Cubans at Large – Omar Sosa and Alfredo Rodriguez

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Alfredo Rodriguez. Photo supplied.

Others talk about making sacrifices for their art. Alfredo Rodriguez laid his happiness on the line for it. With the carrot of having his career guided by the distinguished American producer Quincy Jones, the Cuban pianist crossed the border from Mexico to the US, and asked for political asylum. He did not know when or even if he would see his family again.

That was in 2009, three years after Jones first made his offer. Jones heard him when Rodriguez was one of 12 young pianists selected world-wide to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival. “After I finished my performance Quincy came to me and said he liked what I was doing,” recalls the softly-spoken Rodriguez, “and that he wanted to help in some way with my career.”

If the confrontational dynamic between Cuba and the US had Rodriguez initially doubting how a collaboration could work, a follow-up email to him in Havana made him decide that if Jones was serious he would be too. For three years he tried unsuccessfully to leave Cuba for the US legally, and so finally sought asylum while in Mexico on tour. Not only was he leaving his family and friends, he knew no English. “I just knew I wanted to come here and start sharing my music with more people,” he says. He headed for Jones’s LA headquarters “because I didn’t have any other place to go. It was a difficult but great transition in my life. I did everything for the music, and I am very thankful for all the opportunities that I’ve had since I came here.”

Music had been an obsession from Rodriguez’s infancy. His father was a singer/song-writer, and his home was filled with music. “At first I wanted to be a drummer,” he says. “I remember when I was four or five years old trying to imitate percussion and drums with pillows and pencils while my father was listening to Cuban music.”

The musicians with whom his father worked saw the young Alfredo’s potential, and at seven be began studying piano at Havana’s classical music school. With a career as a classical pianist spreading out before him Rodriguez had a kind of epiphany at 13. “My uncle gave me The Koln Concert by [jazz pianist] Keith Jarrett,” he says, “and it changed my point of view about music. After that I fell in love with improvisation and that way of expressing yourself.”

Since then his music has embraced elements of jazz, classical, Cuban and other idioms, and his new album, Tocororo, includes players from Lebanon, India, Spain, Cameroon, United States, Brazil and Cuba.

Although a generation apart the overlaps between the careers of Rodriguez, 31, and Omar Sosa, 51, are striking. Sosa, too, grew up listening to classical, jazz and African music. He, too, wanted to be a percussionist, then turned to piano and discovered he loved it. He, too, acquainted himself with music from around the world.

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Omar Sosa. Photo supplied.

“For me this was the best lesson I ever get in my life,” Sosa says, “because when you go to Morocco, China, Burundi, Arizona or Australia you learn a tradition. For me to have the opportunity to combine all these cultures that I carry in my backpack has made me a better person, because I feel we can all live together. The only thing is we need to respect each other and each other’s traditions.”

Sosa also uses a cosmopolitan array of players to make music that combines mystery and groove and equal measure. His latest record, Transparent Water, includes the brilliant Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita among players from China, India, Venezuela, Korea, and France. “We have a mission as artists to bring hope, joy and love,” he says, “and this is what I do – and groove! And the world needs that today more than ever.

“The art of music for me is emotion,” he continues. “I need something that grabs me in a way that can make me cry, make me happy, or even make me think. This is the music I try to play with every single project I do. I play with all my soul and with all my heart. The point is we don’t know if tomorrow we’re going to be alive, so we’d better give everything today!”

In 1993 Sosa moved to Ecuador pursuing a love affair. There he thrived financially writing advertising jingles, only to realise that all his music had starting to sound like a jingle. Eager to revitalise his creativity he accepted a tour of Spain at three days’ notice. He then moved to San Francisco, before, with a European touring career established, returning to Barcelona, his home ever since.

He used to go back to Cuba regularly until his mother passed away. Now he is going again: part healing process, part curiosity about whether Cuba has changed as much as he has heard. What about returning there to live?

“This is going to be the question,” he replies. “For sure I love the weather. I’m a tropical guy, man. Here in Europe when the winter comes people have these blank faces. It’s like they don’t have hope. But when you go to places with hot weather you just see the energy, man. There’s more life. Of course the people work less, because they want to party all the time!”

Alongside the similarities fundamental differences exist between Rodriguez and Sosa. Where the relaxed Sosa can enthuse about a country’s food and wine, Rodriguez says he is even aware of rhythms in the ball-passing when watching soccer.

“Rhythm is not just coming from sounds,” he insists, “it’s coming from movement, also. It could be anything. I could be just watching a tree or a flower, or try to find music from the ocean, a plane, a construction site, cars, everything. Since I was a child I’ve always connected everything that I am experiencing in my life with music.”