AfroCubism latest project from makers of Buena Vista Social Club
Musicians from Mali and Cuba record album and play live dates
A thwarted collaboration between a group of Malian and Cuban musicians produced the phenomenally popular Buena Vista Social Club. Now the original idea, AfroCubism, is heading to Edinburgh’s Usher Hall. Stewart Smith hears from those involved
AfroCubism was for several years one of world music’s great what-ifs? In 1996, Nick Gold of World Circuit Records invited the Malian musicians Djelimady Tounkara and Bassekou Kouyate to Havana to record with the cowboy-hatted Cuban singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa. Passport problems prevented the Malians from arriving, and faced with a large studio bill, Gold asked Ochoa to gather together some older Cuban musicians to fill the gap instead. It was a happy accident, for the resulting album was Buena Vista Social Club, an eight million-selling phenomenon.
Great for Gold and Ochoa, but somewhat frustrating for the stranded Malians, as Kouyate remembers. ‘I gave my passport to the Centre Culturel Français in Mali, for them to send to Burkina Faso, but it arrived back too late. The sessions in Cuba were almost over, so I couldn't travel out there to record. Of course I was very frustrated that I couldn't take part – I was not at all happy! Everyone loved the Buena Vista Social Club album, and I was disappointed not to have been able to join them on the record, or to write songs for it.’
Fourteen years later, Gold has finally made AfroCubism happen, appeasing world music fans and the Malians alike with an album and world tour. But why revive it now?
‘The idea actually never went away,’ explains Gold, ‘It was always something we meant to do but everybody became occupied with different things. So it wasn’t as if it was forgotten and then revived, it was always ticking away. Whenever I met the three musicians who should have been the original participants, we always talked about it. Finally the opportunity came when I was notified that Eliades and his band had a week off in Madrid from a European tour and so did Bassekou, so we just hired a studio and brought in the rest of the Malian musicians.’
To complement the original trio of Ochoa, electric guitarist Tounkara and ngoni (a one string African lute) player Kouyate, Gold brought in the kora (West African harp) virtuoso Toumani Diabaté, the griot singer Kasse Mady Diabaté and, on balofon (wooden xylophone), Lassana Diabaté. Ochoa’s band Grupo Patria added double bass, percussion and horns. The result is a graceful album that successfully blends rural Cuban music with traditional Malian sounds, while still reflecting the musicians’ individual styles.
‘Over the 14 years I’ve got to know a bit more about Cuban music and Malian music, especially these particular musicians, so we brought more in so we could expand the idea,’ says Gold. ‘We thought maybe we would get three or four songs and then maybe we’d regroup later, but in the event in five days we got about 90 per cent of the album done. It was just an incredible session.
‘One of the things which was a very pleasant surprise, was that the Malians brought in a much more traditional repertoire that I wouldn’t have thought of for this project. But they were very willing and open to letting it fall into more of a Cuban sound. The song that opens the record, ‘Mali Cuba’, is composed by Toumani Diabaté and has a very strong Cuban flavour. So even though a particular song has come from the Malian side I would pretty much describe that as being a 50/50 Cuba-Mali hybrid. They seemed to create an ensemble sound in the studio that was very much this hybrid that came out of those particular musicians playing together. It’s gone a lot further than anything I could have imagined originally.’
The album is the latest chapter in an ongoing cultural exchange between Mali and Cuba. Following Mali’s independence from France in 1960, the country’s socialist president became a close ally of Fidel Castro, leading to Cuban music being actively promoted there. While the military coup of 1968 brought this situation to an end, Malian musicians continued to be influenced by Cuban sounds, subtly combining them with more traditional Malian styles. One such innovator was Tounkara, a member of the Rail Band. Originally a group of hotel lounge players, the Rail Band became an African phenomenon that kept Cuban rhythms prominent within Malian music.
‘In the 60s there were orchestras such as the Rail Band, Badema and Super Biton band who played Cuban music, and I had their cassettes.’ recalls Kouyate, who was a child at the time. ‘I didn’t really listen to it very much when I was younger. Of course I had heard ‘Guantanamera’ and ‘El Manisero’ [famous Cuban pop songs], but I felt they were for more mature people. Now that I have been able to work alongside the Cuban musicians I have discovered that it's the opposite of what I believed – the music the Cubans play is for everyone, and it really is wonderful.’
Nick Gold recognised this influence as an outsider, and saw the potential for collaboration. 'The original idea came from listening to recordings from the late 60s and 70s of West African music,' he explains. 'These were almost my introduction to Cuban music as well, because they were so heavily influenced by Cuban music. So it wasn't as if I'd suddenly had an idea to bring together two cultures that didn't have a germs of an idea there already. I didn't think there was a huge possibility that it wouldn't work. Bringing in Eliades, with the music from Santiago in the east of Cuba, that was the sort of music that I'd heard echoed in a lot of this African music from the seventies.'
The resultant album is an elegant affair, but Gold promises a more energetic sound in concert. ‘As they become more and more familiar with each other I think it will start to become a lot more dynamic and exciting, which seems to be happening so far. The album was recorded with all of the musicians in the same room, so the balance between the instruments was relatively delicate. Live, they’re a bit more turned up to eleven’.
With the talents of the musicians involved, and a wealth of material to draw on, Gold hopes the project will run and run: ‘It’s gone a lot further than anything I could have imagined originally. The musicians are so incredible and they’re being very inventive and suggesting things I never would have thought of, so it’s very, very exciting’.
Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Thu 2 Dec. The AfroCubism album is out now on World Circuit records.
Cowboy-hatted, black-shirted Eliades Ochoa leads AfroCubism’s vocals and guitar. Nicknamed ‘the Johnny Cash of Cuba’, and a household name in that country, Ochoa’s music reached a worldwide audience after he starred in Wim Wenders’ film Buena Vista Social Club. In 1996 he reunited with musical partner Compay Segundo to record the film’s opening track, ‘Chan Chan’.
Bassekou Kouyate was born in the Segu region of Mali in 1966. He became known for his revolutionary use of the ngoni (a one-string lute similar to a banjo) as a versatile, guitar-like accompaniment. He has played on several of Toumani Diabaté’s albums, and used to perform in a trio with him.
Born in Mali in 1947, Djelimady Tounkara abandoned his career path into the Islamic clergy to become one of Africa’s finest guitarists. Since the 70s he has been the arranger and lead guitarist for one of West Africa’s most famous groups, the Rail Band.
Toumani Diabaté comes from a family of kora masters (a harp-like instrument from his native Mali). At 21 he recorded the first ever album of solo kora music, and has become one of Africa’s most significant musicians. His blues-cum-West African album Kulanjan is amongst Obama’s favourites, and this summer’s Ali and Toumani, recorded with Ali Farka Touré, was a huge world music crossover hit.
Kasse Mady Diabaté is a griot (a West African troubadour/ folk singer) who brought a local Malian sound to Mali’s Cuban-styled National Badema orchestra. He went on to record solo albums from electric, dance-based music to acoustic griot songs. He has worked in Paris and Mali, with Malian and Cuban musicians.
Ode Lassana Diabaté is dubbed the ‘balafon player of his generation’ (the West African version of a xylophone). He started as a protégé of the great Kélétigui Diabaté – who taught him how to play two balafons simultaneously. His style fuses traditional Guinean music with more experimental Malian methods. He has also collaborated with the American blues musician Taj Mahal.
Mary Murray Brown