Cast your mind back to 1996 for a moment. A group of old-school Cuban musicians are assembled -- with some help from Ry Cooder -- for a recording intended to introduce the rest of the world to classic Cuban music. The resulting Buena Vista Social Club album -- aided by a documentary about the process -- becomes a worldwide phenomenon, inspiring an unprecedented degree of interest not only in Cuban music, but international music of all kinds. A brilliant idea works out perfectly, right? Sure, except that this wasn't actually the original plan. Initially, World Circuit Records' producer Nick Gold had planned for Cooder and the Cubans to be joined by lute player Bassekou Kouyate and guitarist Djelimady Tounkara, two of Mali's finest musicians. At the last minute, the Malians were unable to secure visas to travel to Cuba for the session, and the agenda was re-jiggered. Fast-forward 16 years into the future -- the plans for that original Cuban/Malian crossover are finally realized with the recording of Afrocubism. And this time, not only are Kouyate and Tounkara on hand, interacting with an all-star cast of Cuban players like singer/guitarist Eliades Ochoa and percussionist Jorge Maturell, but there's an additional batch of Mali's finest, including renowned kora master Toumani Diabaté and innovative balafon player Lassana Diabaté (no relation to Toumani). But Afrocubism shouldn't be viewed as some sort of alternative-universe version of Buena Vista Social Club -- it has its own very singular sonic identity. The most immediately striking element is the way the tumbling riffs of the Malians -- particularly Kouyate and both Diabatés -- seem to fall so naturally into the percolating Cuban polyrhythms underlined by Maturell and elaborated upon by Ochoa. There's a lot of listening going on in both camps, and an obvious musical empathy between them. Whether they're playing more Malian-leaning compositions like Djelimady's "Nima Diyala" (where Lassana makes amazing use of dual balafons tuned a semitone apart) or a Cuban classic like the late Beny Moré's "La Culebra," the Afrocubism ensemble puts a whole new slant on the "Afro-Cuban" tag, making for a true musical meeting of minds between the two cultures.
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AllMusic Review by James Allen