History repeated itself, unecessarily, en route to the New York concert debut of Afrocubism, the Cuban-Malian superband featuring singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa of the Buena Vista Social Club, the kora virtuoso Toumani Diabaté and electric guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. A few days before the November 9th show at Town Hall, Bassekou Kouyate — a master of the ngoni, an African lute, who plays on the magnificent new album, Afrocubism (World Circuit/Nonesuch) — was denied entry by U.S. immigration after the group's performance in Montreal. Although Kouyate's application for a visa was approved and despite subsequent appeals by other high-ranking officials and politicians, he was forced to miss a November 7th show in Boston and the Town Hall appearance. (Kouyate will rejoin the group this week for a European tour.)
Further irony: Kouyate was one of the Malians, with Tounkara, originally invited by producer Nick Gold in 1996 to a recording session in Havana at which Gold hoped to mediate a fusion of Cuban songs and rhythms with Malian improvising and the sub-Saharan roots of American blues. When the Africans didn't make it, because of miscommunication and travel issues, Gold and guitarist Ry Cooder rounded up an all-star revue of Cuban singers and players, many of them elderly stars who had fallen into twilight after Fidel Castro came to power.
The result, Buena Vista Social Club, was one of the most poignant and triumphant comebacks in modern recording. Afrocubism, the album and band, is not quite what-might-have-been 14 years later. The Buena Vista troupe was a tight-knit paradise of voices brought back to life, a vintage romanticism animated with sturdy rhythmic force and wounding experiences. Afrocubism is a player's showcase, a meeting of powerhouse instrumentalists conversing atop a long history of African and Latin American musical exchange.
Jamming With No Borders
On stage at Town Hall, Ochoa and Diabaté were the nominal leaders of the 12-strong band, doing introductions and patter (Ochoa in Spanish, Diabaté in English). But in pieces like the opening instrumental "Mali Cuba" and "La Culebra" ("The Snake"), a Cuban hit from the Thirties that slithered like rubbery Bo Diddley, the solos flew thick and fast. Ochoa — a stocky man in a large black cowboy hat — played brisk steady progressions on acoustic guitar, between Diabaté's tumbling modal runs on the kora and his cousin Lassana Diabaté's gunburst runs on the balafon, a wooden marimba. Tounkara — a large beaming man who was in the Rail Band, a legendary Malian group that incorporated Cuban influences in the early Seventies — swirled in his snakeskin-like robe like a rock guitar hero and played tense accelerated solos that, in timbre and climb, sounded like Roger McGuinn's 12-string spinouts in the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," but with a deeper-blues hue.
The Malian vocalist Kasse Mady Diabaté (no relation to Toumani) and Ochoa, singing his fantasy merengue "A La Luna Yo Me Voy" ("I'm Going to the Moon"), sailed over the torrent with hearty poise. But the primary delight of the 90-minute show was the natural cumulative blur of crosscurrents and excited faceoffs. In the Cuban classic "Guantanamera," Ochoa and the cousins Diabaté had the stage to themselves, jamming over the familiar changes with competitive delight. "This is Mali and Cuba," Toumani declared earlier, gesturing at the rest of the band, "two poor countries but two beautiful countries." Playing, he might have added, as one.