A froCubism 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 recalls. ‘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 (pictured, right) and world tour. But why revive it now? ‘The idea never went away,’ explains Gold, ‘But everybody became occupied with different things. It wasn’t as if it was forgotten, 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 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, Tounkara (electric guitar) and Kouyate (ngoni – a one-string African lute), 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 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, 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 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 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 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. When the military coup of 1968 brought this 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’ [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.’
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 the germs of an idea there already. 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 70s.'
The resultant album is an elegant affair, but Gold promises a more energetic sound in concert. ‘As they become more familiar with each other I think it will become a lot more dynamic and exciting. The album was recorded with all the musicians in the same room, so the balance between instruments was relatively delicate. Live, they’re a bit more turned up to eleven’. ‘The musicians are so incredible. 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. AfroCubism is out now (World Circuit).
THE MUSICIANS Words: Mary Murray Brown
Cowboy-hatted, black- shirted Eliades Ochoa
leads AfroCubism’s vocals and guitar. Nicknamed ‘the Johnny Cash of Cuba’, Ochoa reached a worldwide
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
audience after starring in a versatile, guitar-like
Wim Wenders’ film accompaniment.
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
Toumani Diabaté is a kora master (a harp-like instrument from Mali),
and has become one of Africa’s most significant musicians. His blues- meets-West Africa LP Kulanjan is amongst Obama’s favourites, and
Buena Vista Social Club. In 1996 he reunited with musical partner Compay Segundo to record ‘Chan Chan’ for the film.
He has played on several West Africa’s most
this summer’s Ali and
of Toumani Diabaté’s albums, and used to perform in a trio with him.
famous groups, the Rail Band.
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
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, dubbed ‘the
balafon player of his generation’ (a West African version of a xylophone) was a protégé of the great
Kélétigui Diabaté – who taught him to play two balafons at once. His style fuses traditional Guinean music with experimental Malian methods.
18 Nov–2 Dec 2010 THE LIST 19