MALI/CUBA: AfroCubism - AfroCubism
Almost two decades after initially planned, stars link-up to show off their musical talent, reminding us of the evident connection Cuba has to its African roots
Arguably the best and certainly one of the most well-renowned world music albums comes from Cuba. In fact, Buena Vista Social Club is a record of such high quality that the pair of us have decided to hold back on reviewing the album because there might be very little that is new to say apart from to wax lyrical about it. Yet, the record that brought us magnificent hits such as Chan Chan, De Camino a La Vereda and El Cuarto de Tula only happened for one reason – Malian visa issues. Yes, that’s right, the album only materialised due to administrative complications. The original plan by American guitarist Ry Cooder and World Circuit Records' producer Nick Gold was to record a collaborative session between West Africa and Cuba’s top musicians. Yet, as two of Mali's finest musicians, ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate and guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, were unable to travel to Havana, a quick scramble to record a Cuban son album led to one of the greatest pieces of music that rightly went on to achieve legendary status.
“..one can only commend the production of AfroCubism as it includes virtuosos galore who complement each other, rather than overshadow one another.”
16 years later, despite the immense success of Buena Vista Social Club, Gold felt that there was still unfinished business due to the fact that his imagined Malian-Cuban collaboration never happened. With the two countries linked on numerous levels, both politically and culturally, it of course seemed a no-brainer to go ahead with it. However, despite its on-the-surface appeal, supergroups are rarely as effective as they appear to be on AfroCubism. Part of the reason for this is supergroups, whilst talented as individuals, often have egos that are too big that they would simply not be functional. Picture the scene. Lemmy on bass, Keith Moon on skins, Keith Richards on guitar, Robert Plant on vocals, and Tommy Vance alongside them like the metal angel of death; as glorious as it sounds, it just wouldn’t work.
Not only does AfroCubism include the two aforementioned Malian legends who were meant to fly to Havana in 1996, the album sees the inclusion of kora wizard Toumani Diabaté, venerable percussionist Baba Sissoko and perhaps the world’s most famous balafon player Fode Lassana Diabaté. The fact that this doesn’t even complete the line-up of World music superstars even on the West African side of the album is astounding. When one considers that legends of the game like Eliades Ochoa, celebrated for his talents playing guitar, tres and singing on the Buena Vista Social Club record, are not top-billing within the supergroup it certainly sets the bar very high. Thus one can only commend the production of AfroCubism as it includes virtuosos galore who complement each other, rather than overshadow one another.
What stands out to me about the Malian faction, is that despite the immense instrumental talents in their ranks, they are able to produce such an authentically Cuban sound when the album leans more that way. That is partially because Cuban music is so intrinsically linked to African rhythms, but more so than that distinguished griot Kasse Mady Diabate spent much of the 70s singing for an Afro-Latin outfit made up of musicians who had studied music in Cuba. His time in the band Las Maravillas de Mali, eventually known as Badema National, seems like the perfect precursor to this record half a century later and therefore even though his vocals sound authentically African they are not jarring alongside the more Cuban melodies that exist within the record. One only needs to listen to the cover of La Culebra or my favourite song on the record Que No Te Digan Muñeca to get a sense of how perfectly this is executed. That said, it is not that the virtuoso Malian instrumentalists do not get their chance to shine in solos. For example, Nima Diyala is simply a demonstration of Fode Lassana’s balafon brilliance, whilst Toumani Diabaté shines on the kora in Karamo.
The telepathy between the artists collaborating together on the record is truly astounding. However, despite all my praise I have for them, I cannot help but feel that this cultural-crossover is somewhat rigid and restricted. Whilst they of course prove that with enough talent one can imitate music of another culture perfectly even when using ones’ owns traditional instruments, it felt like both sides of the exchange stayed very firmly within their wheelhouses. Granted this is what they were tasked to do, and perhaps in some alternate-universe were this album released in place of the Buena Vista Social Club’s hit record, I might be raving about this one more, but I feel that I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know from this album. All it succeeds in doing is reaffirming the obvious fact that similarities can be found in two parts of the world with clear cultural overlap that root back to the shared history of slavery. Whilst modern-day Cuba is in itself a melting pot of culture from South America, Russia and the Caribbean, its influences from Africa are inherent and all this album does is simply show off that fact. Of course the music is thoroughly enjoyable and of a very high quality, but I do get the sense that after a 16-year-long wait, Gold was perhaps trying to prove a point that I have failed to appreciate, or it is quite simply a well-executed exercise in musical showboating masquerading as something more profound than it is. However, it could just be that it is meant to be enjoyable music without a point being made, and on that level it succeeds.