Donald Kravitz, Getty Images If you are frustrated by talk of a Metallica album…
- Posted on Oct 26th 2010 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
Back then, Gold made the best of it and used the time and the Cuban veterans he'd put together (along with American guitarist and co-producer Ry Cooder) to record anyway. Perhaps you've heard the results: recordings by the Afro-Cuban All Stars and the debut of what was dubbed the Buena Vista Social Club. Those, of course, became iconic projects, Buena Vista turning into a global brand, changing the lives of Gold, bringing the musicians to late-in-life worldwide fame and, in fact, changing the landscape of the world music market itself. So it worked out OK.
But Gold held on to the original vision, and on this day in Madrid all the anticipation of the intervening years was in the air, perhaps more so for the lack of chatter. The Africans didn't speak much, if any, Spanish and the Cubans knew none of the languages of Mali and Senegal, homes of most of their counterparts. And there was a clear cultural division, the former dressed in casual Western clothes, the latter largely in their native robes.
It didn't matter one bit. Any music fan can understand the results heard on 'AfroCubism,' the long-awaited album resulting from these sessions, just released by Gold's World Circuit Records and coming from US label Nonesuch on Nov. 2.
AfroCubism, 'Al Vaivén de me Carreta'
"We communicated using all the instruments," remembers Eliades Ochoa, the great Cuban acoustic guitarist and singer, speaking from his Havana home with translation from the Spanish by World Circuit's Hannah Crawford. "That was our language, the only language we used. Their [musical] language is different from ours, too, but with the different sounds and harmonies they played, this was our language."
And with no need for translation, he declared: "La música es la música, vino del corazón." It came from the heart.
Before long, Ochoa had taught some of the Africans the song 'Al Vaivén de mi Carreta' – "The Swaying of My Cart," a song more than a century old, sung from the point of view of a poor farmer lamenting the hardships of little reward of his grueling work. It's a song credited to Cuban singer Ñico Saquito, with whom Ochoa had played and recorded some 40 years ago, shortly before Saquito's death. And that album, 'Goodbye Mr. Cat,' was key in stimulating Gold's interest in Cuban music in the first place, which led him on the journey that brought all these people together in Madrid.
Ochoa led the way on guitar, setting the loping rhythm of the guajira, a typical style of East Cuba, with his fellow countrymen José Angel Martinez on bass and Jorge Maturell providing percussion. Bassekou Kouyate, the Malian-born master of the ngoni (an ancestor of the banjo), soon found a place in the rhythm.
"Bassekou is playing a bass ngoni rather than the higher one, pumping along with the Cuban bass," says Gold, the World Circuit founder who organized and produced the session. "The first solo is Lassana Diabaté, the balafon player. Balafon [a wooden marimba-type instrument] is usually just a single one, kind of like the white keys of a piano and can't change key. But he's developed the technique of adding a second one, which is the black keys, so he can put in slightly differently chords that they have in Cuban music. And there's a kora solo on there, as well. And [Malian] Djelimady Tounkara's guitar taking on the Cuban part – I like the contrast of his electric guitar and Eliades' acoustic guitar."
And as it turned out, singer Kasse Mady Diabeté already knew the song. In the '70s he had fronted the band Orchestre National Badema, whose other members had spent eight years in Cuba studying music – the newly independent Mali had at that time formed a strong alliance with Castro's Cuba. The guajira rhythm in particular was a natural match for the traditional Malian styles. But not speaking Spanish, Diabaté knew the words only phonetically, not the meaning.
"They did a little rehearsal, and Kasse aksed what the song was about," Gold says. "Eliades explained and Kasse thought about it five minutes and then came out with his own lyrics and melody."
Diabaté's words matched perfectly, lines about the hard rural life of farmers, fisherman, women and children.
"Then Eliades asked what Kasse Mady was singing. That was the only explanation needed."
And as the two alternated verses, counterpoint turned into musical tapestry, meshing along with the rhythms being played behind them. And any anxiousness or doubt that Gold may have had over the years between concept and execution melted away.
"You knew as soon as that tune was going down," he says.
And the rest of the record followed in suit.
"We only had four days," he says. "We thought we might get three or four songs done and then we'd reconvene another time. But 90 percent of the record is from that first four-day session. We were going to see maybe if this worked we'd go to Cuba and maybe Bamako [the capital of Mali] to do the rest. But it worked."
That's true for both the Cuban-leaning songs and the African-skewed ones. But whatever the balance, there's never a sense on the record of one cultural element dominating the others, of it being mere token Cuban sounds on African tunes, or vice versa. 'Jarabi' is a perfect example"
"It's a very Malian song, a favorite of Toumani Diabaté, which he recorded several times before. So it starts from that, but a more languid take on the song. The Cuban percussionists use maracas and such, softer sounding. So they brought this Cuban sensibility to a very Malian song. And it also has two guitar solos. Eliades plays his customized guitar where he doubles the third song, very jangly. And Djeli is very electric with a delay pedal. It took the bass player some time to get where this one falls."
And though Gold – and we – had to wait so long to hear all this, there's a feeling to the album that it's just a start. Next up is a (way too-brief) tour starting in Oslo on Nov. 2 and then coming to North America for just three shows: Montreal on Nov. 5, Boston on Nov. 7 and New York on Nov. 9.
Hovering over all this, though, is a big what-if: What if the Havana sessions had gone as Gold originally planned back in '96?
"It's impossible to tell," Gold says. "Especially as I think the Malians might be more ready for it now than they were then. Their experience has grown massively over the last 14 years. As has mine. Maybe we were more ready to do it at this time."
Of course, had it happened back then, there may have been no Buena Vista Social Club and all the impact of that massive, iconic phenomenon.
"The Buena Vista Social Club, the moment it arrived was the right moment," says Ochoa. "We're grateful for the success we had. I don't know what would have happened if the original vision had gone ahead, whether we would have sold the millions we have. No one knows."