Second chance for Africa’s Buena Vista Social Club
By James Fletcher
It might be one of the greatest musical missed opportunities.
In 1996, Malian musicians Djelimady Tounkara and Bassekou Kouyate were due to travel to Cuba to record an album with local players. But visa problems meant they could not go, so the session in Havana went ahead without them.
The result was the Buena Vista Social Club, which became one of the biggest-selling world music albums ever.
The album and documentary of the same name made stars of musicians like Compay Segundo, Ruben Gonzalez and Omara Portuondo.
Fourteen years later, the two men from Mali, one of Africa’s musical powerhouses, have carved out their own successful careers.
But there is a twinge of regret when Tounkara remembers how he felt watching the Buena Vista Social Club take off.
“First of all, I’m a Muslim – it didn’t work out and that was because of God,” he told the BBC World Service.
“I was a bit jealous because I should have been there, because they sold a lot of albums and made money. Well, I don’t know if I was jealous, but I regretted it a lot.”
‘Music poured out’
Now he has got a second chance.
Producer Nick Gold was the man behind the original sessions, and although the success of the Buena Vista Social Club kept him busy for many years, he held on to his idea of a collaboration between Malian and Cuban players.
Early in 2010, he was finally able to get the musicians together in a studio in Madrid.
From Mali there was Tounkara, who plays guitar, and Kouyate, who plays a type of West African lute called an ngoni.
The key Cuban player was guitarist Eliades Ochoa, who brought with him a band of Cuban musicians.
“As soon as they started playing, it just gelled, and it flowed and flowed,” says Gold.
“We were only recording for a week, but this music just poured out, and it was just incredible.”
“They managed to fuse this Cuban music with a lighter edge. It’s played in this beautifully soft way that welcomes you in.”
Mali and Cuba may seem worlds apart, and the collaboration may not seem obvious at first sight. But the two countries’ musical paths are intertwined.
When newly independent Mali became a socialist state in the 1960s, Cuban music was actively promoted in Mali.
“We were very good friends with Fidel Castro,” says Tounkara.
“Cuban music was on LP records, you took your guitar and you learned it. There are bits where you feel that it’s come from Africa, it’s almost the same rhythms.”
In fact, you can hear the Cuban influence in much African music – from Congo to Senegal.
While the Malian musicians were well schooled in Cuban sounds, Cuban guitar player Eliades Ochoa admits his knowledge of Malian music is a little shakier.
“I can’t tell whether the music is from Mali or from some other part of Africa, but I love African music,” he says.
“In any African music we feel something, there is an atmosphere which makes us think about Cuban music.”
Another Buena Vista?
“A lot of the Cuban songs are humorous double entendre songs, which was slightly lost on the Malians” Nick Gold, Producer of AfroCubism
One stumbling block in the studio was language. The Malians speak French and English, the Cubans Spanish.
Another player on the album was Toumani Diabate, the virtuoso master of the kora, a West African harp. He explains how they found common ground.
“The note F on the guitar is the same F on the kora, same on the ngoni, same on the balafon [xylophone],” he says.
“And it’s the same in London, same in Bamako, same in Cuba. So the music has created its own language, it doesn’t have any borders.”
The lyrical gap was harder to bridge.
“A lot of the Cuban songs are humorous double entendre songs, which was slightly lost on the Malians,” says Gold.
“And the Malian songs are all much deeper songs about fate and going very in-depth into their legends, so there were raised eyebrows at each others’ songs.”
The sessions have now been released as an album under the name AfroCubism, and a world tour is underway.
So can they hope to replicate the success of Buena Vista Social Club?
That was the result of a perfect storm: The story of the veteran musicians caught the world’s attention, aided by the documentary film by Wim Wenders.
The album was also released when music downloading was in its infancy, and CD sales were at their peak.
But Tounkara is undeterred.
Talking about whether the original success can be repeated, there is a twinkle in his eye and he laughs a long, warm laugh.
“This project is really good, and I want this one to sell more than the first one.”