In 1996, two renowned Malian musicians were invited to a Havana recording session with some equally distinguished locals. For nebulous and unsatisfying reasons, they never arrived, but the World Circuit label ended up using its costly studio time anyway. The almost-all-Cuban result was Buena Vista Social Club, a franchise which soon accrued solo albums, Grammys, Oscar nominations and platinum sales certifications.
Lost albums’ mystique can wilt in the shadow of a blockbuster. And the few breakout successes in the “world music” market tend to be tokenistic: Buena Vista Social Club is the highest-selling collection of Cuban tunes by a huge margin. I would guess that many of its owners don’t have another one. Still, 14 years later, World Circuit producer Nick Gold decided to arrange that unrealized collaboration. AfroCubism unites the original Malian invitees Bassekou Kouyate and Djelimady Tounkara with Buena Vista‘s Eliades Ochoa (several of his elder fellows on that album have since died), plus some notable ringers, such as Toumani Diabaté.
It’s strange listening, because I know a fair amount about West African music and very little about Cuba’s – or the Spanish diaspora in general, really. The effect was like what deaf people must feel while trying to follow an uncaptioned film. The griot lyrics of “Karamo” or Kasse Mady Diabaté’s tender singing on “Jarabi” are familiar to me, easily understood; when Ochoa’s guitar saunters in, it’s jolting.
I’ve experienced worse sensations. Malian music and Cuban music hardly represent two distant solitudes, anyway. Last year’s excellent Tumbele! compilation showed how quickly certain styles could hop across the Caribbean’s islands, whether Congolese rumba, Trinidadian calypso or Cuban guaguanco. AfroCubism‘s liner notes point out that Mady Diabaté received years of government-sponsored training in Havana conservatoires. He and his band returned nearly a decade later to find Mali’s new regime was giving up Third World solidarity for cultural “authenticity,” stressing the rightness of traditional composition. Cuba’s darker-skinned citizens have invariably been treated shabbily, under Castro or his predecessors – the country’s 1962 declaration of racism overcome was, um, premature – but at least one aspect of its foreign policy was ecumenical.
That reactionary ideal of unsullied purity is an unlikely point of agreement between authoritarian rulers and the worst kind of objectifying record-hunters. But few villains make themselves so obvious, and these are tricky nuances to navigate: what distinguishes preservation from stagnation, or mere exoticism? Elite cosmopolitanism’s got complications of its own. During the making-of clip above, several AfroCubism players testify that music erased the linguistic barriers between them. Boilerplate, perhaps, yet it took on a weightier meaning here. What use is cubism, after all, if it can’t integrate multiple perspectives?
Last month in this space, Carl wondered what it means to be avant-garde, still. One idea of it hinges on identifiable harshness, dissonance, “difficulty,” even alienation: a dance to metal machine music. Must the new always shock? Maybe it can be gently instructional instead. Misha Glouberman (best known as the cleverly flustered host of local lecture series Trampoline Hall) has been testing just that with a loose, long-running series called Terrible Noises for Beautiful People. These events typically involve amateur non-musicians improvising vocal sounds together, in structures that range from John Zorn’s Cobra game to ones of Misha’s own design. This week’s noisemaking was a rehearsal of sorts for upcoming performances at a vertiginous art-edifice called the Sound Tower. (“If you’re afraid of heights, as I am, 80 feet is tall.”) Whether straight jazz or the uncategorizable, I’d listened to a lot of music employing improvisation without knowing much about the theory of it. I still don’t. My first time as a non-spectator was all practice, mortifying and then finally elating.
Misha is bearish yet friendly, in the manner of a slightly absentminded professor. His introduction sounded a bit like the opening of an old-school role-playing game: “Imagine you’ve come to a tower.” It worked a bit like one, too. Again and again he sketched out the course of an exercise before gradually removing its guide rails. Our initial task was to wander around the room improvising “angry” sounds and motions – fine by me for several reasons, like how I’d woken up that morning to find my bathroom door nailed shut. At first Misha rang a bell to pause and restart our gesticulations, but his influence slowly faded until we were improvising moments of stasis by mass consensus too. Once he raised the instrument, froze, and lowered it with a stage scowl.
A string of “fighting forms,” formal outlines for free-flowing arguments, grew increasingly complex as we barked at each other. (“Everybody’s a genius improviser when they’re fighting.”) We paired off at random, one person “conducting” their partner’s sounds with motions that no professional would ever use. The experimentation culminated in an unorthodox orchestra. Everyone arranged themselves into a descending spiral (or an ascending one, depending on your vantage point); Misha sent various noises rippling through it, but on the way they were modulated in pitch, loudness and length until they became unrecognizable. I heard an unusually intense variation on those fake “forest soundscapes” dominated by hisses and shushes. I listened with eyes shut while participants strained to make the fastest and briefest sounds possible, as if they were demented beboppers. I balanced on a chair and joined the concentric choir in mutilating vowels, droning “I-I-I-I” and “U-U-U-U” like a skipping John Ashbery audiobook.
Was this avant-garde? It certainly felt uncomfortable at first, which is one way of answering “yes.” Compulsively slapping yourself or babbling wordless nonsense is what movie lunatics do. As the evening wound on, though, the universal humiliation had an ice-smashing effect. It was a mixed crowd, which fit the neighbourhood, and the bulk of that crowd was affable middle-aged people in sandals who looked like they might have signed up on a whim. Describing the event to our overseer, one lady said “you’re in both places at once,” simultaneously spectator and performer. I think that’s more radical than any of us realized at the time. The mercurial cacophony reminds me of what one character says about glossolalia in The Invisibles: “Everyone hears what they need to hear. The unconscious speaking directly to the unconscious. What kind of world might we make where such a language would be the common tongue?” But we never climbed very far up that tower and away from more practical matters. When I left an hour early, Misha was fielding ideas for a quieter “VOWEL” sign.