Whilst the hugely popular Buena Vista Social Club was initially sold as the fruits of Ry Cooder‘s Cuban explorations, both in publicity material and in the subsequent Wim Wenders documentary film, it transpires the original aim for the project had been rather different. Nick Gold, the astute businessman and genuine music lover behind the World Circuit label, had tried to instigate a collaboration between musicians from Cuba and Mali but the Malians had failed to obtain the correct visas and the project had to be called off. With the release of Afrocubism, that laudable aspiration has finally been realised, with predictably wonderful results.
This kind of world fusion, instigated by a label boss and uniting artists separated by substantial language barriers (translators were employed during the sessions), could easily have been contrived or forced. Yet it’s hard to imagine how a project involving musicians of the calibre of Toumani Diabat�, Bassekou Kouyat� and Eliades Ochoa could be anything other than stunning. These are simply the masters of their individual fields – virtuoso instrumentalists and supremely expressive musicians and writers.
The great skill and brilliance in this music lies in its effortless nature – the supreme command these musicians have over feel and vibe – the innate, intangible understanding and interaction between musicians that can only be acquired through years of performing experience. This is also a music of curious paradoxes – at once quiet and hugely spirited, relaxed and propulsive, calming and intense. It is fascinating and inspiring to hear how comfortably the desert guitar solo of Djelimady Rumba (played by Djelimady Tounkara) fits with the rhythmic backdrop provided by Eliades Ochoa’s longstanding band Grupo Patria, or how seamlessly Toumani Diabat�’s fluid, ornate kora playing merges with the restrained groove of Mali Cuba. Guantanamera, a potentially over-familiar old standard, is imbued with new life and empathy for featuring Diabat�’s mellifluous kora.
Ochoa, who, with the late Compay Segundo, performed Chan Chan, one of the Social Club’s most enduring songs, provides many of the richly melodic vocals here and he has the perfect foil in Malian griot singer Kassy Mady Diabat�. The vocals throughout are a constant source of delight – so dynamic and expressive that the songs need little thematic explanation.
The rich quality of the vocals are matched by the frenzied magic of the instrumental performances. Dakan offers a showcase for Lassana Diabat�‘s extraordinary mastery of the balafon (a percussion instrument somewhere between a marimba and xylophone). Djelimady Tounkara’s guitar playing is infused with the language and feeling of the blues. Western audiences will already be more than familiar with the astounding kora and ngoni playing of Toumani Diabat� and Bassekou Kouyat� respectively. Many will have been introduced to these beautiful instruments by these very musicians.
Afrocubism emerges, finally, as so much more than a rushed studio job or forced business plan. It is steeped in two musical traditions which share common ground – and contains the kind of sensitive and subtle but captivating and inspiring performances borne from an abundance of talent. These are musicians who play with intuition rather than instinct – there is tremendous natural ability on display, but it has been informed through years of intimate engagement with their respective musical heritage and standard repertoire. Although this project is steeped in melancholy songs and desert blues forms, what a resonant, exciting and ultimately joyous album it is.