ever enjoyed the Buena Vista Social Club
or any fan of Malian kora sensation Toumani Diabaté will need little
encouragement from me to rush out and buy this album. If you're a fan of both
genres, as I am, you'll be in heaven. This superb crossover album takes the very
best from both idioms and creates a memorable musical journey. Diabaté has done
this before of course, in his pivotal 1999 collaboration Kulanjan with Taj Mahal.
Let's go back a bit, to March of this year in fact, when your
Canadian correspondent and his wife, unfettered by any US imposed travel
restrictions, spent an exciting few days in the Cuban capital Havana. We went to
see what life was like in a communist country (forgedaboutit!), to see the once
beautiful city in all its faded glory, to ride around in 1950's vintage American
cars, and most of all, to soak up the Cuban music. The first thing we looked for
was where to see the Buena Vista Social Club band and that led to a night to
remember at the Taberna Benny Moré, particularly when the dancers selected me
to salsa with them big time, with my wife's eyes so fixed on the male lead she
didn't even notice my exertions. While many of the musicians were in their
twenties, there were still some celebrated veterans amongst them. We spent our
days moving from cafe to cafe, soaking up the atmosphere and the music of Cuban
son. Once this music gets into your blood, it is irresistible even if, like me,
you don't understand a single word they are singing.
Another passion of mine centers around the late great Malian
instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré, whose very last North American concert we were
fortunate enough to catch. Diabaté is a musician of similar excellence, a giant
among African musicians. This 2010 recording finds Diabaté and family members
together with Bassekou Kouyate and Djemilady Tounkara teaming up with Cuban
singer and guitarist Eliadas Ochoa.
There is quite a back story about how this album came about.
Nonesuch's website relates:
"In 1996, a group of
Mali's finest musicians were due to fly into Havana for a speculative
collaboration with some of Cuba's most brilliant singers and instrumentalists.
For reasons that have never been made clear, the Malians never arrived. A very
different album was recorded: Buena Vista Social Club. The rest, as they say, is
multi-million selling history.But what about that original album? What riches
might have been revealed in the interaction of virtuosi from one of Africa's
most musically rich territories, and from Cuba whose music has origins in
Africa, and has been hugely influential on the mother continent?
AfroCubism offers the
opportunity to find out. World Circuit Records' Nick Gold, the man behind the
1996 venture, finally brought the original invitees together with a stellar
line-up of additional talent at a series of inspirational sessions and the great
lost Afro-Cuban album will be released 14 years after originally planned.
Fronting the Cuban team is the cowboy-hatted singer and guitarist Eliades Ochoa,
singer of the great Buena Vista theme "Chan Chan." The two original
Malian invitees are multi-award-winning ngoni lute master Bassekou Kouyate and
the extraordinary Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, both universally
agreed to be among the world's great instrumentalists. Joining them are Eliades'
Grupo Patria, amongst Cuba's longest running and most revered bands, the
mercurial kora genius Toumani Diabaté, legendary Malian griot singer Kasse Mady
Diabaté and the innovatory balafon player Lassana Diabaté."
As you listen to song after song on this album you may say to
yourself "Surely they can't keep this up!" But the inspiration is
unflagging, the creativity mind blowing, and the sheer joy captures exactly the
same spirit we felt back in Havana. The music is now played with a thick Malian
accent, but retains all the same infectious warmth and rhythmic excitement,
while all the vocalists are on top form in their own ways.
The opening instrumental "Mali Cuba" sets the tone for the
whole album. You know at once you are in safe hands. "Al Vaivén de mi Carreta"
(the swaying of my cart) is hypnotic, highlighting Ochoa's superb voice and
no-holds-barred delivery. "Karomo" delivers a little less Cuba and a lot more
Africa which will have you checking out all the Diabaté albums you can find.
For me the standout track is the deconstructed instrumental piece "Guantanamera,"
a display of such exquisite beauty and brilliance that it could only be improved
by doubling its length.
I feel like offering a money back guarantee with my
recommendation this time out. Many years ago, I read this comment on a play in
London's West End: "If you do not enjoy this play, you are dead". I could
say much the same about this disk.