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World Circuit presents




Barbican Hall

November 21, 2010







A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!


For World Music lovers around the globe, names like Toumani Diabaté, Eliades Ochoa, Baba Cissoko, Bassekou Kouyate, Djelimady Tounkara and Kasse Mady Diabaté strike a chord. But the idea of having these Malian and Cuban super stars collaborate on a project together was the brainchild of producer Nick Gold of World Circuit records. In fact, such a pairing has been Gold’s fondest dream since 1996, at which time his plans were thwarted by Malian passports delayed in the post. Studio time booked, Gold proceeded with plan B, resulting in the biggest selling World Music phenomena of all time – The Buena Vista Social Club, of which singer/guitarist supreme, Elides Ochoa is one of the surviving members, being one of the youngest back then. Like Ochoa, acknowledged kora (21 string West African harp) master, Toumani Diabaté has collaborated with many and varied musicians in the course of his long career.

One of the joys of going to a concert is seeing the musicians enjoy expressing themselves and there was a huge enjoyment factor going on here between the Malians and Cubans that was great fun to watch! As you might imagine, AfroCubism, the album produced from this super-group’s sessions is a highly textured collection of works, designed to showcase the best features of each genre, while making a brand new type of music from their skillful blending. And, as the pre-concert member’s talk in the Barbican’s Cinema 2 hosted by BBC Radio 3’s Lucy Duran, demonstrated, getting there has only been part of the fun, as subsequent concerts and a steady, seemingly unending stream of ideas have resulted from this inspired collaboration, thankfully, promising a longer life for this incredible group than initially hoped for.

Although kora master Toumani Diabaté has joined forces with many musicians before, it’s doubtful any of them could match AfroCubism, with fellow master and leader of the Cuban contingent, Eliades Ochoa. Although the pair only met for the first time a month before their collaboration, they seemed to get on like the proverbial house on fire at their pre-concert talk, with each smiling as the other spoke, in languages the other couldn’t understand without the help of an interpreter. Lucy Duran was there to help, chatting easily in Spanish with Ochoa, before translating his often humorous comments for the audience. No translator was needed for Diabaté, however, who spoke fluent English, smiling freely at the crowd in his long, flowing golden robe. English producer Nick Gold of World Circuit spoke of his passion and hopes for the project, seeming both elated and relieved that it is finally being realised after all these years.

As we had been reminded by The Creole Choir of Cuba’s concert at Theatre Royal Stratford East a few days before, over the years, African slaves and more recently, refugees fleeing oppression, have often migrated to Cuba, and from what we’d gleaned here, to this day, the musicians of both cultures are intrinsically interwoven, in that not only has Cuban music long been popular in Mali, but these days, Malian musicians tend to travel to Cuba to study their craft, doubtless being inspired by the surrounding culture and influences in the process, before returning their hybrid musical skills to their homeland.

The great Malian musicians taking part in this project are like a who’s who of artists from various regions, while Ochoa, from the countryside of Santiago outside Havana, likewise, shared the stage with great musicians from the town and country of Cuba. As a result, this band’s heady mix is peppered with the loping, soulful rhythms of Mali, and the sultry, oft sentimental romance of Cuba. This makes for a blend that is both, listenable and danceable, smooth and choppy, lyrical and melodic. And with thirteen such musicians playing on stage together, there were quite a lot of potential avenues to explore!

‘Mali Cuba’ was a great place to start, doing exactly what it describes in terms of allowing for differences between cultures while jointly mixing them in a celebratory audio melting pot. Musicians filtered out one or two at a time to take their places onstage, offering their own individual contributions while the gathering group picked up additional bits of texture and subtly as numbers built.  It’s a great mixture of spice and subtly, and the resulting piece really set the tone for what was to come. While late audience members made their way to their seats, those already sitting were bobbing their heads.

Bassekou Kouyate’s expressive ngoni (West African lute) playing took centre stage on ‘Karamo,’ a delicious blend of lushly played strings, pounded percussions (congas and Baba Cissoko on talking drum) and the marvelously spirited singing of griot, Kasse Mady Diabaté, who was on form throughout this concert, at one point dancing animatedly between two Cuban musicians on either side. 

'Al Vaiven de mi Carreta’ is a gorgeous ballad, written by late guarcha (songs of life or current events)  writer Ñico Saquito and sung with great passion by Eliades Ochoa, though the number is a guajira, or ‘sentimental ballad about life in the countryside, with a complaint about Cuba tucked away inside of it.’ Ochoa is known back home as ‘the Cuban Johnny Cash’ for his love of wearing black, from boots to cowboy hat!

Whether you prefer Malian or Cuban music, or both, you will find many a groove to slip in and out of on ‘Djelimady Rumba’, especially as it is lead by masterful guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, whom Toumani Diabaté kept joking was ‘still playing guitar at fifty – one!’ Not a very advanced age when you consider the U.K.’s old rockers! And rock Tounkara does, getting into his own mixture of funk and soul, Mail style.

Benny Mores’ ‘La Culebra’ is as infectious a cha cha as you’re ever going to hear and in this instance, hearing it live with this orchestra of luminaries playing it was pure, unmitigated heaven! Though Toumani intermittently urged the crowd to express themselves, by now, people were already dancing all along the outskirts of the hall, with nearly everyone else dancing in their seats. ‘If that’s what you want, Toumani said, glancing at us with his customary smile, noting the usual restraint of London’s audiences.

Kora based ‘Jarabi’ is a vibrant number, which was played with upbeat intent here by all concerned. It was getting harder to resist the temptation to dance full on, but when in Rome…Toumani’s kora playing was electrifying here, with fellow musician Bassekou Kouyate making vital contributions on ngoni.

Everybody knows, ‘Gunatanamera’ but the musicians fooled us here, seemingly playing something totally different before launching into it. Though we might have known, given Ochoa’s grins! This was pure Cuba, but wait, the Malian strain was enlivening it in its own way, cha, cha, get down, get down!

Djelimady Tounkara’s guitar playing wowed the crowd again on Bife/Nima Diyala’ and once again, Toumani Diabaté teased the good natured guitarist about his age, possibly because he’s a bit younger. This lively number made me wish this was a dance concert, without seats! But imagine having the best of both worlds: Cuba and Mali – together!

Eliades Ochoa and Bassekou Kouyate shared the honours on ‘Mariama’ through their singing and guitar and ngoni playing respectively. It was invigorating watching both take musicians their turns in the spotlights, playing off one another and the others. Next, it was Ochoa’s turn to talk, though he had done so several times during the course of the evening, very rapidly in his native Spanish, prompting Toumani Diabaté to ask the audience if they understood his friend. To which someone behind me yelled, ‘Ole!’

Ochoa saying, ‘My English no good,’ did not stop him from attempting it at that point, ending with a mix of both languages, which was generally understood, as evidenced by responsive chuckles. ‘We’re going to the moon,’ he said, proceeding into ‘La Luna,’ a very Cuban sounding number on which his native backup singers echoed his phrases harmonically behind him.

As we didn’t want to let these musicians get away, encores were ‘Bensema’ and ‘Montoro’, both of which were received by everyone FINALLY standing up to dance. The group had performed nine of the eleven songs from their debut CD, but these numbers are not on it.  However, as producer Gold said, they have an excess of tracks from the initial sessions alone, which bodes well for the group’s future.

When can you see them again? Well, if, as Lucy Duran suggested, you fancy a little trip to Scotland, on Dec. 2nd at Usher Hall in Edinburgh and/or, right here in London on June 27, 2011 at Royal Albert Hall! Can WOMAD, Charlton Park in Malmesbury, Wiltshire next July be far behind? I sincerely hope not!

In the meantime, you can listen to their CD, AfroCubsim which was released on World Circuit on November 2nd.



Listen! For a free track and more go to:

A short film about AfroCubism:


Album available on Amazon:



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