by Chris Randle
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?