The popularity of bands such as Orchestra Baobab (from Senegal) means that we are already accustomed to a blend of griot (relating history through song) tradition and Cuban sounds, much of which was originally due to the generosity of Cuba in inviting musicians from all over Africa to study in Havana. But this project takes the idea further in that it takes traditional and almost iconic Cuban and Malian songs and lays them open to new interpretations by the musicians in the room. Recorded live during two sessions in Havana, the supreme musicianship of all involved ensures a flowing groove throughout.
The immediate interest is hearing the interplay of griot singing and playing with its distinct harmonies and scales with the typical Cuban grooves laid down by Eliades Ochoa and his Cuarteto Patria.
As Ned Sublette observes in his supreme history of Cuba and its Music, the musical traditions of what is now Mali and Senegal had very little influence on the development of Cuban music (North American blues was the most obvious musical legacy of Northwest Africa in the new world)- the Africans who came to Cuba were more likely to come from the Yoruba, Congo and Calabar cultures which gave rise to the Santeria, Palo Congo and Abakua religions and ultimately the riches of Cuban music that we know today.
Because of this, the most successful songs here are those which take one or other of the styles as a strong base and ‘invite in' the guests to add some extra flavour. ‘Karamo' is a beautiful take on an ancient griot song played and sung by masters of the genre; ‘Bensema' is a haunting groove which stands as a classic Malian interpretation, and Benny More's ‘la Culebra' is played and sung by Eliades with power and passion in probably the best version apart from Benny's own.
Other songs sometimes sound a little forced as will always be the case where musicians from different cultures meet – attempts to play Cuban lines on the balofon (even by its greatest living exponent) leave this listener thirsty to hear the music that it was created for- but there is a genuine sense that the participants were searching for common threads and the music has a sharing spirit, resulting in a set of songs that stand up as powerful pieces in their own right.
However, the album has a sting in its tail as the almost clichéd idea of closing with ‘Guantanamera' results in an achingly beautiful and light spirited piece which features some of the most unforced and natural playing on the whole record.
This project is the realisation of an original dream conceived by Nick Gold. The first attempt was stalled by the non arrival of the Malians and famously resulted in the Buena Vista Social Club album. We can be grateful that their long delay resulted in both the Buena Vista success and this celebration of music as a great force for unity and understanding.
Review by Dave Willetts – appeared in CubaSi magazine Autumn 2010
AfroCubism : WorldCircuit, October 2010 – WCD085 Order your copy of AfroCubism CD now – only £10 + £1p&p by phone 020 8800 0155 or online here