Pianist Omar Sosa and violinist and singer Yilian Canizares have gone through similar experiences growing up in Cuba, and they understand what it means to endure all the restrictions and then open up to the world.
ISTANBUL – At the 25th Istanbul Jazz Festival, organised by the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, musicians of a wide spectrum performed this year, even rock luminaries such as Nick Cave and Robert Plant. The summer festival, which ended in mid-July, also offered Istanbulites the beautiful melodies of pianist Omar Sosa and violinist and singer Yilian Canizares, two Cubans who have made Europe their home.
Though Sosa and Canizares pursue their own careers, they also perform together in frequent intervals. TRT World sat with them for what turned out to be a candid interview filled with jovial laughter.
OMAR SOSA: I love this country. I’ve come quite a few times now. I think it’s my fifth time. I used to come here with Pozitif [concert organisation company that used to own the Babylon club in the Asmalimescit district in Beyoglu]. They used to have a club around here. I played two times in Babylon. I’m talking about back in the day. Now I’m 53 years old, I came here when I was twentysomething – no, in my thirties. We had such a good time!
There’s still a Babylon, but it has moved. It’s in Sisli now, in Bomonti. Pozitif sold it.
OS: Everything is evolving, everything changes. The idea is to keep the spirit, in whatever you want to say and do it, keep the spirit, be alive and be consistent with your spirit.
Can you tell us a bit about your project, “Aguas”? How did it come about?
OS: “Aguas” has come out in a really interesting way. I remember Yilian opened one of my concerts with her band and I fell in love with her – not physically, but in a musical way. I remember after the concert I was touched by her energy, the way she moved, the way she sang, the way she played violin and sang at the same time. And I remember ... when we finished the concert I just stayed.
She’s Cuban like me, but from a different generation. She’s in her 30s, I’m in my 50s. I’m kind of an old man compared to her. but we both have the same feeling and we both think about the way of creating music in a spiritual way.
I told her, "Do you want to do a project together?" She said, "What? I’m glad to do a project together.” A few months later, she came to my house in Menorca in the Mediterranean, and we created music. I remember I was sick but being with her was really powerful. Everything came out very fluent.
We created music together, and we both decided let’s create contemplative music, not demonstrative music – because basically when you hear about Cuban musicians or Latin musicians or African musicians ... in people’s mind they need to be aggressive ... loud! A lot of rhythm! Of course, in live concerts we balance the contemplative side with the, let’s say, the lion, the female lion, you know, the female power.
We did this project after we were together in my house. We went to the studio in Udine In Italy for a week. We spent a week there, recording, eating really good food, drinking really good wine, and the music came out very gentle and contemplative.
This is all reflected in the music that we did. Of course live, this music, with the music that we play now [is a variation], because the record is one moment. The way I look at the picture, you’re in print. You’re in print a moment of your life. But every day is a new moment of your life. So now, we develop the record in the way we live now: she was into electronic [music], by that time she wasn’t into electronic anymore, and now she’s in that kind of vibe .... She developed more stuff, actually we play music, it made me want to go and record next a record. Because this recording we did three years ago and the record’s going to come out in October. So we started touring now.
In a way, I don’t say the music’s old because the music is never old, but the moment that we live in now with the music is what it is. It’s still the flavour; it’s still the soul; it’s still the root, and this is something we would like to say on the record.
How did you two meet? How did you decide to perform and record together?
OS: We met four or five years ago. Four years ago.
YILIAN CANIZARES: In France.
OS: In France, in a castle. I’ll tell you, I was impressed. Not only because she’s a beautiful lady, but the way she approached ... on stage, the way she accomplished the energy around her with the people around her, it touched me. Her playing and her voice. And she was doing it both together I was like, “Wow!”
She’s from another generation, but like I said before, we [both] feel the music in a different way. The spirituality inside the music is something fundamental. In every project we do as solo artists and all the projects I have done all of these years. It’s a lot of connection.
We don’t force anything. Everything comes naturally. Because there’s no reason to force anything; it’s one of the reasons to be together. We have our own careers, but together we develop something that is our voice. Our sense. It’s completely different. Her scene is completely different of my own scene, and this is for me one of the important rules when you do a collaboration: combine the energy; enjoy the energy of the other person; be open to learn. I learn a lot with her.
YC: What can I say … [laughter] It’s great because from the beginning of the project we say we want to be a duo; it’s not like two people who just play together and everyone goes a different way. We wanted to compose together, and we did it. The music is an extension of our experience as friends, human beings, the connection we have as Cubans living outside of Cuba, the spirituality and all these things we talk about when we are together.
OS: Nostalgia …
YC: Yes nostalgia, we want it to pass through our music to the audience. And ... from the very beginning we had this very clear [idea].
You are both Cuban musicians living outside the island. How was life growing up in Cuba? When and how did you leave?
YC: We came from different generations but I guess it’s a big big chance; having been born in a country that has such a rich and amazing cultural heritage. Of course we have a lot of economic problems.
For me, maybe the biggest change when I left Cuba is that I could open not only as a person but my ears to different music from all over the world, which is very important when you are an artist. I want to meet Turkish musicians because for me it’s important; if I’m here, I want to learn from here.
This in Cuba is very difficult because we are kind of isolated. I think that’s why with Omar we can talk the same language because we have gone through the same process, living on an island taking all these restrictions and then opening to the world, opening our ears to different cultures, different ways of thinking, different ways of seeing music. We got all these elements and we put it in our music – which is important I think.
How does your Cuban heritage shape your art now?
YC: It’s like DNA. You cannot run away from who you are. It’s like breathing: I don’t even think I’m breathing, but I’m breathing. Cuban culture is the same for me: I don’t even need to think “I want to make this Cuban” because ... it will come anyway.
I was 16 [when I left Cuba] so in fact right now I have been half of my life in Cuba and half of my life outside. I’m 36.
I lived two years in Venezuela, then I came to Europe, to Switzerland. But I come to Cuba very often, a few times a year, because I have my grandma there, my family, so I keep in contact with my country. But I know that I have a different eye from my old culture because of all my traveling – I have become a citizen of the world. I think it’s beautiful.
I see music as life, I don’t want to put borders; I just want to make things [fluid] and open. When you come from Cuba this is at the beginning quite difficult, but little by little you get used to that.
OS: I don’t remember when I left Cuba. And basically, I don’t want to remember. Why? Sometimes you love your country but you don’t agree with something, or you’re not happy with something, or you need to fly like a free bird. This is why I prefer not to remember, but it was many years ago.
I say being out of Cuba first made me a better person. Second, it gave me the opportunity to be able to sit in front of you and talk to you about Cuba. I can say Cuba is a great country, Cuba is a powerful and strong tradition, so I invite everybody to visit Cuba like I invite everybody to visit Turkey because I love this country. Of course we don’t have [a population of] 80 million, we have only, I don’t know, 10 million or 12 million, but being out of Cuba for all these years gave me the possibility to meet another Cuban person and a great musician like Yilian.
Unfortunately when you aren’t home you are busy with too many things and sometimes you don’t catch the right people. Because everybody’s trying to find a way to survive, like they do here, like in every part of the planet. But the opportunity to be outside and to see another person defend the flag, the traditional root, the traditional flag of our music, gives you the opportunity, for me, in my case when I saw her to say, “Wow! I love what she does! Is there a way we can do something together?”
To [sum it up], I might learn from a new generation, and I’m thinking maybe you’re going to learn from my generation. Together, we’re going to move in one direction – it’s going to be positive for both of us. And in the end it’s going to be positive for our own country because when we live outside it’s completely different than when we live inside.
YC: Yes, completely.
OS: Now, I need to tell the truth, when I go to Cuba I feel like a tourist. Why? Because the way I think is completely different. I love to drink wine. In Cuba, you can forget about wine. It’s all about beer or rum. And the wine is disgusting! You can find some good wine in some places, but it’s soooo expensive! What is the reason? Because it’s not in the culture.
So this is the influence when you live outside of your country. You take some elements of the place you live. It is what happened to me. I travel a lot to France, I lived in Spain for so many years before I was living in the United States, so I tend to look for the best things. In the case of wine you know France, Italy and Spain and Portugal, they are the top. In Europe here you have really good wine and good food; I love food, and we have a problem in Cuba: with the ... economic situation the food became something just for survival. You know we need to eat because we need to put food in our bodies.
YC: We’re losing the sensuality…
OS: The sensuality of creative dishes like here, you take one simple salad, green salad with olive oil, and it’s heaven. Simple salad! Yesterday I tasted fava, fava with ginger, it’s heaven! Heaven! This “contamination” in a positive way gives you the opportunity to look [at] your music and your root[s in a completely different way.
YC: I completely agree.
OS: The way you smell, the way you dress, the way you act and the way you talk, the way you behave is different because .... This is what [jazz trumpeter] Don Cherry used to call “multi-culti”. Multi-culti attitude is when I’m not only Cuban, I’m a world citizen, we are world citizens.
She lives in Switzerland, and she’s completely integrated. She speaks French, completely fluent, she speaks English completely fluent, she speaks Spanish perfectly, she writes beautiful lyrics, she comes from a really deep intellectual family.
So when you take this breeze of Cuba and keep inside of your backpack, when you open your backpack in another part of the planet, you “contaminate” your breeze with another breeze and together it comes out as a new breeze.
[As for our collaborative album “Aguas”,] a guy who doesn’t even know Yilian said, “Wow, this is chamber music!”
YC: Yes it is.
OS: This is chamber music. Of course live we have the chamber, and we have the rhythm but it’s basically the opportunity to be a world citizen. Even if the politicians want to stop the nature of humanity and the development of humanity, when we are all together and we exchange our bacteria [we are united.]
The politicians want to [prevent unification] because if you separate people you have better control. If you divide – it’s an old saying – you win. We think different. We need to put everything together like we are at this table together drinking Turkish wine. It’s not a problem, it’s beautiful.
This is what we try to express with the music, and this is what Africa gives to us. Every time we go to Africa it’s a big new lesson. For me the bigger lesson is how important it is to be humble. Because when you arrive to the country they don’t have anything. You have a lot, you see why do we complain so much when we have so much? When they don’t have anything and they smile. I spent two or three weeks in Africa. Watch the video (it’s in her Facebook channel) and you’re gonna see how beautiful the reaction of the kids is – happy and transparent people.
How does your Cuban heritage shape your art now?
OS: Cuba is our feet. Cuba is our hands. And at that point, we need to say it’s part of our soul. Because if we say it’s our soul we’re not consistent with our discourse. Cuba is our feet because when we put our feet in the Earth it’s our nationality. No matter what passport you have – I have a Spanish passport, Yilian has a Swiss passport – it says “born in Cuba.” You can’t erase this! Actually I’m proud, and we are proud to be Cuban because it gives us the opportunity to spread ... our message all over the world with one identity.