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In search of salsa blends ... in Africa

The continent inspired the rhythms, and its artists have fresh ideas. But teamings with Cubans have yet to pan out.

May 18, 2003|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

In 1996, two musicians from the African nation of Mali were expected to arrive in Havana for a recording session that never happened. The relatively unknown Malians were scheduled to work on an unusual Afro-Cuban fusion record, along with revered roots guitarist Ry Cooder.

As the story goes, the Africans had visa problems and never showed up. Stuck with studio time already booked, Cooder instead recorded with the traditional Cuban ensemble Buena Vista Social Club, a fortuitous fallback plan that produced the biggest-selling world-music record ever.

But now that the Buena Vista boom has deflated, it's worth posing a hypothetical question. What would have happened if the Africans had made it?

Perhaps the planned cross-Atlantic teaming would have turned the spotlight on African music, the primordial source of all salsa. Instead of Buena Vista, how about the Baobab or Bembeya Social Club?

As it turns out, musicians from Africa and Cuba have been quietly working together in recent years, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. A handful of recent albums by African artists include Cuban musicians in some capacity. Beloved vocalist and Buena Vista charmer Ibrahim Ferrer, for example, does a guest spot on the recent reunion album by renowned Senegalese group Orchestra Baobab. Cuban flutist Richard Egues, a founder of Orquesta Aragon, appears on one track of the latest work by entrancing Senegalese singer Cheikh Lo.

Obviously, these albums don't come close to the popularity enjoyed by Buena Vista. But with the international salsa scene losing steam, the African connection is now starting to look like the musical road worth traveling.

West African music is experiencing a revival, marked by the reunion of Baobab and another pioneering band, Guinea's Bembeya Jazz. To a fresh ear, these albums sound natural, warm and largely unspoiled by hype, the very qualities that attracted first-time listeners to the Buena Vista sessions.

That warmth and earthiness are just what salsa needs.

Salsa music and its stars have been popular for decades in West Africa, the region whose culture was transplanted along with slaves to the New World. And African musicians, especially from Senegal and Congo, have been producing their own brand of salsa in their native languages. It's a little more mellow than the Latino variety and, as imitations go, not as interesting.

So far, this Latino-Africa exchange has generally gone one way. When salsa was hot, that made sense. Now that it's not, it's time for Latinos to listen to what Africans have to offer.

Ultimately, it's all dance music. But African records still vibrate with a passion and soulfulness that have largely vanished from commercial salsa productions.

Like the best salsa records, the Africans still take time to lay down an irresistible groove, letting songs simmer and cook for as long as seven minutes, oblivious to radio formats. The percussion still has the feel of calloused hands on animal skin, not the processed drumming that ruined so much formula salsa. And there is still an emphasis on improvised solos, which have all but disappeared from mainstream salsa.

To salsa fans, styles such as mbalax or soukous may be unfamiliar and languages such as Wolof or Lingala may seem exotic. But somewhere in salsa's collective subconscious lies a pulsating memory of Mother Africa, the source of all Latin rhythms. So rather than imitating hip-hop and rap cliches, salsa artists might be wise to look toward Africa for renewed energy and purpose.

"To me, Africa is the cradle," says L.A bandleader Ricardo Lemvo, who grew up in Congo listening to New York salsa and is known for his African-influenced style. "Everything I do, I look to Africa for inspiration."

Occasionally, Latin artists have done the same. One rare and very promising example of a true Afro-Cuban fusion is the hypnotic rhythm called cha-onda. It was created in the 1980s by Cuba's Orquesta Aragon after working with African colleagues during a trip to Guinea.

Trying to experiment

The world still awaits a commercial and creative breakthrough in the form of a successful, full-blown Afro-Latin collaboration.

Today, London is the nexus for that fusion quest. Not surprisingly, the man at the heart of the cross-cultural effort is Nick Gold, the producer who organized the ill-fated Havana-Mali encounter for his London-based World Circuit label.

Passport problems aside, finding the right fusion is not as easy as it might seem. Contemporary pop music on both sides of the Atlantic may share the same African source, but the music of each region developed along very different paths after slaves transplanted ancient rhythms to Cuba. The styles are so different today, says Gold, that even the best Cuban musicians have a hard time playing on the African beat.

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