(Barbican Hall, part of LondonJazz Festival, Sunday November 21st, review and photo by Alison Hoblyn)
This was a night that underscored the LIVE in live music – there was showmanship – and for me, it was an evening as much about watching as listening. The audience was so ready to enjoy the gig; the Barbican was completely packed and buzzing.
We’d heard the story; this was an unfulfilled project from 14 years ago. Nick Gold, producer of Buena Vista Social Club (the largest selling world music CD ever) had originally intended a group of musicians from Mali to play alongside the Cubans. However, a postal snarl-up of their passports disallowed the meeting in Havana and thwarted the dream. But, at last, all the paperwork and all the diaries and all of these respected musicians, each with great solo careers, had coalesced in Madrid earlier this year – and the album AFROCUBISM was born.
In a pre-concert talk Gold described how the musicians, who had never met before, were ‘close together in one large recording space’ and immediately everything gelled; the music ‘poured out’ over 4 or 5 days and the connections just got closer and closer. Eliades Ochoa, the distinctive voice of Buena Vista Social Club described them as ending up as ‘one big family.’ Virtuosic kora player, Toumani Diabaté, said of the offspring of this family ‘Thank God for this new baby that we gave.’ So, not having heard this new baby cry, I was on the edge of my seat to witness the fruit of the union; more just had to be more.
Appropriately enough the introductory piece was entitled Malicuba – a Toumani composition which celebrated the close ties between Mali and Cuba – particularly in the 50s and 60s when West African countries were gaining independence and they were ideologically related. Certainly the musical styles seem happily related, with the regular rhythms and plaintive vocals meshing easily.
The band walked on in sequence, playing and waving to us as they moved. First a quintet of pink-shirted Cubans playing exclamatory trumpets, maracas, guitar and bass. Centre stage, Lassana Diabaté, wearing cool blue as a foil to the hot pink, was on balafon – a kind of xylophone with a softer tone. More percussion came in the form of congas (Cuba) and a delightful ‘talking drum’ (Mali), creating a underlying heartbeat. The sound built up layer by layer and gradually, the ‘stars’, came out. Djelimady Tounkara on electric guitar, Bassekou Kouyaté on ngoni – an apparently rudimentary, calabash-shaped, stringed instrument, out of which he coaxed the most complex and clear notes. Kasse Mady Diabaté, a vocalist of emotion and power, at times sounding like a melodic muezzin. Eliades Ochoa – guitarist and vocal star of BVSC and, last but not least, Toumani Diabaté on kora – a seated presence anchoring the gathering.
The Malians were resplendent in silken robes, the tall figure of Bassekou in glimmering green like a pine tree bestriding the stage. Eliades was in black with Stetson and tapping Cuban heels. (I amused myself by trying to spot the difference between a Cuban sway and a Malian sway – it’s subtle but it is different!) Not only did I enjoy this visual treat but I couldn’t have understood all the sounds without using my eyes too. At times, the complex layers of instruments tended to deliquesce into homogeneity – one sound cancelling out another. Sometimes less is more. Thankfully, I was able to rediscover the individual beauty of most of the instruments on the CD, with its crisp recording.
Musically, highlights were Jarabi (meaning passion) with a great kora solo – and Guantanamera; this began with improvisation between the strings of Toumani, Bassekou and Eliades – with only a tease of melody. When the tune emerged the audience erupted into the applause of recognition; by the time the brass and drums came in with power, people were up on their feet dancing – and many remained in that mode for the rest of the evening! There was no interval, which meant the spell of the performance was never broken – and the amazing energy was maintained to the end. It was living mix of visual and audible delights.
For more spirit-lifting moments, they will be performing at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on December 2nd and at the Royal Albert Hall on June 27th 2011
This concert will be broadcast on Radio 3 on this Saturday 27th November, in World Routes, at 3pm