AfroCubism: Malian kora legend breaks music barriers

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Story highlights

Kora master Toumani Diabate is one of Africa's most famous musicians

His newest band, AfroCubism, blends together the sounds of West Africa and Cuba

The long-awaited band received a Grammy nomination last year for "Best World Music Album"

Diabate's mission is to keep the sound of the kora alive

CNN  — 

In the star-studded world of supergroups, where musical acumen and bloated egos often co-exist, it’s not unheard of band members to not talk to each other.

But in the case of AfroCubism, the all-star band consisted of renowned Malian and Cuban musicians, the reason for the group’s lack of verbal communication is much more straightforward: the band’s members simply don’t understand each other’s language.

“We cannot even speak together on stage,” says kora maestro Toumani Diabate, one of Mali’s premier musicians and a member of AfroCubism. “Music has created its own language – it’s the music message, and I think the message is true to the audiences [and] to the world also at the same time.”

United by the universal language of music, the members of AfroCubism, which also include legendary Cuban musician Eliades Ochoa and Malian griot singer Kasse Mady Diabate blend the desert-inspired sounds of West Africa with Cuba’s soul-stirring grooves.

For Diabate, one of Africa’s most revered musicians, this is not the first time he fuses different sounds to break down musical barriers. The masterful musician is well-known internationally for his daring and innovative musical partnerships – his long list of collaborators include Damon Albarn, Bjork and the London Symphony Orchestra.

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“The fusion is to give and to learn,” says Diabate. “This meeting is like fighting but in a positive way. The old musicians from Mali, the old stars, it’s like, ‘OK, I’m here, I’m playing,’ and the Cubans also say the same. So, we take care of our culture, they are taking care of their culture…so we put the both music together to become a new music.”

Yet, this cultural crossover took years to become a reality – back in 1996, a group of Malian musicians were invited to Havana to record with Cuban singers and musicians. The musicians from West Africa, however, never made it to Cuba – visa problems, lost passports or better-paid concerts elsewhere have all been cited as reasons over the years.

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With a studio already booked, the album’s producers decided to carry on with the project, using the talents of some of Cuba’s greatest musicians, many of whom were retired or had been long forgotten. The resulting album, the now-famous “Buena Vista Social Club,” went on to become a global hit, winning several music awards and selling millions of albums.

But some 14 years later, the Malian and Cuban musicians finally got a chance to play and record together in Madrid, Spain.

Their 2010 long-awaited studio offering received a Grammy nomination last year for “Best World Music Album.” The band is currently on their second North American tour, spreading their vibrant sounds to new audiences.

On stage, Diabate’s masterful playing shines though as he brings the unique sound of the kora, a 21-string harp-like instrument from West Africa, to the forefront.

“I tried to open a new door for the kora in the world,” he says. “Today, I’m very happy the kora can fit on electronic music, fit in folk music, blue grass, it’s fantastic.”

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An ambassador for West African music, Diabate has won two Grammy awards, while his first album, “Kaira” – which he recorded in 1986 aged 21 – is regarded as the first ever solo kora album and remains a best-seller to this day.

His mission today is to keep the thrilling sound of the kora alive, expanding its reach beyond the continent.

“Cuba and Mali, we are two number one culture countries in the world,” says Diabate. “In the 1960s a lot of countries in Africa got their independence and we had a very good relation with Cuba – musicians from Mali were taken from Mali, going to Cuba to study how to write and to read the music – not to play the music because we already knew how to play the music – and we still have this kind of relation still running about culture and style.”

Watch: Malian kora master Diabate at work

Diabate says AfroCubism songs prove once again that music has the power to bring people together.

“We are singing about love, we are singing about peace, we are singing about understanding and respect and spirituality,” he says.

“They [Cuban musicians] are happy 200% in what they are playing when we play together and we, from Mali, are happy 200% too – we are enjoying, we are playing and then audience sees more and you can see in the face of the audience – [they are] happy, very happy, dancing, enjoying themselves.”