Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita Transparent Water
Otá Records (www.melodia.com)
Review by Dylan McDonnell
Transparent Water occupies space within several different spectra: between plucked and hammered strings, spontaneous and preconceived composition, wandering and purposeful trajectories. Its fluidity reflects a continuity of Cuban pianist Omar Sosa's vision of transcontinental blurring of styles and idioms in an ultimately Afro-diasporic framework (previously demonstrated on albums such as 2013's Eggun: The Afri-Lectric Experience). This time around Sosa has partnered with Senegalese kora player and singer Seckou Keita to engage a project of exploratory proportions: the album features elements of multiple African regional musics (Mandinka and Yoruba), Chinese reed timbres, Japanese koto playing, and the Afro-Latin piano and percussion canons. Though the pieces are primarily instrumental, they constitute a unity of moods that evoke moments both spoken and introspective.
The first three tracks seem to work as a single unit and begins with “Dary,” the initial statement of the piano/kora duality amid maracas and marimba samples. The propulsive yet questioning melodic interplay transitions into “In the Forest,” a minor contemplation of the expressive capabilities of the co-leaders that comingles descending lines and continuously resolving suspensions. Plucked strings begin to dominate the scene as Mieko Miyazaki enters the fold on koto in “Black Dream,” followed by Wu Tong (of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble) on sheng, an ultra-dynamic free-reed instrument. The pitch bends and vibrato exhibited by Miyazaki and Wu respectively fill in gaps left by the starkness of Keita's kora ostinatos.
Beyond this point, the moods are interspersed, ranging from thoughtful spirituality (“Another Prayer,” “Moro Yeye”) to refined joy (“Mining-Nah”). When Keita sings, he embraces the repetition characteristic of much West African griot repertoire, allowing the rhythmic intricacies to take centerstage. His parts in “Tama-Tama” hang above Mohsin Khan Mawa's nagadi (a sonic reference to the Senegalese tama) as well as the piano/kora tapestry that hints at Andalusian oud embellishment and the son chops of Bebo and Chucho Valdés. In this vain of swapping idioms, Miyazaki's koto in “Fatiliku” takes on the role of the kora, while Keita reimagines the tumbao basslines found in several Cuban dance music styles. Here, it almost becomes difficult to distinguish between instruments because the timbres and inflections blend so seamlessly.
Arguably the most nebulous pieces included on this set, “ Another Prayer” and “Peace Keeping” find a balance between freer modal-jazz improvisation and soulful vamps provided by Sosa's microKorg synth and vocal percussion, or by kora and left-hand bass notes.
In contrast to the “culture-hopping” of the bulk of Transparent Water, Sosa returns somewhat firmer ground with “Moro Yeye,” whose text is found in numerous songs to Oshun, the Yoruba orisha or deity of the river. Here, the batá drums, played by Gustavo Ovalles, carry the rhythm and create an environment that loosely alludes to Santería ceremonies.
The final two tracks ("Zululand," "Thiossane") root the group in the recognizable musical settings of isicathamiya, popularized by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and Keita's kora ruminations expanded by Sosa and Miyazaki.
Having covered such a broad variety of emotional and stylistic material, it seems almost cruel for the ensemble to leave the listener somewhere they have likely been before, at least sonically. However, it is a testament to Sosa and company that they do not expose the full range of their musicality at the expense of the project's indelible flow. - Dylan McDonnell