When Cuban-born keyboardist Omar Sosa and Senegal’s kora virtuoso Seckou Keita come to Portland, it’s a party, it’s a blast. Not every day you hear the West African kora, an upright many-stringed harp-like instrument that takes years to master. At this concert it was center stage.
Listening to this glorious gumbo of Caribbean-Latin-West African-World-electronic-jazz, you might be tempted to lie down and roll in the ebullient, drum-rich music. Or, if you were seated in a pew–as about 300 fans were in Portland’s The Old Church sold-out concert April 27(sponsored by Soul’d Out and Beloved)– you jumped up, clapped on the downbeat and belted out la-la-las to the popular tune, “Allah Leno,“ with the all-age audience. The pumped-up Sosa, exuberant Keita, and slightly less animated polished Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles served up the party to everyone in the church.
The musicians communicated with one another with far more than their sunny energy-fueled harmonious beat-driven music. They mixed in laughing and smiling and dancing and singing, clapping and stomping and snapping, and they had a bead on the audience. With little effort they were able to persuade fans to join in the profusion – and diffusion – of joy.
The 90-minute concert started late, and several times the TOC staff encouraged patrons to buy refreshments at the bar–and why not? TOC is a non-profit that serves Portland’s arts community with an abundance of concerts and superb acoustics. To fill the time, storyteller Baba Wague spun out a tale about man, nature and crocodiles. Once started, the music ran without a break, one piece flowing into the other, creating a river of celebration. Endings and beginnings were as crisp as the ballads were mellifluous.
Sosa, who studied piano in Cuba, and Keita, who is descended from griots in West Africa (a griot is a hereditary bard or storyteller and holds a position of honor in West Africa’s oral culture) got together 13 years ago. “We didn’t have much to say to each other at first,” Keita was quoted as saying in press materials. “But then we started getting to a kind of high level of musical spirituality.” Certainly their music, though sometimes frenetic, is always playful and shot through with transcendent messages.
The two performers, joined by percussionist Ovalles, a regular tourer and studio musician with Sosa since the ‘90s, put on more than 100 shows throughout the world following their 2017 release Transparent Water, which stayed at No.1 on the Transglobal World Music Chart for many months. A year ago, April 10 (Sosa’s 57th birthday) the group came to the Patricia Reser Center for the Arts in Beaverton in the Reser’s inaugural season, and stirred up the crowd almost as much as it did this spring in Portland. Sosa has performed several times in the Portland area in the last 10 years as his fame has grown, and his shows are popular, refreshing and a ton of fun.
In the April 17 show, the trio performed about 10 songs, most from their recent award-winning CDs, Transparent Water and SUBA (translated as “Sunrise” from West African Mandinka). SUBA was No. 3 on National Public Radio’s Top 20 Albums of 2021. The trio’s “Allah Leno” from SUBA – the tune that this audience went crazy for – won first prize in the “World” music category in the 2022 USA Songwriting Competition. If you heard only one song at the concert, this high-voltage piece was the one to store in your memory.
Like kids in a sandbox, the musicians rarely sat still, moving from instrument to instrument – in Sosa’s case from electronic keyboards to the Steinway grand. He fiddled with computers and piano wires off and on, brushing the grand piano’s inner workings with a small broom-like tool. He wore his signature flowing white robe and red espadrilles with bells on his ankles and beads around his neck. Combined with his elfin smile and naughty fully clothed butt-wiggle directed to the audience, his performing style remains unmistakable, inimitable and irresistible.
In the show’s second part Ovalles shone with his many pieces of percussion, including beads and chains and rattles, all manner of drums, congas, djembes and bongos, and a skinny drum he played between his legs. The only more percussion-laden stage I’ve seen was the Alberta Rose Theatre’s last summer where the classically trained rhythm-keeper quartet, Sandbox Percussion, played Portland composer/percussionist Andy Akiho’s 80-minute Seven Pillars. That plethora of percussion included whiskey bottles, a pewter pitcher, a plastic-covered cigar box, among a multitude of objects and instruments with which the group produced uncanny sounds.
Creating centerstage magic with the kora and beating on a little over-the-shoulder drum, which likely has a name, Keita also sang in his soaring multi-octave tenor/baritone. Known as the “little griot” – his nickname as a kid – he was rigorously trained by his strict grandfather to practice and practice and practice, and now he’s a global star as is the trio.