Omar Sosa + Tim Eriksen
A couple of hundred million years ago what became West Africa and Massachusetts were in the same place. The plates shifted, a fissure opened in the proto continent and became the Atlantic ocean. We and our ancestors have crossed that ocean a lot of times for better or for worse. The new project may be "Atlantica."
Across The Divide began like a shooting star – a luminous certainty that two folkloric musicians, a Cuban pianist and a New England multi-instrumentalist specializing in native and adopted American musics, could trace the connections between seemingly disparate worlds of thought. What was not seen at the start, however, was the great drama unfolding before us, a backdrop for the making of this record – the ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States.
His climb to power proved timely on so many levels – among them, the nation declaring its readiness to accept a leader of color at exactly the same moment we were birthing a song cycle highlighting the Middle Passage. From the castles of Ghana to the White House.
Moreover, the surround sound of the political machine filled the air with an unmusic soundtrack; the relentless drone and grind of the campaign lending contrast to the stirring uplift of our musical discoveries. Across the Divide had not anticipated any seismic social shifts, had not aimed at didacticism. Indeed, its mandate was more pleasure-driven, in the ways of art and entertainment.
The crystallizing element in assembling this narrative was rhythm, heard through a melding and mingling of cultures and manifesting the shared roots between Omar Sosa and Tim Eriksen. No surprise, really. During the forced migration of slaves, a practice that spanned centuries and fed the triangulated economies of Europe, Africa, and the Americas, indigenous musics and performance traditions entered New World ports, among them Havana and Chesapeake Bay. These strains of expression took root and became the basis for much popular culture.
Omar knows this in his bones. He is a global musician, attuned to the pulse of nature. His air of authority, of wisdom, is born from immersion in the musics of the world and a desire to propagate his folk heritage. Tim is a preservationist, uncovering songs dug deep in the soil and offering them as evidence of an exchange system distinctly American because of its cultural beginnings elsewhere. Theirs is a model marriage (one with rich historical roots), bearing offspring, new idioms, spiritually endowed.
The four vocals featured in Across The Divide are bound to the Eastern seaboard by tradition and development. “Promised Land,” a Welsh hymm dating from the mid-1700’s, first embraced as “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” is commonly heard in Baptist congregations of the American South. “Gabriel’s Trumpet” hails from Maine, where it was first cited in the mid-1800’s, introduced perhaps by sailors docking in the port town of Camden. “Sugar Baby Blues,” known among West Virginians and popularized by Dock Boggs in the early days of “hillbilly music,” was widely associated with the banjo, an instrument of African origin. And “Night Of The Four Songs” draws from the sacred music tradition of congregational singing, having passed through North Carolina many decades ago.
These songs are linked by Sosa’s instrumental odysseys, tales of ancestry: the dreams and realities of passage within and beyond Africa; meditations on the solstice and the natural order, the longest days, the seasons of life; reverence for Eleggua, the deity who determines fate and tests the will of man. Across The Divide is fueled by these crosswinds. Sosa is guided by the North Stars of spirituality, ritual, and the human condition.
So too, it seems, was the poet and novelist Langston Hughes, a seminal voice in the Harlem Renaissance, whose reading of “The Struggle” was sampled then woven into the narrative. His call for racial consciousness and self-determination (“No man wanted to be a slave…”) is the literary counterweight to this musical oblation.
Which leads us to recognize the indomitable life force that faces unspeakable horrors yet somehow prevails – a beacon penetrating the fog of oppression, its promise flooding across oceans, continents, centuries. Every now and then we’re reminded of that. Through a work of art or, less frequently, a presidential election.
The evening’s most anticipated moment, at least for those who had previewed Across The Divide, was "Promised Land," featuring Eriksen’s first stage turn, in a haunting vocal rendition of “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah,” to batá and bass accompaniment, melodicas in two registers, and tenor sax, on Sosa’s keyboard foundation, a simple two-chord structure. This against the chanting of the entire ensemble and tape loops of Langston Hughes reading “The Struggle” (from The Voice of Langston Hughes, on Smithsonian Folkways), all with a brilliant sense of swing, resonating the transfixing ancestral power of a combined New Orleans second line and a nineteenth-century tent revival.
Across the Divide: A Tale of Rhythm and Ancestry
Half Note Records