What’s fourteen years between friends? The myth of the delayed visas (or vagaries of West African musician patronage, depending on who you ask) has been recounted often enough, as has the tale of how the scuppered African-Cuban get-together turned into the happy ending to a lifetime’s artistic expression for the venerable gentlepeople of the Buena Vista Social Club. Meanwhile thwarted Malians Djelimady Tounkara, Bassekou Kouyaté et al ploughed successful, if less internationally lucrative, furrows of their own whilst the initial plan simmered away in the back of producer Nick Gold’s mind.
Cut to Madrid 2009, and finally the original idea has come to the boil in the form of BVSC constant Eliades Ochoa and his Grupo Patria alongside the aforementioned guitarist and ngoni player, who are joined by compatriots Toumani Diabaté on kora, Lassana Diabaté on balafon and Kasse Mady Diabaté on vocals.
It’s the Cubans that form the basis of the sound, laying down the trademark BVSC shuffle – the brush of tres guitar against deft, polyrhythmic congas, double-bass keeping things ticking along – in and out of which the Malians interlace their finest Cuban-inspired melodies.
There’s an even split between songs of African and Cuban provenance. Amongst the Cuban highlights is the Beny Moré son La Culebra, on which Kouyaté’s ngoni acts a delicate echo of the acoustic guitarists. Lassana Diabaté adds light rhythmic spice and Tounkara interjects with chiming electric guitar right out of the (Cuban-inspired) ‘70s Rail Band songbook.
On Al Vaivén De Mi Carreta the full ensemble is tight to the swaying guarija groove, with Eliades and Kasse Mady alternating verses between short, improvised leads-in from each instrumentalist. Overall lead vocal responsibilities are shared between the two singers, Ochoa’s succinct delivery - that familiar plaintive lived-in tone - complementing Diabaté’s silky elongated phrasing.
Other highlights include Mariama, a traditional Malian song co-adapted and robustly delivered by Eliades and Bassekou; a shivering version of another standard Jarabi, with Kasse’s vocal soaring majestically over Lassana’s balafon swells; and the rollicking Mandé song Benséma on which Eliades proves to be a riffing equal to Bassekou and Toumani.
It’s been some wait, but a pleasure delayed and all that, and word has it that the ensemble recorded another album’s worth of tracks while they were in the Spanish capital. A fourteen month gap will be quite enough next time round then, guys.