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Many the recording project alludes to the continuing cultural resonance between Cuba and West Africa, but AfroCubism is possibly among the longest in fruition. Fans of the genre have all heard the tale: a bureaucratically foiled 1997 effort to bring electric guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate from Mali to record in Cuba produced instead the quickly improvised, massively successful artistic and commercial wonder the world embraced as the Buena Vista Social Club.

AfroCubism reflects that project as originally conceived - the transatlantic exploration of a prolific musical vein of the African Diaspora. This time, Tounkara and Kouyate convened in Madrid's Sonoland Studios with two fellow Malians, singer Kasse Mady Diabaté and kora player Toumani Diabaté, Guinean balafon master Fode Lasana Diabaté, and Cuba's Grupo Patria, the trova ensemble led by singer-songwriter Eliades Ochoa. Suffice to say that all parties possess stellar world musical résumés, as AfroCubism makes manifest.

The blending of West African and Afro-Cuban strains transcends the music's particular origins from start to finish. Take “Mali Cuba,” a swaying blend of Cuban son, bass-like ngoni montuno, guitar, kora, and balafon - among other things, an instructive recap of the African roots of the marimba tradition of southern Mexico and Central America. Likewise, Tounkara's “Nima Diyala” unleashes a driving balafon figure and ringing electric guitar, woven through Kasse Mady's piercing vocal delivery. Reimagined, “Al vaivén de mi carreta,” the Nico Saquito country chestnut familiar to Cuban folk aficionados, finds new life in Kasse Mady's evocative rendering, expression of the singer's generations-deep griot heritage.

There's a jazz-like freedom at work here, whether in the inspired guitar romp of “Nima Diyala,” the perfectly hybrid “Djelimady rumba,” or the contemplative strains of “Guantanamera,” closing testimony to the exquisite complementarity of kora and acoustic guitar voicings. But the keen Ochoa-Kouyate improvisation and delicate vocal chorus of “Mariama” perhaps most perfectly convey the project's measured, minor-key ecumenical philosophical spirit:

Mariama, Mariama, Mariama / Nobody knows their destiny
Mariama, Mariama, Mariama / That's how the world is.

Or, as “Bensemá” reminds us, in characteristically offhand Malian fashion, “Life is a matter of chance... Someone who spends a long time on this earth / Will see many things with his own eyes.” In the manner of the griot's unhurried social commentary, close and repeated listening to this remarkable audio document reveals no end to the subtle, layered precipitate of the human condition in its broadest reach, in continuous transit between Africa and the world at large. - Michael Stone

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"Mali Cuba"


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