Any list of the best world music albums ever would have to include the 1996 Buena Vista Social Club recording that introduced international audiences to some of Cuba’s living musical treasures — and the Cuban son, the earthy genre that reflects the joy and pain of everyday life.
Released by World Circuit Records, the album featured then-89 year old Francisco Repilado, better known as Compay Segundo. Joining him were master pianist Ruben Gonzalez, singer Ibrahim Ferrer, guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa and others. Producer and guitarist Ry Cooder played with them.
It was a brilliant collaboration of mostly elderly performers whose romantic musical conversations sold more than eight million records.
What most people didn’t know then was that the project was the producers’ plan B.
When a scheduled collaboration between Cuban and Malian musicians in Havana fell apart – perhaps because the Africans couldn’t obtain visas – Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos Gonzalez (who now leads the Afro Cuban All Stars) rescued his elderly compatriots from relative obscurity for the project. In the twilight of their lives, they became big stars.
Fifteen years later, World Circuit producer Nick Gold is trying to recreate the magic of the Buena Vista sessions with his original idea. Afrocubism, released late last year on Nonesuch Records in the United States, brings together two of the original Malian invitees — lute master Bassekou Kouyate and Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.
Joining them are Ochoa and his ensemble Grupo Patria, kora player Toumani Diabate, Malian griot singer Kasse Mady Diabate and balafon player Lassana Diabate. (The Diabates are not related.)
Recorded in Madrid, the album’s 14 tracks add Cuban influences to African tunes and vice versa in an elegant fusion of guitar and vocals, at times lively and at others pensive.
On an instrumental version of Mali Cuba, the musicians celebrate the close ties that developed between the two countries, with an intriguing interplay between Ochoa on guitar and Toumani Diabate on kora, a long-necked harp lute. Bouncing with multiple rhythms, it is an inviting introduction to the musicians’ collaboration.
Jarabi (Passion) is a song about following one’s heart instead of entering into an arranged marriage. It starts with a Cuban riff from Segundo’s signature tune Chan Chan and features an exchange between Ochoa on acoustic guitar and Djelimadi Tounkara on electric guitar, each improvising off different rhythms.
The musicians also deliver a gentle and multi-textured instrumental improvisation of Guantanamera, a soft and swaying bicultural take of the classic Cuban song.
The music on Afrocubism is understated, and with spare percussion, the recording lacks the power inherent in much of Cuban and African music. But the recording is an inviting and intriguing exploration of the longstanding connections between African and Cuban musicians.
Though much of the African quality in Cuban music is centuries old, musicians from the two countries have collaborated since the 1950s, with Malians studying in Cuba and playing the island’s music.
It’s uncertain whether the new recording will achieve the same success as its predecessor. But Gold has again created something magical.