Saturday, January 14, 2012


What is Afrocubism? Why, it is collaboration between musicians from Cuba and Mali. Maybe it should just have been called Malicubism, but that does not trip off the tongue the same way. These collaborative Cuban and Malian musicians were playing in the National Concert Hall, where I went to see them. This was ages ago, but I am only getting round to posting about them here now. Such is life.

There was a support act comprising a bunch of Irish fiddle players and a kora* player from Senegal (sadly not playing as Senegal-irelandism). The Irish guys were a group called Fidil, an amiable bunch from Donegal. The kora player was one Solo Cissoko, who played standing up, with straps around his neck to hold the instrument in place. Fidil played Irish tunes, with Solo improvising against them, and Solo played Senegalese tunes with the Irish guys improvising. It all worked very well musically and was an enjoyably interesting melding of traditions.

And so to Afrocubism. I understand that the Buena Vista Social Club project was originally meant to be an African-Cuban hoedown, with the very Malian musicians that we were saying tonight, except that visa faffology prevented the Malians from making the recording sessions. At a conceptual level, the Afrocubism project makes a certain amount of sense, given the long history of cross-fertilisation between African and Cuban music. However, I do not think that historically there has been much interaction historically between Cuban and Malian** music. And I do not think that many people from what is now Mali were transported to Cuba as slaves (as Mali is a bit too far away from the slave ports and a bit too low in population density to be a useful source of slaves), so the ancient African traditions of Cuba must come from elsewhere. And the African country where Cuban music has been most influential, ultimately filtering back to Cuba in a distorted and developed version of its music that proved very influential to Cuban musicians, was the Congo (sometimes also known as DR Congo, Dr Congo, Zaire, the Belgian Congo etc). So my impression is that getting Malian and Cuban musicians to play together is an example of throwing together different traditions as bizarre as getting a load of Irish fiddle players together with a Senegalese kora player. This was something that could only work as a juxtaposition of completely different styles and would not be anything like a joining together of traditions from a shared well of experience***.

And who were these musicians? Well, they were largely people I had never heard of. On the Cuban side, some of the older people were ones who had made their way onto Buena Vista Social Club films and records (the originals of which have somehow not yet crossed my radar). Grizzled old campesino guitar player Eliades Ochoa comes across as someone who surely must have appeared on that record. He also kept it real, Cuban-style, by yapping away to us at great length in largely incomprehensible heavily accented Spanish between each song. Claro, claro. The younger Cubans were broadly playing he kind of instruments you expect from a troupe of musicians from that country. The Malians, meanwhile, were playing a fascinating melange of instruments traditional and modern, with Toumani Diabaté (who is quite famous) on kora and Djelimady Tounkara on electric guitar (and many others on all kinds of things). Toumani Diabaté favoured the sitting down style of kora playing and probably was the person present who spoke the best English, while Djelimady Tounkara's guitar playing seemed intriguingly to reference the Shadows rather than the janglisms of Congolese guitarists****. That said, he sounds a bit more jangly on record.

I suppose in some ways this was like a scaled up version of the Fidil-Solo Cissoko set – they either played Cuban tunes, with colouring from the Malians, or Malian tunes with Cuban colouring. It felt a bit like two world music concerts for the price of one, all very enjoyable. It all worked, without coming across like a forced throwing together of incompatible styles. It was also pretty dance-tastic – by the end of the night whitey was getting down in the aisles, no doubt to the dismay of the National Concert Hall staff.

An inuit panda production

* The kora is a tall stringed instrument from West Africa, played upright. You probably know this already.

** Not a lot of people know this, but Africa is divided up into many different countries and regions and does not have a single continent-wide musical tradition.

***after writing the previous paragraph for the readers of Frank's APA I discovered that this Afrocubism thing was not the first instance of Mali-Cuban musical collaboration. Although it is now a democratic country, Mali for a while had the kind of state socialist government seen in Cuba, and there were some cultural exchanges between the countries in the interests of building socialist solidarity and all that. These links seem to have persisted even after the transition in Mali.

**** I always like to think of every village in the Congo having a statue of Johnny Marr in it, with there being some remote areas where he is revered as a deity, but I suspect that the jangly guitar style of that country probably precedes the emergence of the Smiths and influenced Mr Marr, rather than the other way around.

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