Album Remarks & Appraisals:
AfroCubism is the realization of producer Nick Gold's simple concept: take a handful of Malian musicians to Cuba, then record their collaboration with some of the island's own. In 1996, Gold's original attempt fell apart when the Malian musicians failed to arrive in Cuba; however, the improvised, last-minute response to the crisis developed into the blockbuster phenomenon Buena Vista Social Club. Fourteen years later, AfroCubism features two of the Malian artists slated for the original project (Bassekou Kouyate on ngoni and Djelimady Tounkara on guitar) along with other stars of Malian traditional music: kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, Lassana Diabate (balafon), Baba Sissoko (percussion) and vocalist Kasse Mady Diabate. The project's Cuban contingent is led by Eliades Ochoa and members of his Grupo Patria. (You might remember Ochoa as the cowboy hat-clad singer of "Chan Chan" in the Buena Vista Social Club film by Wim Wenders.)
"In 1996, Nick Gold, head of World Circuit Records, invited Ry Cooder to record a collaboration between musicians from Cuba and Mali in Havana. Cooder arrived in Cuba, but the Malians never did (something to do with their visas), and the project morphed into the Buena Vista Social Club: a film, tour, and, most importantly, a record. The album sold five million copies, won a Grammy award, and became the prototype for any record company with ambitions of selling world music. The Malians have no doubt been kicking themselves ever since.
Now, 14 years later, the musicians from West Africa finally get their chance. While it's never going to equal the success of Buena Vista (the circumstances behind that record's fruition are too impossible to match), it offers the opportunity to hear what may seem, on paper, a very strange idea. In fact, the link between Mali and Cuba is extremely strong. Following independence from France in 1960, Mali's President Modibo Keita introduced One-Party Socialism, becoming friends with Fidel Castro in the process. During Keita's reign, Cuban music was actively promoted throughout the country. As a result, many Malian musicians are now as comfortable at playing son and rumba rhythms as their own.
Afrocubism should then offer a perfect union between these two groups of musicians. Unfortunately, despite some real successes, this is not completely achieved. It's apparent which of the songs are written by Malians and which by Cubans, and not because of the different languages they're singing. From a fusion perspective, the most interesting are those with Cuban rhythms, such as the opening two tracks, which both start off sounding like the brothers of Buena Vista before allowing for the Africans to move within their grooves. This is where it gets really interesting as we get to hear Toumani Diabaté playing the kora, a 21-string musical harp, Lassona Diabaté on the balafons, sounding somewhere between a xylophone and marimba, and Djelimady Tounkaru playing the guitar in his own inimitable style.
The contrast between the rustic voice of Eliades Ochoa, leading the Cubans on this album, and the rhythmic tones of the African instruments is delightful, and it is successful all over the album, as "A La Luna Yo Me Voy" and "Para Los Pinares Se Va Montoro" demonstrate later on. There always seems to be enough room in the songs for the Malians to add their inflections and licks, giving the songs extra gravitas and ebb than they would have otherwise.
Although the Malian musicians were well aware of Cuban music, it's possible that the opposite may not be true. This would certainly explain the lack of Cuban flavour on some of the African tracks. Whereas on the songs of Cuban origins, the Malians manage to get over their identity; this never quite happens when the shoe is on the other foot. Cuban flavour throughout Afrocubism is represented by Ochoa on guitar and vocals, and various other musicians playing percussion and horns, yet when the songs are not in Spanish, their presence is largely unfelt. "Jarabi" is a perfect example. The song, written by Toumani Diabaté, is the centrepiece of the album. Its pulsating rhythm, composed of balafons, kora, and minimal percussion, features the stirring vocals of Kasse Mady Diabate, and brings to mind Youssou N'Dour at his best. Apart from a shaker, it has little to no Cuban influence, which shouldn't be an issue as I will listen to the song over and over again, but it does somehow take a little away from the aim of the album. It would have been great to have heard some Cuban guitar playing over African rhythms, but for whatever reason, Ochoas never seems to have the confidence to go down that route.
It's for this reason that this album never quite reaches the goals it set for itself. We get to hear how terrific a number of these African musicians are and how easily they are able to blend their sound into Cuban rhythms, yet we never get to see this in reverse, which is a massive shame. It means that a musical journey which could have been quite groundbreaking has resulted in an album of two halves, of great music from Mali, and of great Malian musicians playing Cuban music. It's still worth listening to as the music is of such high quality, but as a glimpse into something different, it keeps its eyes firmly shut." - PopMatters
"AfroCubism are a supergroup with a history that would make any publicist drool, and an album that almost does justice to their considerable talents. Fourteen years ago, the Malian guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and n'goni player Bassekou Kouyate were supposed to fly to Cuba to take part in the sessions that produced the legendary Buena Vista Social Club. They never turned up, which was perhaps just as well for those Cubans who became international celebrities late in life, thanks to a bestselling album that didn't need African input. But now the collaboration has taken place, at last, with Djelimady and Bassekou joined by other more newly celebrated Malians, including kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté and singer Kassé Mady Diabaté working alongside the Cuban Buena Vista star Eliades Ochoa and his band. They have recorded an elegant, gently exquisite album, and it's a reminder that while Malians are at ease playing Cuban songs - which have been popular for decades across West Africa - Cubans are not so familiar with the griot tradition. But the collaboration works. There are some classy and varied tracks, from Tounkara showing off his guitar skills on Djelimady Rumba and the Cuban favourite La Culebra, through to Bassekou and Ochoa mixing Malian and Cuban influences in their reworking of Jarabi, and Bassekou, Toumani and Ochoa providing a delicate improvisation around the well-worn Guantanamera. If these great musicians stay together, they are surely capable of even more." - Guardian
Down Beat (p.59) - 4.5 stars out of 5 -- "Djelimady Tounkara's brilliantly phrased, crystal-toned lead guitar provides an electric foil to the otherwise acoustic arrangements and is a constant highlight."
Mojo (Publisher) (p.106) - 4 stars out of 5 -- "Ochoa's Grupo Patria provides the rhythmic discipline needed to make sense of the collaboration. Cuban and West African music blends remarkably well."
Uncut (magazine) (p.81) - 5 stars out of -- "[A] blissful mix of mostly traditional tunes....There's a thrilling crispness to the entire record."
Uncut (magazine) (p.35) - Ranked #29 in Uncut's "The 50 Best Albums of 2010" -- "[A]n amazingly harmonious summit."
Personnel: Eliades Ochoa (vocals, acoustic guitar); Kassé-Mady Diabaté (vocals); Osnel Odit (acoustic guitar); Djelimady Tounkara (electric guitar); Toumani Diabaté (kora); Gabriel Fonseca (violin); Alain a. Dragoni, Lennis Lara (trumpet); Fodé Lassana Diabaté (balafon); José Angel Martínez (double bass); Jorge Maturell (congas, bongos, cowbells); Baba Sissoko (talking drum); Eglis Ochoa (guiro, maracas); Alberto "Virgilio" Valdés (maracas).
Audio Mixer: Jerry Boys.
Photographers: Paco Manzano; Christina Jaspers.
Cast your mind back to 1996 for a moment. A group of old-school Cuban musicians are assembled -- with some help from Ry Cooder -- for a recording intended to introduce the rest of the world to classic Cuban music. The resulting Buena Vista Social Club album -- aided by a documentary about the process -- becomes a worldwide phenomenon, inspiring an unprecedented degree of interest not only in Cuban music, but international music of all kinds. A brilliant idea works out perfectly, right? Sure, except that this wasn't actually the original plan. Initially, World Circuit Records' producer Nick Gold had planned for Cooder and the Cubans to be joined by lute player Bassekou Kouyate and guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, two of Mali's finest musicians. At the last minute, the Malians were unable to secure visas to travel to Cuba for the session, and the agenda was re-jiggered. Fast-forward 16 years into the future -- the plans for that original Cuban/Malian crossover are finally realized with the recording of Afrocubism. And this time, not only are Kouyate and Tounkara on hand, interacting with an all-star cast of Cuban players like singer/guitarist Eliades Ochoa and percussionist Jorge Maturell, but there's an additional batch of Mali's finest, including renowned kora master Toumani Diabaté and innovative balafon player Lassana Diabaté (no relation to Toumani). But Afrocubism shouldn't be viewed as some sort of alternative-universe version of Buena Vista Social Club -- it has its own very singular sonic identity. The most immediately striking element is the way the tumbling riffs of the Malians -- particularly Kouyate and both Diabatés -- seem to fall so naturally into the percolating Cuban polyrhythms underlined by Maturell and elaborated upon by Ochoa. There's a lot of listening going on in both camps, and an obvious musical empathy between them. Whether they're playing more Malian-leaning compositions like Djelimady's "Nima Diyala" (where Lassana makes amazing use of dual balafons tuned a semitone apart) or a Cuban classic like the late Beny Moré's "La Culebra," the Afrocubism ensemble puts a whole new slant on the "Afro-Cuban" tag, making for a true musical meeting of minds between the two cultures. ~ J. Allen
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