AfroCubism blends the best of both worlds

Boston Globe, November 5, 2010

In the 1960s, the West African republic of Mali was newly independent and brimming with optimism. A new middle class was starting to swell in the capital, Bamako. Education and progress were in the air. And pulling crowds onto dance floors were jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, and most of all, the elegant stylings and vibrant energy of Cuban rumba, charanga, and son.

Today, Mali has turned into a major exporter of sounds, behind superstars Salif Keita, Habib Koite, Oumou Sangare, the late Ali Farka Toure, and many more. Bamako and the annual Festival in the Desert near Timbuktu are pilgrimage destinations for Western musicians, producers, and a growing number of adventurous fans.

But the Cuban connection is not lost. It has been renewed by the super-group AfroCubism, whose extravagant lineup – anchored by Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa and Malian luminaries Djelimady Tounkara on guitar, Bassekou Kouyate on ngoni, and Toumani Diabate on kora – is on the road for the most important world-music tour of the season. They visit the Berklee Performance Center on Sunday.

Ochoa, Tounkara, and Kouyate have awaited this moment a long time – 14 years, in fact. The three were part of British producer Nick Gold’s plan to record an album in Cuba with Tounkara and Kouyate as guests. In a quirk of music history, a visa problem kept the Malians from making the gig, forcing Gold into plan B: an impromptu meeting of Cuban elders that became a little thing called the Buena Vista Social Club.

That project’s spectacular global success helped stoke hopes that AfroCubism could eventually happen as well. “It hurt me that it didn’t work out the first time around,” says Tounkara, on the phone from Paris. “We really missed an opportunity.”

Gold felt the same way. But the logistics of gathering a group of top-flight stars with their own bands and tour schedules was a challenge. Finally in late 2008, Gold was able to bring a dream lineup together for a few days in a Madrid studio. Also featuring singer Kasse Mady Diabate, balafon player Fode Lassana Diabate (no relation), and members of Ochoa’s Grupo Patria, it tilted more toward Mali than had the original concept.

“This group is so different from what we imagined all that time ago,” says Ochoa on the phone from Havana. “But I was always interested in making a record that combined the strengths of two cultures. It all came out as if it just got blended.”

Indeed, AfroCubism’s eponymous record is a thrilling and impeccably produced conversation between two musics that have a great deal to do with each other in the first place. Ochoa says the rhythmic underpinning of Malian music is similar to the folk music of Cuba’s eastern region, where Afro-Cuban culture is especially strong.

Tounkara hears affinities as well. “The Cuban and African harmonies are the same,” he says. “It’s just the melodies that are different.” He fondly remembers African tours in the 1960s by Cuban ensembles like Orquesta Aragon, and credits them for helping to transform Mali’s traditional music.

“At first our music was praise songs by griots, but then we added arrangements so people could dance,” he says. “It was no longer just for sitting and listening.” His own long-running Super Rail Band was, along with Keita’s Les Ambassadeurs, at the helm of this evolution.

Kasse Mady Diabate also belongs to the older generation that learned to play Cuban-style music at an early age. His bilingual vocal exchanges with Ochoa on songs like “Al vaiven de mi carreta” form a perfect meeting of guajira and griot singing, where a common country feel unites Caribbean sugar fields and arid Malian land.

But the contribution of younger artists like Toumani Diabate helps make AfroCubism more current than simply a gorgeous nostalgia project by aging lions.

“The record is about the past, the present, and the future,” says Ochoa. He points out that the songs range from Cuban standards of the early 20th century (“La Culebra”) to Toumani Diabate’s Cuban reinvention of the griot classic “Jarabi” and brand new “Mali-Cuba.”

Performing presented new challenges. Tounkara says that Ochoa and the Malians arrived with different approaches on stage. “At first he wanted to play the songs as they appear on the album, but we said we should go outside the lines. Now we’re playing just as we would if we were in Bamako.”

With the kinks worked out, Tounkara doesn’t want the project to end. He hopes AfroCubism will not just reach Western crowds but help renew ties between the cultures that it comes from. “I want to play in Cuba and I would like us to do an African tour,” he says. “It’s contact like this that is the most important.”