you’re gonna deliver a message that’s gonna hit the soul and the heart of the person that comes to the show. Doesn’t mean we’re minimalist, but like you said, we are a team. And our energy together, even when we don’t play, we leave it silent. Pow! And the audience may react [confusingly] “why?” But like the masters say: “the best note, is the note you don’t play” When we record, we need to be sure that the note we don’t play is the note that plays forever in the people’s heart when we play the silence. It’s not easy!

SK: That space is very important. That’s why when you listen to our albums, you can listen to it at the dinner table, in bed, in the garden, the party room!

TS: Your music has no labels, clearly. There’s Classical, African, Latin, Jazz –

OS: That’s the idea.

SK: Whatever you call it.

OS: Music from the heart, music from the earth. But it’s music from the Motherland, Mother Africa.

SK: I don’t like categories. For me, there’s only two types of music: good one [music] and not so good.

TS: Omar, I noticed you had two brush-like instruments and used them to bang on the piano chords. I’ve never seen that in my life! What was the instrument!

OS: Custom made brushes. They’re really thin bamboo, specifically made to hit the strings and not damage the piano. I’m a percussion player at heart, Seckou is too, and of course you saw Gustavo.

TS: That seemed to be a huge part, percussion. The piano seemed like a drum. The Kora seemed like a drum. Gustavo, doing his thing –

SK: That’s our hidden side of it. Three musicians who are percussionists!

OS: I play piano more as a percussive instrument. It opens new doors for ourselves to explore different sounds. It’s like, destroying in a beautiful way.

TS: Beautiful chaos

SK: Right! And we don’t get booed!

TS: Seckou, the Kora’s a very traditional instrument. I was reading an article on Sona Jobarteh, the first female Kora player. How important is it to continue to honor the Kora tradition while expanding its knowledge and history.

A musician holding and looking at a kora.
Courtesy of Andy Morgan
The kora is a stringed instrument used extensively in West Africa. A kora typically has 21 strings, which are played by plucking with the fingers. It combines features of the lute and harp.

SK: This instrument dates back to the 13 century from West Africa. It’s a very important part of [African] society. Kora players are not only musicians, but mediators, wise ones, advisors to kings. Whenever there is trouble, Kora players are the ones that provide peace between people. You train from childhood. I had to train from age 7 to 14 where I learned the stories of former Kora players and the history behind them. It’s passed from generation to generation. And with the world moving so fast, we really need to find the balance between holding the tradition, but be a part of a new generation. It’s like a chain. You cut one bead, everything falls. It is my duty to pass it to the next “bead”. With all this technique behind the 21st century, it’s not easy to keep the tradition. But we have to do it in the right way.

TS: It’s very fitting then that you’re in the middle between such chaotic instruments, the drums and piano.

SK: Yes! (Laughs) This trio is very special for all of us. We have hundreds of our own projects, but when it comes to this trio, it’s something else and we all know that. We might not see each other for months or years, but when we walk onstage, show’s better than before.

OS: It’s a celebration of peace and unity and loving each other. Passing that love to people. The world needs that today. We Are in a chaotic moment, and sometimes we don’t even pay attention to how important it is to see, really clear, what we have in front of our face. We’re a little blind. Our role, your role, Seckou’s [role], mine – we try to let the people know that another world (through music) is possible.

The Suba Trio will be on tour throughout the spring and summer performing music from Suba and Transparent water. You can find more of their music, and upcoming shows on their websites:

Born and raised in Seattle, Washington, Terae Stefon looks to make his mark on an ever changing city. A Graduate of Franklin High School, he then attended Saint Martin’s University, majoring in English and Journalism. Terae found his way into radio by volunteering at local community radio stations HollowEarth and RainierAvenue Radio in Seattle and then at Total Traffic, keeping the region moving as a traffic reporter and producer.