©Brett Delmage, 2019
Omar Sosa,  Seckou Keita, and Gustavo Ovalles created an enthusiastic connection with the audience, bringing them to their feet throughout the performance ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Omar Sosa
Salle Jean-Despréz, Maison du citoyen / Gatineau City Hall
Friday, March 15, 2019 – 8 p.m.

Omar Sosa takes music from Afro-Cuban, Latin, and African traditions, and immerses his audiences in its warmth, beauty, and vitality.

At his recent concert in Gatineau, the Cuban-born pianist teamed up with kora player and vocalist Seckou Keita from Senegal and percussionist Gustavo Ovalles from Venezuela for a show which transcended cultural and language barriers and evoked no fewer than four standing ovations.

Sosa switched between grand piano and keyboards, and sometimes played with one hand on each. He also had an electronic keypad and several mixing stands, and occasionally used effects, including looping.

Keita performed behind his kora, a harp-lute whose 44 strings were attached to two tall heads rising from the instrument's resonating chamber. It produced a more defined, almost metallic sound than a European harp, but at the same time, its shimmering tones could fill the room to its edges. He also had a mixer/effects box beside his instrument.

Ovalles played large and small hand drums and shakers and a small drum set, but the most interesting piece in his repertoire was a miniature fountain. A thin smooth stream of water poured from its bamboo arm into a large plastic tub and was pumped back up to fall again in a soothing continuous gurgle, which he used to great effect in several of the pieces.

The stage was barely lit as the three musicians entered carrying small lights, and sat down. Into a still room came a soft rhythmic thrum and then light sparkling piano notes, slowly building into a romantic and contemplative melody. Bright kora notes sang out, and then Ovalles began chanting, calmly and assuredly. His voice echoed around the room, as he addressed the audience in Spanish, his voice caressing each word, in what sounded like poetry.

It was a dramatic and stirring opening – and the following piece continued in that vein. Opening with a quiet piano melody reminiscent of Claude Debussy, it built into a bright onward rush of piano notes, shaker beats, and intricate kora rhythms that kept developing and extending. There were sizzling piano glissandos, and insinuating beats, and shouts of joy, all demonstrating the musicians' oneness with the music.

Sosa's current world tour is showcasing his 2017 album, Transparent Water, and the beginning of his third number combined delicate Afro-Cuban piano with the flowing, textured sound of Ovalles' water fountain, plus barely-there rattles and sinuous kora tones. The fluid melody surrounded the audience – and then abruptly morphed into an extended full-out groove, before returning to the gossamer feel of the opening, with light piano and streaming water again defining the melody.

It was very difficult to classify the music the trio played. It combined many influences, from classical to Afro-Cuban to jazz to world music – all in the trio's individual style and combination of instruments. In one tune, for example, they created variations on the famous Cuban tune, El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor), played with jubilant energy and passion and their own improvised additions.

All three musicians, but particularly Keita, added vocals to the mix: gentle and inviting, or upbeat and calling out. Ovalles was often on his feet, dancing to the beat, as he created rhythms on Batá drums and shakers. By the end of the show, all three were up and dancing – and at one point making the audience laugh by making faces at them.

The audience's reaction – already appreciative after the first song – grew steadily more so throughout the show. By the end of the first 50-minute set, they were clapping along to the tempestuous rhythms; when that song ended, they immediately jumped up for a standing ovation.

In the opening tune of the second set, I was initially reminded of Indian classical music – followed shortly thereafter by a careful, machine-like descending rhythm that sounded like something out of a Buster Keaton movie just before the pratfall. There was a ripple of delighted laughter from the audience. Sosa responded with a dramatic Rachmaninoff-like flourish and continued with a slowly-evolving piano-kora melody, with Ovalles' increasingly thumping drumbeats driving the tune, and Keita adding soft vocals. Each of the musicians was playing a different rhythm and yet they melded together into a strongly appealing whole.

The following song began in the jazz piano tradition, and then took off with happy Afro-Cuban rhythms, becoming more and more intense. When Keita called out to the audience, they responded “Yeah!”; shortly after they began clapping along to the beat. While Ovalles kept drumming, the other two got up and danced together, and many in the audience followed suit. The energy kept accelerating – and by the end of the piece, some in the crowd got up for a standing ovation.

For many musicians, this might have been a fine closer, but this trio still had more half their set to go.

The final tune of the set began softly with sparse piano and kora notes creating a thoughtful atmosphere over the sound of flowing water. Keita's emotional vocals rang out over plaintive instrumental melodies, and slowly and inexorably the intensity increased, with Ovalles playing the Batá drums and chanting. Sosa looped his own playing and left the piano to dance to the music.

The other two joined him to dance and then bow deeply to the audience. Listeners responded with intense applause and then a standing ovation. They continued for several minutes, and demanded an encore.

That encore – 15 minutes long – was a graceful and hopeful Afro-Cuban number that featured all three improvising and singing wordlessly to the music. It ended with them dancing and singing a cappella at the front of the stage, with the entire audience also up singing along, clapping, thumping their feet, and dancing. Finally the trio marched off stage, to laughter and another standing ovation.

It's remarkable to see an audience and musicians so completely in tune throughout the show, and for musicians to create such an immediate rapport. Sosa occasionally addressed the crowd in French, but his comments were generally swallowed by the sound system or obscured by the accompanying playing. But the music spoke for itself in its inviting vigor and elegant combinations.

This show was part of an extensive world tour for the trio. They had just perfomed in NYC, and were about to play throughout Québec, before continuing to California and then wrapping up in Spain, where Sosa now lives. With such a world-wide appeal, I was surprised to see the room only two-thirds full. But those in attendance not only heard, but experienced a magnificent example of intuitive and virtuosic trio playing.

A set list is not available for this review.