AfroCubism Emerges at Last

A Mali-Cuba connection, 14 years in the making, is finally forged

Most Buena Vista Social Club fans remember the group's backstory: elite Cuban musicians coaxed out of retirement in 1996 for sessions designed to mingle them with their Malian counterparts, except the African stars made the mistake of trying to handle their visa applications by mail. They never made it, the Cubans soldiered on alone, and the rest, as they say, is eight-times-platinum history.

Fourteen years later, producer Nick Gold has finally revisited his original concept. The resulting record, AfroCubism, features BVSC guitarist Eliades Ochoa (the cowboy hat-wearing singer of the hit "Chan Chan") and his band, Grupo Patria, alongside ngoni master Bassekou Kouyate, guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, and a few other Malian ringers, including kora titan Toumani Diabaté. Throw around the phrase "Afro-Cuban," and usually a blustery Latin-jazz vortex with Mario Bauza and Machito at its center comes to mind, but this is a different animal altogether: The big brass riffing and conga drums are supplanted by an earthier, string-based tradition, the similar-sounding guitar, ngoni, and kora shimmering together with the same subtlety that made BVSC so alluring, inviting Yoruban spirits to the campfire rather than trying to chase them away with the blast of a horn.

The album opens with the self-explanatory instrumental "Mali Cuba," the bouncy melody complemented by brief, introductory solos by several players, the result a prologue of sorts leading straight to the heart of the matter: "Al Vaiven De Mi Carretta," which translates to "The Swaying of My Cart." This Cuban classic, written by Ñico Saquito, is here driven by Ochoa's robust guitar and vocals, yet the Africans immediately line up behind him: Vocalist Kasse Mady Diabaté sings alternating verses as the strings add subtle accents to each lyrical line about the plight of poor farmers. Something magical happens on one of the last choruses, with keening African voices perfectly rising up together with the incantatory Cubans.

Eliades Ochoa (left) and Bassekou Kouyate, laughing off the whole visa thing
Christina Jaspars
Eliades Ochoa (left) and Bassekou Kouyate, laughing off the whole visa thing

And then, the reverse happens: The Malian classic "Karamo" (or "The Hunter") shifts the focus to a griot performing in an African town square, the music dense as Kasse Mady Diabaté's voice and Toumani Diabaté's kora fly above the percolating polyrhythms. The vocals are in Swahili, but they have a Spanish exclamatory element to them, and Kouyate and Tounkara handle their instruments in an almost Cuban-like style, tightening up their exploratory lines to something more forceful and tuning their instruments to a Western musical scale.

Both tunes are about as perfect a blend of AfroCubism's two dominant cultures as you'll ever find; the rest of the album sustains that high. As it turns out, Mali was Cuban-music crazy from the '50s to the '70s, as friendly governments oversaw globe-trotting cultural exchanges. Mali's music scene, the crown jewel of Africa, is consequently deeply indebted to Cuban music, with popular bands like Orchestra Baobab, the Star Band, Djelimady's Rail Band, and others bringing Cuban flair both to the radio and the clubs. This 14-track tribute alternates between the two countries, never leaning too far in either direction as it shifts from Cuban treasures to traditional griot numbers to original unions of the two. "Fusion" can be a dirty word, but not here: At long last, Gold and his cohorts have achieved something that lives up to its original promise, a direct link between the Old World and the new.

The AfroCubism band plays Town Hall November 9

 
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