Last month, one of the biggest supergroups in the world played a free show in Toronto as part of the Luminato festival. AfroCubism is the project that was supposed to be recorded 14 years ago in Cuba, instead of Buena Vista Social Club. The BVSC album was hurriedly organized when two AfroCubism musicians from Mali didn't get their Cuban visas. Then, after the massive success of BVSC, the original AfroCubism project was shelved for more than a decade. Finally in 2010, the original plan was resurrected, a few more musicians were added to the mix and AfroCubism was officially born.
Prior to the show, I interviewed Toumani Diabaté. Diabaté gave an amazing interview. He carries the weight of being the 71st generation in a long line of griots – the historians, musicians, poets and holders of the oral tradition of West Africa. Diabaté's charisma is magnetic. He has a calm intensity and an incredibly captivating manner of articulation. He seems like the kind of artist who sees the world in four dimensions, while the rest of us look at the world in three.
Listen Listen to the full interview by clicking the play button to the left, or you can read the edited and condensed transcription below.
Q: If AfroCubism had happened 14 years ago, would it have blown up in the same way that Buena Vista Social Club did?
A: Listen, BVSC is like the baby boy that was born before the father. AfroCubism is the father, but the baby boy was born before the father. We cannot really compare AfroCubism and BVSC. Because of the visa problem, Djelimady Tounkara and Bassekou Kouyaté couldn’t fly to Cuba, so instead BVSC happened.
Q: When did you join the project?
A: Eliades Ochoa and me work in the same management company, which is with Saul Presa in Madrid. Saul had a booking for Eliades and I. He was touring with a band from the Netherlands and I was touring with my band the Symmetric Orchestra. So we met at the hotel in Nijmegen at the Music Meeting festival. I was sitting in the lobby playing my kora, enjoying myself, and Eliades came with Saul Presa and just took his guitar and started to play with me. And that was the first time I met him. It was after the success of the album I made with Ali Farka Touré, In the Heart of the Moon, and we won the Grammy and Ali passed away. And I was looking for someone like Ali Farka Touré, who has the same experience, or different but at the same level. And when Eliades played with me I said, “Ahhhhh, this is the right man, he’s the one I need.”
So we called World Circuit and I said I want to record with Eliades Ochoa to make a duo album. And Nick Gold, the producer, came back with the idea from the time of BVSC. So I was not there at the beginning – it was only two musicians, Djelimady Tounkara and Bassekou Kouyaté, but at the end I am someone who brought the idea back again and Nick Gold and I began to select the musicians, Kassé Mady Diabate and the balafon players and all that stuff and we met in Madrid to record.
Watch Toumani Diabaté and Ali Farka Touré play from In the Heart of the Moon.
Q: How does Eliades Ochoa compare with Ali Farka Touré?
A: They have two different cultures but the [same] personality, and also the knowledge, the experience in the heart because you have to play the music from your heart. The music you play has to touch yourself first and then touch your audience. Ali Farka Touré was a great musician and Ali didn’t do the music only for the north of Mali, but for all the world.
Eliades Ochoa is somebody who also created his own guitar. He has a lot of experience up and down in his life, and finally he is still there with a great voice. He has a very good spirit. So that’s my description of him. In a musical way, when I was playing with Ali Farka Touré it was easier. Ali always said, “OK Toumani, just go.” We didn’t practise or rehearse to make In the Heart of the Moon, to make Ali and Toumani. We just took a kora and guitar and – “bim!” that’s it, we recorded. I had this same feeling with Eliades when we met, I just played the kora and Eliades took his guitar and joined me and – “bim!” same.
Q: How does it work in the band? You’re used to leading your own band and Eliades Ochoa is used to running the show, how do you guys work it out on stage?
A: For this experience called AfroCubism, all the Malian musicians are bandleaders. It’s really important to drop the band for a reason like this – something very special, and I wanted always to have all the musicians to come together and build this one because this is a good experience to play together…. It’s a new band because this project is [about] fighting, but in the positive way. There’s a lot of fusion music today but the music is not at the same level. When Malian people listen to AfroCubism they feel like it’s Malian music. In Cuba it’s the same, the Cubans say, “Oh this is Cuban music,” so that means the mix is at a good level – 50/50.
Onstage all musicians are there. I’m Toumani Diabaté, I’m here, I have my kora. The world knows me by the kora so I play my kora. Bassekou does the same. So I defend my identity. And Djelimady Tounkara does the same but the music is still there. Yeah! So people who know my music before can hear my music. Bassekou Kouyate, same story. And Eliades Ochoa is there. So people can hear the difference between us…. So it’s a fight, but in a positive way. Everyone is taking care of saving his culture. That’s really important in the fusion. You cannot find that everywhere today.
Watch AfroCubism from their first ever live performance.
Q: So you’ve got superstars working together, but you’ve also got language and cultural issues. That must be so challenging.
A: Another fact of this project, we really couldn’t speak together, but we have the international language of the music. Because F and G [musical notes] in Toronto is the same in Mali, in Cuba, in Sydney, in Paris. This music has created its own language.
Outside of that, we cannot really speak anything. Onstage, I don’t understand what Eliades is saying, because the Malian people speak Bambara, Mandinka and French. Eliades speaks Spanish and I speak English of course, but Eliades and the Cubans don’t speak English, so the only way to communicate is the music. So it’s really a good experience and something very special. It’s been three years we’ve been travelling together and recording together. The band is getting more and more connected but communication is the problem, but onstage you never know that. You cannot see that we cannot speak together.
AfroCubism Explained (on CBC Radio 1)
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on Jul 12, 2012