The producer and artists talk about the long on-off-on gestation of the new Mali-Cuba musical collaboration.
AfroCubism: the new Buena Vista Social Club
Some albums or musical collaborations have a long gestation - Guns 'N Roses' Chinese Democracy album comes to mind - but few can match the epic 14 years between conception and execution that lies behind the story of AfroCubism. Produced by the team behind the Buena Vista Social Club sessions and album, the project became known as the great "lost" event of world music - getting some of the finest musicians from Cuba and Mali to play together and record the results. Now the album dubbed "the Buena Vista as it was originally meant to be" has finally been realised, and the results are quite astounding.
For the producer Nick Gold of World Circuit records, AfroCubism is the fruits of a project that should have been committed to tape in 1996, when Gold flew to Cuba to meet up with Ry Cooder at Havana's EGRAM studios. The plan was to make an album with the Malian musicians Djelimady Tounkara and Bassékou Kouyaté and a group of Cuban musicians including Orlando "Caichito" Lopez and the guitarist Eliades Ochoa (both of whom appear on the Buena Vista album).
But his plans to record a musical conversation between Cuba and West Africa, whose strong musical links went back to the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, were scuppered at the last minute. Visa problems meant that the Malians didn't make it.
"It was all very disappointing," remembers Djelimady, whose electric guitar work on AfroCubism is just one of the album's numerous musical wonders. "Bassékou Kouyaté and I both adored Cuban music and when [the Cuban charanga band] Orqesta Aragon came to Mali, I played guitar with them all the time they were here. So we knew this trip and the recordings were important and would have helped us to play like Cubans."
While Gold, Cooder and the team stayed on to record with just the Cubans, the results of which became the Buena Vista Social Club sessions, Djelimady and Bassékou, the master of the ngoni (the mighty ancestor of the banjo), forged their own careers in Mali. Bassékou playing in Ali Farke Touré's band, and later with his own, award-winning Ngoni Ba group. But neither of them forgot the lost opportunity.
It was earlier this year that a lucky combination of touring schedules meant that several members of both camps had time off in the same place, prompting Nick Gold to discuss resurrecting the project.
Calling in additional musicians including the kora genius Toumani Diabaté, the singer Kasse Mady Diabaté, and the balafon master Lassana Diabaté, and requesting that they bring with them two or three songs each, he set up at some studios in Madrid, which had one large room where they could play together as a live ensemble, and waited to see if the magic would happen.
Gold admits he still wasn't convinced the project would actually happen. "It had become a case of the idea being around so long that there was this slight burden of, 'Will it actually work? How do we start this thing?'"
But Gold was struck by the ease with which the sessions progressed. "I was worried there'd be this duelling, this war of solos, but it didn't happen," he says. "They all gave themselves to the ensemble, and soloed when they needed to. Everyone gave themselves to this group ethic, and right from the first song it worked, so there was a sense of relief as much as anything, that it was just as good as I imagined it would be after all those years."
Out of the album's 14 songs, 11 were done in those first sessions. "They'd finish a song, someone would suggest another and they'd work on that, and if it was working well we'd press go and start recording."
Snags were few, despite the cultural differences. "The Cubans are very well trained, and have great technique with their instruments," says Djelimady. "This is quite different from our way of working. We are griots, born into music that we learn as small children: there is no school that teaches us, and we learnt to pick up whatever styles we heard. Playing by ear is our strength - there is no room for jealousy or stealing the scene.
"We were delighted when Nick [Gold] was able to keep his promise and bring us together," he adds. "We really worked hard together to rehearse and record - about three pieces a day."
AfroCubism opens with Toumani Diabaté's instrumental Mali Cuba, a delicious rhythmic amalgam of two musical cultures merging to create a third, cohesive and compelling. Eliadas Ochoa and Kasse Mady Diabaté share vocals on the guajira Al Vaiven De Mi Carreta (The Swinging of my Cart) - the very first song of the sessions - while Bassékou's ngoni-led Karamo (The Hunter) is set beside the scintillating electric guitar of Tounkara's instrumental Djelimady Rumba. The ease and intimacy of discourse between two cultures is the album's keynote.
"I think how easily it came together was the biggest revelation," says Gold. "How easily those two kinds of instrumentation sat together. I really like how some of the Malian songs stay pretty much towards the Malian side, but having double bass and maracas and congas rather than the percussion it would've had, it sits really nicely."
The musicians have cleared their schedules to take AfroCubism around the world with a series of live concerts this month and next, setting up a new stage for a dialogue between Latin America and West Africa, with their shared roots and contrasting styles entwined like paired vines.
"Cuban music has been very generous to Africa," says Djelimady, "and it is great to play with their stars on equal terms." And it seems the unfinished business of those lost 1996 sessions has plenty of future in it. "We are really collaborating now. The next album we all make together will be even better than AfroCubism."
AfroCubism is released on World Circuit. For details on the forthcoming tour, visit www.worldcircuit.co.uk.