thu 24/06/2021

AfroCubism, Barbican | reviews, news & interviews

AfroCubism, Barbican

AfroCubism, Barbican

The Malian/Cuban supergroup play one of the most life-affirming gigs of the year

In theory, AfroCubism should have been one of the most exciting world-music releases of the year; how could you go wrong with a supergroup composed of Cuban and Malian musicians working towards combining their musical styles in a new and exciting manner? In fact, originally this get-together was meant to take place 14 years ago for what became the multimillion-selling Buena Vista Social Club album. But passport problems prevented the Malian musicians from being able to take part.

The fact is you can’t go wrong exactly, but you could end up with something that really isn’t that much greater than the sum of its melodic and rhythmic parts, which I feel is what happened. But don’t get me wrong, AfroCubism - the album - is pleasant, fluid and graceful. It’s just that it rarely takes flight or challenges expectations. Perhaps these gentleman musicians were more concerned about not treading on each other’s toes than they were about pushing musical boundaries to produce something that lived up to their bold manifesto of a name.

Because that name certainly sets up particular expectations. I know how hard it is to resist a clever pun, but I do feel that AfroCubism - the album - promises something it doesn’t deliver: Cubism reinvented Western painting by freeing it from direct pictorial conventions, opening the door wide for full-on abstraction; AfroCubism is pleasant to have on in the background while you’re having dinner. So last night I was in no doubt that an evening of perfectly agreeable music lay ahead, it’s just that I couldn’t get too excited about it.

“How is the audience?” asked kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, a few songs into the gig. “Fine, medium or super?” The answer was clearly “super” and remained super for the rest of the evening. Whatever reservations I’d had were soon forgotten as song after song brought home the fact that this was a band who were simply never going to be at their best confined to the recording studio but blossomed in a live context where both the material and the musicians had the time and space to breath. Double bass, balafon, congas and calabash seemed to gel effortlessly to create a sturdy core groove over which each of the singers and musicians took turns in the spotlight. There was always something new to focus on: the machine-gun rattle of a talking drum, a soaring vocal melody from Kasse Mady Diabate which seemed to expand exponentially to fill the high space of the Barbican.

But the star of the show, for me anyway, was ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. Bassekou was actually one of the Malian musicians invited to the original Buena Vista Social Club project back in 1996. It’s hard to imagine what a difference his presence might have made to that album had passport problems not prevented him and other Malian musicians from being able to make the sessions. Last night he strolled around the stage in sea-green robes, a permanent relaxed smile on his face, manifesting astonishing ngoni solos as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do. That hard, brittle sound of the ngoni (less audible on the album) seemed to add some necessary edge to so much of the material.

At one memorable moment Bassekou ambled over to sit down by Toumani’s side in order to instigate a musical argument between ngoni and kora in which both musicians, fired up by friendly competitiveness, began a kind of musical sword-play, firing rapid-fire runs of notes at each other which interwove, interjected, and eventually meshed to create an indescribable whirlpool of melody and dissonance. Also worth a special mention in this world supergroup was one-time Super Rail Band guitarist Djelimady Tounkara who produced reverb-laden blues solos that veered between urgent and plaintive. And let’s not forget the Cuban contingent. Eliades Ocho (“The Captain” of AfroCubism, as Toumani called him) was a suitably commanding presence on vocals and acoustic guitar. A further defining Cuban element came from the two trumpet players who added a Latin carnival intensity to many of the songs.

But why did this music work so brilliantly live while falling slightly flat on record? Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that the band began the album nearly two years ago, and has been gigging since July, so have had plenty of time to relax into the material and to each other’s playing styles. In the end, although there was nothing particularly revolutionary about the music played, I have to confess that this was one of the most transporting and life-affirming gigs of the year. You can catch them at Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on the 2nd December and then they are back in London next year at the Royal Albert Hall on the 27th June.

Watch a short film about AfroCubism below:

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Howard, In total agreement with you . I really loved it and also the dancing that was happening near where we we re sitting. But it was a musical argument between ngoni and kora, Howard :^)

I agree with Zee - it was a great concert. I feared a clash of egos, or an attempt to redo the BVSC half a generation on, but neither emerged. Perhaps the (inevitable) live concert recording will capture the spark that some say is lacking from the album? But the album sounds good for me, anyway....

Yes of course it was a kora not a guitar, Zee. That's the kind of mistake one makes when writing a review at two in the morning! Anyway, thanks for pointing it out.

I attended the concert at Melkweg, Amsterdam, and it was also an amazing concert with plenty of energy and fun. But it's no surprise a live performance is better than the studio album. The same can be said of Buena Vista Social Club. At Carnegie Hall is a lot better. A misnamed super group? Only if you didn't get the play on words. AfroCubism - Africa and Cuba. I think interpreting the name as Cubism, the art movement, is taking it a bit too literal. After all this is a project between Cubans and Malians. What are that chances Cubism doesn't refer to Cuba also? AfroCubanism would have been obvious and less creative. Not to mention Cubanismo is a Cuban band. No need for those kind of references. Ultimately it would have been nice if someone had asked that question. I haven't found anything about the name, who came with the idea or the intention. A source of confusion can be the artwork. But the artwork came much later. And I suppose it was too hard not to fall for the trick and give it a Cubism interpretation. The easy way out from the artwork guys, but still a fantastic result. I personally love the artwork. As for the album being something to play in the background. Well, if you don't care about the details, sure. The album has a lot going on. Self-evident when you have listened to it several times with headphones and proper attention. The intricate riffs played between Eliades (btw, it's Ochoa - the 'a' is missing) Djelimady, Toumani and Bassekou can all be lost on a background listening. Maybe the level of expectations is playing boogie man with the album. For me it's a fantastic album which delivered what I expected - a mix of Cuban and Malian rhythms by virtuosos who don't need to prove anything and who are recording together for the first time, with very little time to know each other, bond, and experiment (language barriers aside) I also have almost everything these guys have put out before so I was really prepared for this. If there's a second album I do expect something better. I hope it's a live recording.

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