Cuban and Brazilian imports, plus homeboy Ran Blake

Groove again
By JON GARELICK  |  October 26, 2010

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Groove isn't everything, but it'll do. Two international acts make their Boston debuts next week, and — despite a potential language barrier — few should have any difficulty connecting to the cyclical bump-click-thwap of either. AfroCubism (coming to Berklee November 7) live up to the clave rhythms suggested by their name, whereas 28-year-old Luísa Maita (Johnny D's, November 10) breathes the samba of her native São Paulo. The debut CDs from these acts, however, are not built on a single jam-band nod. Instead, each track is defined as much by a distinctive groove as by its melodic hook. In some cases, the groove is the hook.

AfroCubism (Nonesuch, November 2) is a 14-year deferred dream. Producer Nick Gold's original idea was to bring Malian and Cuban musicians together in Havana. But because of passport screw-ups in their native country, the Malians never made the flight. With studio time and Cuban musicians booked, Gold ended up producing Buena Vista Social Club — the biggest-selling world-music CD of all time and, combined with extensive touring and Wim Wenders's documentary film, an international phenomenon.

So now Gold has assembled an outfit that includes three of the musicians intended for that original session: Buena Vista guitarist and singer Eliades Ochoa (and his Grupo Patria), ngoni-lute player Bassekou Kouyate, and Rail Band electric-guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. They're joined by kora master Toumani Diabaté, balafon player Lassana Diabaté, and griot singer Kassé Mady Diabaté.

Put the album on in the background — without reading liner notes or press — and you might think this is the ultimate Cuban roots band: Cuban maracas and congas prevail, and, as Gold tells me on the phone from London, "the bass is more often than not playing the Cuban tumbao rhythm." Music from that island 90 miles off the coast of Florida is typically called Afro-Cuban, its rhythms brought over by African slaves. But in the late 20th century, the relationship became reciprocal. Recorded Cuban music had flooded West Africa. When Mali gained independence, in 1960, the Cuban government invited select musicians to come and study in their conservatories.

For AfroCubism, Gold recommended repertoire as well as asking "each of the protagonists to bring two or three songs to the table." Further exchanges occurred in the studio. So, for instance, on the oft-covered Malian song "Jarabi," Toumani Diabaté borrowed a riff from the Cuban standard "Macusa," by Compay Segundo. "It was almost like they'd opened the door to let the Cubans in," says Gold. Likewise, on another Malian favorite, "Benséma," Ochoa adapted a riff from one of the Malian guitarists and turned it into an introductory changüí. "There are these bits of collaboration all through the record, so the songs move away from their source material."

In another felicitous collaboration, Ochoa and Kassé Mady trade vocals on "Al vaivén de mi carreta," or "To the Swaying of My Cart." And the beat really does sway with the clip-clop of the country guajira, as Kassé Mady, with his high, romantic tenor, and Ochoa, with his more incisive nasal bite and rolled "r," tell their respective halves of the story of the hard life of rural people. Throughout AfroCubism, there's the ping of Ochoa's steel-strung acoustic guitar, the languid cyclical patterns of Tounkara's electric, the latticework of kora and ngoni, the balafon's lilt, and, of course, those varied, bass-driven tumbao patterns — every groove different, all to die for.

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