AfroCubism has been the year’s most hyped world music event, andSunday’s performance marked its UK premiere. As Lucy Durn explainedin her introduction, this summit of Cuban and Malian musicians wasoriginally planned to take place in the 1990s, but due to passporttroubles the Malians were unable to make the date; instead, the Cubansmade the hugely successful Buena Vista Social Club album.
The atmosphere in the Barbican Hall was one of rapt anticipation,with whoops and cheers as the lights dimmed. First onto the stagewere Grupo Patria, the red-shirted backline of Cuban musicians, alongwith Lassana Diabat on balafon (not unlike a marimba) and BabaSissoko on talking drum. As the riff for Mali Cuba started up, eachof the band’s Malian stars entered in turn: Djelimady Tounkarastrapping on his electric guitar, Bassekou Kouyat picking up hisngoni and Toumani Diabat (limping with crutch but smiling) sittingdown at his kora. Finally the distinctive cowboy-hatted figure ofEliades Ochoa joined them and launched into a solo on hiseight-stringed guitar.
Producer Nick Gold has revealed in interviews that, despite theofficial line about music being a universal language, there have beenclashes of language and ego between the stars of the supergroup.There was certainly a competitive spirit on display on Sunday night,as dazzling solo followed dazzling solo – but it was competition ofthe most healthy and joyful kind, lifting the ensemble above even theformidable sum of its parts.
Toumani (de facto spokesman for the band as its only fluent Englishspeaker) described Ochoa as “The Captain of AfroCubismo Airlines”.However, it was the Malians, resplendent in their shimmering robes,who dominated in terms of solos, combining showmanship with a low-keylikeability. Karamo began with a stunning solo introduction from thetune’s composer Kouyat, before adding the vocals of Kasse MadyDiabat, whose tenor voice has a soulful edge not unlike Ochoa’s. Inhis Cuban-pastiche tune Djelimady Rumba, Tounkara shimmied to thefront of the stage for his intricate solo, bright guitar tone awashwith surf reverb, before finishing with a couple of 360º twirls and abroad grin.
La Culebra, a cheeky Cuban song about a snake, featured anappropriately twisting and chromatic balafon solo from Lassana, andJarabi provided an opportunity for some full-on shredding fromToumani. Kouyat then companionably sat down beside Toumani to tradelicks before being playfully banished by Ochoa, perhaps a sign thatthe exuberance was becoming too much for him. But the “Captain” hadhis moments too, including Guantanamera – a Cuban classic delicatelydeconstructed before a final release into the full band’s groove – andset closer A La Luna Yo Me Voy.
One of the dangers with “world” music that an artist’s individualitycan become engulfed in a nostalgic cultural sales package. One of themost attractive things about AfroCubism, by contrast, is that althoughit speaks volumes about the musical heritages of Cuba and Mali, itdoes so in an ostentatiously new way. Thanks to the players’sensitivity to each other’s musical languages, the fusion never feelsthe least bit contrived or uneasy. By using so many instruments witha brightly rhythmic quality, they achieve thick and sunny grooves thatamble along irresistibly, allowing different colours to come to thefore and then slink back into the mix.
The results on Sunday were so compelling that they cast a kind ofspell on the Barbican crowd: when Toumani suggested they get to theirfeet to dance, the response was obedient and instantaneous. This wasan international celebration of music with the power even to bewitchus out of our Britishness.
AfroCubism play Edinburgh’s Usher hall on 2 December, and London’sRoyal Albert Hall on 27 June 2011.