Despite its Grammy win, record-setting sales and enormous critical praise, 1997’s “Buena Vista Social Club” was only half the project it was intended to be.
World Circuit’s Nick Gold had initially planned to gather a group of prominent Cuban and African musicians for a recording session, but the Africans were unable to secure their visas, leaving Gold and his producer, Ry Cooder, to do a little improvising of their own by inviting a few more players from Havana to round out the record. The monster success of the resulting album was serendipitous, if accidental.
More than a decade later, Gold’s complete vision came to fruition with the recording of “AfroCubism,” a marriage of music from Cuba and Mali, countries that share similar rhythmic traditions and proclivities for improvisation – not to mention, political ties that have caused cultural cross-currents since the beginning of the Cold War. The group, which features “Buena Vista” veteran tres guitarist Eliades Ochoa and his band, Grupo Patria, and Malian kora legend Toumani Diabaté (whose diverse credits include collaborations with Herbie Hancock and Taj Mahal) performed the second stop on their tour at Town Hall on Nov. 9.
The highly anticipated show kicked off on a sour note when Dan Melnick announced that visa problems had left the ngoni player, Bassekou Kouyate, stuck in Canada. But that road bump turned out to be the show’s only impenetrable musical border, as Ochoa and Kasse Mady Diabaté helmed nominal leadership duties that often melded their similarly wistful, emotion-charged vocal contributions, despite the language differences.
Collaboration and cross-pollination were the main message of the evening, even as Diabate peeked out from behind his kora to drop the occasional zinger, at one point teasing that New York might not be as rich in culture as it is financially.
In “Mali Cuba,” solos changed hands swiftly and succinctly, with balafon player, Lassana Diabaté’s agile and chromatic lines balancing out the more soothing kora swells. Grupo Patria’s unison horn section added a sunny layer of salsa to even the more traditional, Malian-leaning tunes, not unlike the lineup in unlike Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra.
Despite the abundance of marquee names onstage, guitarist Djelimady Tounkara emerged as an unexpected star of the evening. His blues-drenched solos and playful, rock-infused vamps harkened back to his days with Salif Keita’s Rail Band from the ‘70s. Near the end of the show, he teased Ochoa and Toumani Diabaté as they made their way through the Cuban classic, “Guantanamera,” while the audience alternately sang the chorus and giggled as Tounkara coyly challenged his bandmates with a few mean call-and-response riffs until Ochoa finally surrendered and led everyone back to the bridge.
In fact, the balance of spotlight sharing was almost as remarkable as the way the two musical cultures complimented each other. The hollow, spare sound of the balafon accented the Cuban polyrhythms in songs like the Cuban hit, “La Culebra,” putting a new spin on a Latin classic. Meanwhile, Tounkara’s rolling, danceable guitar riffs on the more Malian-led “Nima Djala” became a comfortable vehicle for Ochoa’s tres support.
In the end, encores of “Bensema” and “Para los Pinares se va Montoro” roused the audience to stand up, dance and cheer — as much, it seemed, for the music, as for Toumani Diabate’s demand that it’s time to “stop stigma and discrimination.”