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AfroCubism - AfroCubism

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Artist: AfroCubism

Album: AfroCubism

Label: World Circuit

Review date: Nov. 1, 2010

AfroCubism - "Al Vaiven De Mi Carreta" (AfroCubism)

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.)

Despite the imagery conjured by its title, AfroCubism is not angular, abstract or experimental — the title is clever and suggestive, but it’s not a very accurate description of the project. On the contrary, this is an elegant recording. All of the musicians are very cosmopolitan, mature and well-seasoned; their collaboration sounds like smooth curves, not sharp angles. The album contains few strong, dramatic musical statements: the tracks are generally in a laid-back, medium tempo, and the forms of the tunes are straightforward. There are a couple of notable exceptions, though: Baba Sissoko’s tribute to the late Miguel “Angá” Díaz (“Dakan”) features the low-end power of Kouyate’s amplified bass ngoni; at the other extreme, a solo excursion on tres by Ochoa (“Eliades tumbao 27”) is a beautiful, fresh-sounding interlude that stands apart from the rest of the album and Ochoa’s contributions to the various Buena Vista albums.

Given the project’s personnel, the focus of AfroCubism is inevitably, squarely on the hybridization of two very specific musical traditions: the rural Cuban traditions that are the staple of Ochoa’s Grupo Patria, and the Malian jaliya (or griot) traditions whose roots can be traced back several centuries to Mali’s Mande empire. The result is a dense, yet restrained weaving of melodic lines by the variety of plucked strings (ngoni, kora, tres, guitars, and double bass) and balafon. The percussion tends to play a subtle, supporting role without bombastic flourishes, and the vocals are delivered in a clean, unadorned way. (Fortunately, the liner notes provide translations of many of the lyrics.) The musicians are exceptionally sensitive, experts at keeping a groove moving forward while staying out of each others’ way.

Upcoming concerts in North America seem likely to showcase another, higher-octane side of the group: with the polite, cross-cultural introductions recorded on AfroCubism out of the way and virtuosity to spare, the group seems poised to develop a more intense sound.

By David Font-Navarrete

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