Omar Sosa and Seckou Keita

Live Review | Howard Assembly Room, Leeds | Review by Allan Wilkinson

Amongst the rich array of percussion instruments that dominated the right hand side of the stage tonight, was a Heath Robinson contraption consisting of a horizontal tube hovering above a white transparent plastic storage box, which would later provide not only the sound effect of water, but the actual thing itself.  Through holes in the tube’s underside flowed droplets of water glistening in the stage lights, bringing the essence of falling water that would dominate tonight’s performance; a performance delivered by three outstanding world class and deeply conscientious musicians.

The audience’s attention was drawn to the three silhouetted figures as they emerged from the darkness, each attired in predominantly white dashikis, as they walked across the stage to their respective places, hands clasped as if in prayer.  Seckou Keita’s recent collaboration with the Welsh classical harpist Catrin Finch was still very much in mind, their kora and harp conversations resonating still.  The anticipation of a further collaboration, this time Keita’s kora enjoying a similar conversation with Omar Sosa’s Steinway, was as eager as any in recent years.  The Cuban-born composer, bandleader and jazz pianist brought much more than the extent of his astonishing musicianship to Leeds tonight; he brought the spirit of inspirational and youthful joy, despite his 57 years, echoed throughout by Seckou’s highly infectious smile.

With Omar’s numerous keys and Seckou’s forty-four strings, his now familiar twin-necked instrument being for all intents and purposes the ‘Jimmy Page’ version of koras, the two musicians were joined by the Venezuelan percussionist Gustavo Ovalles, who brought to the party an incalculable array of percussion instruments, treating each of the compositions to his own trademark polyrhythmic inventiveness and energy, which would prove to be completely in tune with Omar and Seckou’s musical sparring throughout.

Seckou’s rapid flurries and flourishes dovetailed remarkably with Omar’s Latin dance rhythms, each of the musicians clearly enjoying the ride.  Once or twice throughout the ninety minute performance, the two would exchange satisfied glances, Seckou leaning over his instrument as Omar reclined almost horizontally upon his piano stool.  Occasionally the two musicians would contribute further to Gustavo’s varied range of percussion, added to the driving rhythms, with Seckou’s talking drum and Omar’s rattling bean bags attached to each of his ankles, a sort of Cuban Morris accessory if you will, not to mention the moment when Omar almost climbed into the Steinway to add further percussive strokes to the piano strings.

Speaking rarely during the performance, a clear ecological message was delivered by Omar, a meditation on the importance of the planet we all inhabit, its welfare and preservation, concluding with a thank you rather than a plea, as if he knew the audience was already on board the green train, which they probably are.  Transparent water once again symbolised the planet’s mortality, food for thought in these wasteful of times.

‘Exquisite’ is probably an understated term for the beautiful music recently heard on the Transparent Water album, yet a term easily applied once again to this mostly instrumental performance, scattered with one or two vocal contributions from all three musicians, most notably Seckou’s lead. Some of the most atmospheric moments were those that featured Gustavo’s spoken passages, set against the kora and piano pieces, whilst the more vibrant and animated moments came with all three dancing centre stage, encouraging the Leeds audience to join in.  A most excellent night and a reminder to keep that water transparent and to use it sensibly.  It won’t last forever.