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June 28, 2011 5:28 pm

AfroCubism, Royal Albert Hall, London

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Afrocubism at the Royal Albert Hall

Afrocubism at the Royal Albert Hall

“It’s always good to come to London,” said Toumani Diabaté. “Especially in summer time.” The weather was throwing an appropriate welcome: as hot as Bamako, as humid as Havana.

Opener Fatoumata Diawara, a former singer and dancer for Oumou Sangaré, played mesmeric blues guitar phrases, breaking through with suddenly assertive choruses. The walking rhythm of “Sonkalo”, played steadily on the low strings, was punctuated with high flurries of embellishment, the guitar in a syncopated duet with her voice. “Clandestin” acquired a sharp keen not present on the recorded version; the funky bounce of “Kanou” and the nagging scratch of “Sowa” marked them out as hits in waiting. The mellow trance of “Alama” loosened up the audience to sing and clap along with “Bakonoba”, already Diawara’s trademark.

AfroCubism is what Buena Vista Social Club was not. The original plan was to team up the Cuban musicians with a couple of rising Malian stars but visa confusions intervened and the project had to be midwifed instead by the American guitarist Ry Cooder and all the old-timers he could track down.

A decade and a half later, Bamako and Havana are not the same match they might have been. The Cuban bubble, rapidly inflated by Buena Vista, has burst; and, indeed, of the main original cast only Eliades Ochoa is still alive. Mali, by contrast, has gone from strength to strength. Whereas the original vision might have seen the Africans adding some colouring to an essentially Cuban project, on AfroCubism the Malians – each a bandleader in his own right – are definitively in the lead.

The opening number, “Mali Cuba”, showed the balance of forces. Over a Cuban rhythm, with bleats of trumpet, Lassana Diabaté hammered out a vigorous balafon pattern. Djelimady Tounkara wandered on and fingered his way into a chiming guitar lead played so high his hands almost touched. Bassékou Kouyaté entered on ngoni, playing just long enough to be upstaged by Toumani Diabaté taking his seat at the kora. Kouyaté bowed in brief obeisance before Ochoa strode on clad in black from Stetson to spurs, plugging in his guitar with a report like a Colt 45. Kasse Mady Diabaté, in the voice of a preacher, sang Ochoa’s praises.

The Cuban numbers, already pugnacious with brass, were lifted by the Malians’ virtuosity: balafon runs faster than the eye could follow, talking drum answering back the vocal line. Kouyaté’s ngoni, which can be dry and sarcastic, was at its most lyrical. On the Manding warhorse “Jarabi”, he sat shoulder to shoulder with Toumani Diabaté and traded phrases, his four strings trying desperately to keep up with his old employer’s 23. “Nima Diyala”, with Tounkara egged on by a dancer in the audience (or vice versa) was as powerful as a grand finale; and if the following “Mariama” dissipated the energy and “A La Luna Yo Me Voy” stayed earthbound, a jubilant audience was happy to overlook that.

4 stars

Royal Albert Hall

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