Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita

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  • Gustavo Ovalles
Africa Oyé @The Philharmonic Music Room 22/11/21

As piano prodigy OMAR SOSA takes to the stage with his kora-playing counterpart SECKOU KEITA, it feels as though the Philharmonic is turning over a new leaf, transforming its brick walls from a dull grey to technicolour. They’re joined by GUSTAVO OVALLES, Venezuelan percussionist and fellow jazz enthusiast, and the three of them deliver a crisp, captivating, and culturally rich performance, drawing from their respective Cuban, Senegalese and South American heritages through music and dance.

We’re watching the tour for their sophomore album, SUBA, in a fully sold out Philharmonic Music Room. The album explores themes of growth, hope, and change in a post-pandemic world. SUBA means ‘sunrise’ in Mandinka, Keita’s native language, and the duo describe a window of opportunity provided during the lockdown to record by the beach in Majorca, surrounded by family. It’s clear the influence this setting had on the music; fluid sounding, conjuring images of sun and sea. They make an impressive trio; Sosa holding 30 albums under his belt and a Grammy nomination, and Keita bearing the title of BBC Radio 2’s folk musician of the year 2019.

Keita’s kora-playing is air-tight, his voice like satin, effortlessly delivering quarter notes backed by Ovalles’ North African percussion style, in an ode to Keita’s shared African ancestry with Sosa. For those unaware, a kora is a stringed instrument primarily used in West Africa, with 21 strings either side of the seated player. Keita makes playing it look so effortless that it almost appears to be an optical and auditory illusion. It feels outlandish to hear the instrument played alongside a grand piano, but it’s another element of the set that just works.

During Voices on the Sea, Dramane Dembélé’s hypnotic flute trickles over the speakers, complemented by the sounds of running water, as heard on the album. There are a few moments like this throughout the night which welcome a touch of something else, an idea someone must have had, small or large, just enough to elevate the already impressive dynamic we’re watching; it’s never overkill. Sosa is a firm believer that less is more in music, and says that, “doing crazy solos has made me… I don’t want to say unhappy, but close to unhappy. Because for me, music has to be a conversation. Be humble. Breathe. Make space. I think the world needs gentle and beautiful not arrogant music. We don’t want fast, mad playing.”

"Music has to be a conversation. Be humble. Breathe. Make space. I think the world needs gentle and beautiful, not arrogant music. We don’t want fast, mad playing.” Omar Sosa

Even so, there are moments of chaos in which the pianist flexes his virtuosic piano-handling ability. He not only works the keys with expert precision and speed, but shakes his arse while doing so, throwing it back while sporting a kaftan, encouraging a crowd of predominantly white over 50-somethings onto their feet in a way that is both invigorating and heart-warming. It’s performances like this that will keep the Philharmonic alive, exciting for every age and walk of life, yet still adhering to the venue’s history of showcasing high quality music. It will bring a necessary diversity to the venue; water to help it flourish in areas that are drooping. Sosa and Keita end up dancing to Ovalles’ drumming, hyping up both themselves and the crowd, but evidently, we’re quieter than Manchester and need some coaxing into getting involved. Eventually, everyone’s on their feet, letting loose and feeling the music.

During Allah Léno, a language barrier doesn’t stop us from being deeply moved by Keita’s mesmerising kora handling. He deftly takes us on a musical journey through a call and response exercise, letting the audience sing the melody back to him, the lyrics a series of “las,” to keep it simple. Again, it takes a few words of encouragement from the ensemble to lure the melody out of a sleepy Phil, but we get there, and it’s beautiful.

The majority of the room presumably also don’t understand what Keita is singing about, which perhaps makes it more moving. Hovering in the recesses of my memory, as Keita plays, I remember a psychology study which suggested that music can bring a person to tears for two reasons: one, because a song may be inherently sad, or two, out of sheer awe. The reason one person may react a certain way compared to another can vary depending on personality type. During a live translation of SUBA, both experiences are possible. The album transports you through a series of songs that are all reminiscent of different emotions or seasons, there’s the playful, the sombre, and the pure cinematic.

Following the performance, Adam Ghidouche, Creative Programming Officer for the Philharmonic, chats to me about his project to bring a wider range of world music to the venue’s intimate Music Room, working with Africa Oyé and Liverpool Arab Arts Festival. The night has undoubtedly been a success, and it bodes well for the future of the Philharmonic. It isn’t just a case of ticking boxes, it’s a taste of something different that fits perfectly. In a city like Liverpool, which champions diversity, this is precisely what we need to see more of.


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