Costa Rican Pianist/Composer José Soto Releases Debut Album, The Ancestral Call, A Chamber Jazz Tribute to the Indigenous BriBri People of Costa Rica
Boston, MA [May 2023] At the most fundamental level, The Ancestral Call is a striking debut album by Costa Rican pianist/composer José Soto, an artist who’s already made a significant impact in Boston, Panama, and his homeland’s capital, San Jose. A closer look reveals a project of unusual ambition, embodying a stunning act of recompense for historical wrongs and a singular cross-cultural dialogue connecting with ancestral Costa Ricans on their own terms. Slated for release on June 23, 2023, The Ancestral Call is a work of exhaustive scope featuring an international cast with some of jazz’s most prodigious artists, including Cuban drummer Francisco Mela and saxophonist George Garzone.
A rising composer, uniquely visionary pianist, cultural activist, jazz festival founder, and educator now on faculty at Berklee College of Music, Soto has collaborated with an array of leading artists across the Americas, including one of his primary mentors, Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez. The Ancestral Call was written and recorded with support from the Boston Foundation, Dunamis, and the New Music USA Creator Development Fund Grant. The decade-long journey that culminates with The Ancestral Call was launched by the casual bestowal of an invaluable gift when a friend’s mother gave Soto a Pre-Columbian gold artifact representing the spirit of the Bribri, an ancestral people of Costa Rica who live in the Talamanca Mountains.
Soto’s determination to return the artifact to its creators put him in consistent contact with Bribri cultural ambassador Alí García Segura, who became a guide providing insight into the oft-misunderstood Bribri culture (Alí García Segura appears as a special guest on The Ancestral Call). Soto threads García’s voice through his compositions, reflecting the push and pull of an artist using jazz as a vehicle for investigating unresolvable historical collisions. Neither avant-garde nor folkloric, The Ancestral Call is a combustible and sui generis species of state-of-the-art chamber jazz that has evolved amidst the rain forest.
A close collaboration with co-producer Fernando Michelin, the Boston-based Uruguayan pianist/composer who leads bands with the likes of Esperanza Spalding, Jeff Ballard and Richie Barshay, The Ancestral Call opens with its title track inspired by the Bribri word “ttök.” It’s a near untranslatable term that means speaking in the ritual language, essentially a ritual in which speech is sung or chanted, “which is how the Bribris communicate with ancestors and the spiritual world who live in what our society calls nature,” Soto says.
While brief, the piece is something of a graceful conceptual manifesto, a Bach-like string chorale interlaced with Alí García Segura’s spoken word passage and ethereal vocals by Manila-born sound explorer Jireh Calo. “I included space for improvisation throughout the album, and voice and spoken word in Bribri to convey my process of decolonizing myself and my art,” Soto says, noting that the journey has extended well beyond the recording studio.
Due out as a single on May 19, “Cognitive Injustice” features drum maestro Francisco Mela, bassist Greg Loughman, and violinist Brian Urra, and is an epic piece inspired by the writing of Spanish philosopher Antoni Aguiló Bonet describing the titular concept as a form of hegemony “that limits, makes invisible, and deprives of recognition and validity to different ways of knowing.”
“Ye’ en ã Part 1” (meaning to “speak from the liver” in Bribri) stems from a conversation with García, who explains it expresses sincerity and conviction, while the common Western figure of speech, “speaking from the heart,” carries the opposite implication for the Bribri, referring to theft. “When Alí García Segura mentioned this to me, I sang and recorded the first melody that came to my mind on the phone and the start of the album focusing on the Bribri concept of ritual language in mind was conceived,” Soto says. A lapidary soundscape, the composition features a string quartet, crystalline vocals by Costa Rican singer Maria Amalia Quesada, Spanish flugelhornist Milena Casado, Italian bassist Stefano Battaglia, and Greek percussionist George Lernis.
“Ye’ en ã Part 2” is a mirror image of the first part, inspired by the Bribri concept of the underworld, an ancestral realm that constitutes the bulk of reality. With the string moving to the foreground, it’s a beatific meditation on the nature of mortality, with Alí García Segura explaining in Bribri the title concept, vocals by Jireh Calo, and acutely textural trap work by Ecuadoran drummer Raúl Molina.
“Suwõ” moves from dynamic string work and sung passages to spacious trio sections with Lernis and Battaglia, to Casado’s exquisitely exposed flugelhorn playing. An expansive Bribri term meaning wind, air, knowledge, wisdom, and awareness, suwõ provides the point of embarkation for Soto “to convey these elements and think about knowledge as something always there like the air, in experiences, observation, and awareness.”
The great Boston saxophonist George Garzone contributes arresting soprano sax work on “Resistance,” a contrapuntal piece with a series of jagged melody lines that concludes with a coiled drum solo. The tension reflects Soto’s interest in the Bribri’s concept of development and progress in balance with nature and their fight against post-colonialism. Offering a very different mood, Soto adapted a lullaby that García’s grandmother used to sing to her granddaughters on “Piedra Preciosa” (gemstone). As a matrilineal society, Bribri cultural is organized around the essential role of women, and for this piece Soto invited the Bribri member Flor Morales Segura to record a spoken version of the Bribri lullaby, which beautifully sung by Maria Amalia Quesada.
The album climaxes with two powerhouse pieces. “Descolonizarme” builds on Mela’s protean drum work, which propels a freely improvised trio excursion with Casado on flugelhorn. Inspired by the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano‘s work “Discovery” from the book Children of the Days, it’s a signpost indicating future directions Soto plans to explore. The album ends with “Soul Searching,” which like the opening track turns inward as a brief, string driven reflection on meeting and sharing with Alí García Segura. Featuring Calo’s lustrous vocals, it’s a sublime expression of gratitude for a transformational encounter.
About José Soto
Born in Costa Rica in 1984, José Soto grew up in Heredia, a lush province just north of San Jose. While studying European classical music in college, Soto established himself as a working musician, playing calypso with Manuel Monestel’s Cantoamérica, a celebrated ensemble that explored the Afro-Caribbean music of Costa Rica’s Limón province since the early 1980s. Graduating with a degree in piano performance from Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (2006) and a stint at a Puerto Rican conservatory (2007) where he connected with bass maestro Eddie Gomez, Soto was accepted into Berklee (where he earned a Master’s in the Global Jazz Institute) and New England Conservatory (BA in Jazz Studies). Though he had to delay his enrollment to raise money for tuition, during this time he became a volunteer and teacher of the Fundación Danilo Pérez in Panama (2010-2012), where Soto studied under Pérez. While at Berklee and NEC, Soto came to work with Terri Lyne Carrington, Luciana Souza, John Patitucci, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Danilo Pérez, Frank Carlberg, Edward Simon and Luis Bonilla.
In Costa Rica, Soto and his wife, vocalist María Amalia Quesada, created the progressive foundation Fundacion Armonia Colectiva in 2017. Soto also launched FIJAZZ Costa Rica, a jazz festival that showcases Costa Rican musicians while providing opportunities to perform with traveling masters. Now based in Boston, he is looking for ways to raise awareness about the invaluable heritage possessed by ancestral communities. According to Gleb Raygorodetsky in National Geographic, while comprising less than five percent of the world’s population, indigenous peoples protect 80% of global biodiversity. Soto has determined that all proceeds from The Ancestral Call album sales will be donated to support the work of the Bribri cultural ambassador and scholar Alí García Segura and the Bribri Si?wa?’ Ujtékölpa Cultural Center of the Sös community in Talamanca (Limon, Costa Rica).
Content Source: JP Cutler Media
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