AfroCubism: Buena Vista take two

Faced with a large bill for studio time, Gold asked the Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa to cobble together some musicians – if they were retired, and therefore cheap, so much the better – to make a recording to fill the void. The resulting album, The Buena Vista Social Club, went on to sell 8m copies and be named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest recordings of the 20th century.

"The conversations I had with the Malian musicians after Buena Vista came out consisted of two subjects. They were: 'Oh shit', and 'When can we try doing it again?'" says Gold, who has finally made his planned Afro-Cuban collaboration happen, 14 years after the event. "It was partly the success of Buena Vista that delayed this for so long. But I had heard African musicians playing Cuban music, and I knew it could work, whatever problems it might bring."

We're in Cartagena, an unremarkable naval town on the south-east coast of Spain, where the AfroCubism band, combining the Malians and the Cubans, played their first concert together at an outdoor amphitheatre the night before. It wasn't an unqualified success. The drunken Friday-night crowd failed to appreciate the subtleties of the music, while Ochoa, leading the disciplined Cuban musicians, showed evident frustration at the Malians' somewhat relaxed approach.

There is also the question of who is leading the band, with Ochoa reputedly telling the others after the concert: "There can only be one captain of this ship." Among the Malian group is the kora player Toumani Diabaté, a huge star in Africa, with an attitude to match; he is more used to giving orders than taking them (through a translator) from a Cuban musician with a very different routine to his own.

"Toumani doesn't like mornings," Gold says, a little wearily. "He'll get up some time in the afternoon. Eliades is from the farming country of Santiago, where everyone gets up at the crack of dawn. That became a bit of an issue."

Then there is the language barrier. "Musically, the recording sessions worked very well, but we had some strange times when they asked each other what the songs are about," Gold says. "Eliades was asking me what one of Toumani's songs is about. Toumani said it was about a baby hippopotamus. Eliades raised his eyebrows, then Toumani said: 'Well, what's your song about?' 'It's about how when I get tired of the earth I'm going to live on the moon.' So Toumani's going: 'And you think my song is ridiculous?'"

You would never know this to talk to Diabaté or Ochoa. "We communicate through music, which is the universal language," Ochoa says, when I speak to him after Gold has to rush off. "Ochoa is my great friend," Diabaté confirms. "At the end of the day, it's about the feeling we create together." When I see Gold later, he asks: "How many times today have they told you music has no barriers and it's a universal language?"

All of this is secondary, however, to the album itself, which was recorded live over four days in Madrid without any prior rehearsals. A joyfully ebullient meeting point between traditional Malian music and the kind of Cuban rhythms the Buena Vista Social Club brought to the wider world, AfroCubism continues a cultural exchange that has been going for over half a century. In 1960, following independence from France, Mali's president Modibo Keïta introduced one-party socialism, resulting in Fidel Castro becoming a close ally and Cuban music being actively promoted throughout Mali. A member of the entourage old enough to remember this period is Djelimady Tounkara.

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