Malian, Cuban musicians take Buena Vista back to roots

Problems with passports scuppered producer Nick Gold’s first attempt to bring together Cuban and Malian musicians to record in Havana 14 years ago. But the album that did emerge from sessions by the Cubans who had been left bereft became one of the music phenomenons of recent times — the Buena Vista Social Club. It sold millions, led to concerts worldwide, resurrected the careers of several veteran Cuban musicians, and fueled global interest in the exotic Caribbean island in the grip of Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Now Gold has brought the story full circle and gathered together the original invitees to make an album mixing the tight rhythms of Cuba with the snaky guitars and desert drums of Mali. Eliades Ochoa, the cowboy-hatted Cuban singer and guitar player, and his Grupo Patria blend seamlessly with Malian lutist Bassekou Kouyate and guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, among others, on the album “AfroCubism” which will be released on October 11.

They are also hitting the road together, including a showcase at London’s Barbican on November 21 as part of the London Jazz Festival. “Both Cuba and Mali are relatively small in population but how they nurture music, what they’ve done with music, is incredible,” Gold told Reuters in his London office.

Cuban music has its roots in Africa due to the thousands of Africans brought to the Americas as slaves in the colonial era. In the 20th Century, the sounds that emerged were imported back across the Atlantic. “There’s a huge popularity in Mali, and Senegal, for Cuban music, starting in the 30s and 40s, Gold said.

His original plan back in 1996 was conceived with Cuban Juan de Marcos, who was working on a project with several generations of Cubans. The Englishman suggested bringing Malians to Havana and also signed up U.S. guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder to help. “So we were recording the first album, the Afro-Cuban All- Stars, when we got the news the Africans couldn’t come. I was told they had sent their passports by post to Burkina Faso to get their Cuban visas and they hadn’t come back.”

With a studio full of people still eager to play, they made a record off-the-cuff which became the Buena Vista Social Club. “It went fantastically well without the Africans. And after that it was a great success.”

Over the years as Buena Vista and its many off-shoots flourished, Gold remained in touch with the Malian musicians. “Every time I would meet them, they would say ‘when are we doing this project?’ I think after it became very successful, Bassekou and Djelimady were not happy that they not been on it. And Eliades, whenever I used to see him, would say the same. The longer it went on, the more difficult it was.”

Last year, Ochoa, Bassekou and others were all in Madrid at the same time with a few days off. A studio was booked, more musicians were flown in, including Djelimady and singer Kasse Mady Diabate, and they started recording with an expanded version of the original planned line-up. “We got everyone into the studio, set up microphones, the musicians sat down, and within hours we were recording the first tune we did, which was a tune intended for the original project. And it just worked immediately, as well as I could have hoped. “Maybe this huge wait that had taken 14 years. This music seemed to just pour out.”

The first song was “Al Vaivén de mi Carreta” (The Swaying of the Cart), which sees Ochoa and Diabate swapping verses which reflect the common experiences of Africa and Latin America as a farmer bemoans his hard life. “I just let it happen, as far as producing it went. Sometimes the ensemble would get too cluttered because there were a lot of musicians and sometimes we’d make it smaller. We’d try to have everyone playing together in the same room, because you get a nicer interaction between the musicians that way.”

Some of the most famous Buena Vista names — Ibrahim Ferrer, Ruben González and Compay Segundo – have passed away in the years since the 1996 sessions. But with the exception of bass player Cachaito López, who died in 2009, they were not intended to be involved in the original project anyway, Gold said.

The only problem was language. “The Cubans didn’t speak French and the Malians didn’t speak Spanish but a lot of the time they were just worked it out by playing –or expressions that showed displeasure or approval.”

They played a first concert in Cartagena, Spain, after a few days of rehearsal and will also tour North America and Europe, writing a new chapter in what appears to be the never-ending Buena Vista story.

For the original Reuters reports go to

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