World in Stereo: AfroCubism

Each week, World in Stereo examines classic and modern world music while striving for a greater appreciation of other cultures.

AfroCubismAfroCubism: s/t (World Circuit / Nonesuch, 11/2/2010)

AfroCubism: “Jarabi”

[audio:|titles=Afrocubism: “Jarabi”]

It was 1996 when British producer Nick Gold and American guitarist Ry Cooder arrived in Havana, intending to make a certain record that placed Malian and Cuban musicians together to explore the roots of Afro-Cuban music.  But as passport and visa problems stranded the West African musicians in Paris, Gold and Cooder made the decision to move on and revamp the project because the studio in Havana was already booked.

What transpired was a completely different recording that paid homage to a music popularized by the elitist Buena Vista Social Club notorious to Havana in the early half of the 20th Century.  The alternate sessions, recorded with a collective that would be known as the Afro-Cuban All Stars, single-handedly revived the Cuban musical styles of this bygone era.  Buena Vista Social Club became one of the most definitive “world music” albums of all time, spawning Wim Winder’s documentary film of the same name, selling over six million copies worldwide, and forever changing the world-music market.

But now, nearly 15 years later, Gold has revisited the Afro-Cuban project never made, bringing together the original line-up to record AfroCubism.

At the core of the project are lead guitarist and vocalist Eliades Ochoa, whose voice is remembered on the celebrated Buena Vista theme “Chan Chan,” and the two original Malian invitees, ngoni lute master Bassekou Kouyate and legendary Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara.

Recording the Buena Vista sessions at age 50, Ochoa was the younger of the older veteran Cuban musicians who were brought back from obscurity. As many of the key players have passed, most notably Compay Segundo in 2003, Ibrahim Ferrer in 2005, and most recently Orlando Lopez last year, Ochoa still carries the torch for the elder-statesmen generation.  Though he may be getting older, the work done with the AfroCubism collective brings a fresh, new perspective to his native music.

Recorded in Madrid over the course of four days, the album has an electrifying liveliness that stems not only from 15 years of pent-up collaborative energy but more than 100 years of crisscrossing cultural histories.  Like the rest of the Caribbean, Cuba’s island music takes cue from a mixture of African and Spanish origins.  African slaves were highly influenced by the baroque music forms that made their way to Cuba via Spain in the late 1500s.

As the African slave population was assimilated into Cuban culture, learning the language and practicing the religion of their masters, their musical heritage followed suit.  Over a slow and steady course that took several hundred years to evolve, the intersection between Spanish and African cultures created the wealth of rhythms found in the distinct music of Cuba.

The record’s opening track, “Mali Cuba,” composed by kora master Toumani Diabaté, pays respect to the musicians’ interwoven history.  Capturing the “Latin rhythm” so closely associated with Cuban music, the track is a celebratory conversation between Ochoa’s guitar and Toumani’s 21-string harp lute.  The musicians go back and forth, trading melodic phrases, complementing each other’s distinct but similarly rooted styles.

Working between several language barriers, the beauty of this particular collective is how individual skills speak to a larger whole in a natural and impulsive collaboration that transcends language. Culminating with an improvised version of the Cuban classic “Guantanamera,” Kouyate, Ochoa, and Diabaté demonstrate how the two cultures are very much closely tied to one another.

Afrocubism’s artistic vision is fully realized when listeners are able to hear the two cultures fuse.  Kouyate’s ngoni (Malian ancestor of the banjo) takes on a peculiar vibrancy on tracks like “Karamo” as he adopts a Cuban motif with his ancestral instrument.  The vocals of Kasse Mady Diabaté stem from the oral tradition of the griot.  In essence, Diabaté is the West African historian, sharing his knowledge of history through song.  It is a seamless integration of quite diverse elements: Diabeté sings about the importance of hunters in Western Mali, the back-up vocals evoke an island harmony, and the percussion and rhythm from Ochoa’s Grupo Patria maintain a pace that entices involuntary dancing.

The project, after all, is called AfroCubism, a play on Cubism, the 20th Century avant-garde art movement whose artists deconstructed and analyzed objects only to reassemble them back in abstract forms.  If looking at a work by Pablo Picasso or George Braque, the viewer is looking at a subject from a multitude of angles.  As surfaces intersect at strange angles and the sense of depth is lost, the work comes to represent the subject in multitudes, or in its greater context.

In a similar sentiment, this is what the AfroCubism musicians are doing with music.  The project deconstructs West African and Cuban music in various ways — language, rhythms, intonations, and instrumentations — and pushes them all into one musical plane.  Although the outcome may not be as jarring as a Cubist painting, the result still represents the two genres in their greater context.  In the end, music lovers will appreciate AfroCubism for its nuances and ability to reflect two musical styles meeting and fusing at once.

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