Buena Vista take two

As stories of musicians’ ill fortune go, it ranks not far from Leonard Cohen having to tour because his business manager stole $5-million of his savings.

In 1996 Malians Bassekou Kouyate and Djelimady Tounkara were invited by World Circuit Records’ Nick Gold to Havana to record with a handful of Cuban singers and musicians.

Depending who you talk to, lost passports, visa issues or better-paid gigs elsewhere ensured the Malian musicians never made it to Cuba.

Faced with a large bill for studio time, Gold asked the Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa to cobble together some musicians—if they were retired, and therefore cheap, so much the better—to make a recording to fill the void.

The resulting album, The Buena Vista Social Club, went on to sell eight million copies and be named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest recordings of the 20th century.

“The conversations I had with the Malian musicians after Buena Vista came out consisted of two subjects. They were: ‘Oh shit’, and ‘When can we try doing it again?’” says Gold, who has finally made his planned Afro-Cuban collaboration happen, 14 years after the event. “It was partly the success of Buena Vista that delayed this for so long.

But I had heard African musicians playing Cuban music and I knew it could work, whatever problems it might bring.”

We’re in Cartagena, an unremarkable naval town on the southeast coast of Spain, where the AfroCubism band, combining the Malians and the Cubans, played their first concert together at an outdoor amphitheatre the night before.

It wasn’t an unqualified success. The drunken Friday-night crowd failed to appreciate the subtleties of the music, and Ochoa, leading the disciplined Cuban musicians, showed evident frustration at the Malians’ somewhat relaxed approach.

There is also the question of who was leading the band, with Ochoa reputedly telling the others after the concert: “There can only be one captain of this ship.” Among the Malian group is the kora player Toumani Diabate, a huge star in Africa, with an attitude to match—he is more used to giving orders than taking them (through a translator) from a Cuban musician with a very different routine to his own.

“Toumani doesn’t like mornings,” Gold says, a little wearily. “He’ll get up some time in the afternoon.

Eliades is from the farming country of Santiago, where everyone gets up at the crack of dawn. That became a bit of an issue.”

Then there is the language barrier. “Musically, the recording sessions worked very well, but we had some strange times when they asked each other what the songs are about,” Gold says.

“Eliades was asking me what one of Toumani’s songs is about. Toumani said it was about a baby hippopotamus. Eliades raised his eyebrows, then Toumani said: ‘Well, what’s your song about?’ ‘It’s about how when I get tired of the Earth I’m going to live on the moon.’ So Toumani’s going: ‘And you think my song is ridiculous?’”

You would never know this to talk to Diabate or Ochoa. “We communicate through music, which is the universal language,” Ochoa says, when I speak to him after Gold has to rush off. “Ochoa is my great friend,” Diabate confirms. “At the end of the day, it’s about the feeling we create together.” When I see Gold later, he asks: “How many times today have they told you music has no barriers and it’s a universal language?”

All of this is secondary, however, to the album itself, which was recorded live over four days in Madrid without any prior rehearsals.

A joyfully ebullient meeting point between traditional Malian music and the kind of Cuban rhythms the Buena Vista Social Club brought to the wider world, AfroCubism continues a cultural exchange that has been going for over half a century.

In 1960, after independence from France, Mali’s president, Modibo Keita, introduced one-party socialism, resulting in Fidel Castro becoming a close ally and Cuban music being actively promoted throughout Mali.

A member of the entourage old enough to remember this period is Djelimady Tounkara.

One of Africa’s foremost guitarists, Tounkara moved from the countryside to the Malian capital of Bamako in the early 1960s to become a tailor, but ended up joining a state-sponsored orchestra instead.

“We were encouraged to play Cuban music,” says Tounkara, a gentle bear of a man whom the other musicians hold in a great deal of affection. “And it wasn’t hard to combine Malian and Cuban music, because people from Africa went to Cuba and took the rhythms with them.”

This musical cross-pollination came to an abrupt end in 1968, when a military coup overthrew Keita.

The new regime encouraged the development of authenticité—traditional African music, devoid of outside influences.

“After the coup d’etat the military destroyed the ballet, the opera, everything,” says Tounkara.

“I dealt with this by escaping to Senegal, but the military made me come back and I had to find a new way of making a living as a musician.”

So began one of the strangest and most celebrated episodes in the history of Malian music.

In 1972, Tounkara joined the Rail Band, a group initially hired by railway authorities to play in a hotel lounge near the main station in Bamako to help pass the time for people waiting to catch a train.

The Rail Band became a phenomenon, with African music legends Salif Keita and Mory Kante passing through its ranks. It became the first band to combine traditional instruments with an Afro-Cuban sound.

Tounkara managed to sneak in a Cuban influence while remaining close enough to authenticité to keep the authorities off his back.

“I don’t want to boast,” Tounkara says with a little wiggle of the head, “but I played an important part in the development of Malian music with the Rail Band. We created ­something new.”

Among the younger musicians who had to discover Cuban music is Bassekou Kouyate, a ngoni (traditional string instrument) player with more than a passing resemblance to Otis Redding, and Lassana Diabate, a member of Toumani Diabate’s band (though no relation) and a player of the xylophone-like balafon.

They seem to come as a pair, and wish to be interviewed together. “When we grew up the only Cuban song we knew was Guantanamera,” Kouyate says. “We didn’t have the opportunities to get influences from the rest of the world.

“With AfroCubism, there was no time to do a rehearsal, so we had to learn about Cuban music on the spot. But we did it.”

Then Lassana releases a pearl of truth of the kind you don’t hear too often. “I’m very pleased to be doing this,” he says, “because I’m getting richer with this project. It’s OK for the others - they’re famous already. I want it to go on for as long as ­possible.”

Later that evening, on a restaurant patio, the two chief forces of AfroCubism talk about what the project means to them—although not together.

“We Cubans and Malians get on well because we are humble people,” says Ochoa, looking not particularly humble in a large cowboy hat, before going on to tell a proverb about a rich man having to pay for a glass of water that may well lose something in translation. It’s after midnight and Ochoa has long returned to the hotel, before Toumani Diabate turns up with the look of a man ready to party.

I ask him how the kora—the 21-string Malian harp that his family has been playing for generations—fits in with Cuban music.

“The kora is like a woman,” he says, leaning back in a chair with a beer hanging from his hand.

“When you see the guitar playing, it is making a face to the audience. With the kora, you are intimate and this is different from all other instruments. So when I meet musicians, I don’t play their music, and they don’t play my music. We do our own music, and it becomes a fusion. That way I realise my dream of bringing the kora to the world.”

You cannot help but feel Gold had his work cut out getting all these strong, eccentric characters together in one room to make an album, without even a shared language.

Somehow, however, it worked. Buena Vista Social Club success might not be forthcoming just yet, but at least everyone has their passports this time.—

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