Wednesday, February 22, 2012
ELIADES OCHOA guitar and vocals (born Songo la Maya, Cuba, 1946)
With his trademark cowboy hat and penchant for wearing black, Eliades Ochoa has been dubbed "Cuba's Johnny Cash." There's more than a fashion statement in the comparison to America's greatest country singer, too, for Ochoa is a "guajiro" (from the countryside) and a champion of rural Cuban styles such as son and guararcha.
One of the younger members of the Buena Vista Social Club, he has since become something of an elder statesman himself and has been a professional musician for almost half a century. For many years he was a regular at Santiago's famous Casa de la Trova, and, in 1978, he took over the leadership of Cuarteto Patria, a Cuban institution, which, by then, had already been performing for almost 40 years. He recorded two albums with the group for the Mexican Corason label and in 1986 met the veteran singer Compay Segundo, who joined Cuarteto Patria for a time. While with the group Segundo recorded the album Chanchaneando, which featured the original version of "Chan Chan."
A decade after their first meeting, Ochoa and Segundo famously reunited to perform the song as the opening track on the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club. To that album Eliades also contributed lead vocals on "El Cuarto de Tula" and his own guajira showcase on "El Carretero." Since Buena Vista, he has recorded several fine albums under his own name, including Cubafrica (1998) with the great Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango, Sublime Ilusión (1999), Tributo a Cuarteto Patria (2000), and Estoy Como Nunca (2002). He continues to lead Grupo Patria and tours regularly around the world.
TOUMANI DIABATÉ kora (born Bamako, Mali, 1965)
One of the most significant musicians in Africa, Toumani Diabaté is the leading exponent of the West African harp known as the kora. Born in Bamako, he inherited his musical gifts from a long family lineage of kora masters. A child prodigy, he recorded his debut album, Kaira, in London in 1986, at the age of 21. With his playing bass, rhythm, and solo simultaneously on the instrument's 21 strings, Kaira was the first ever album of solo kora music and the start of a remarkable international career.
As an innovative and experimental collaborator, Diabaté recorded the two acclaimed Songhai fusion albums with the Spanish flamenco group Ketama and has worked with Damon Albarn, Björk, and the London Symphony Orchestra. His collaboration with Taj Mahal on 1999's Kulanjan explored the connections between West African music and the blues and was cited by Barack Obama as his favorite album during the 2008 Presidential election campaign.
In the more traditional vein, Diabaté has recorded widely with most of the greatest names in Malian music, both on his own albums and as a guest on releases by singers such as Salif Keita and Kasse Mady Diabaté. In recent years, he has recorded a series of thrillingly diverse releases for World Circuit/Nonesuch, including two albums of kora-guitar duets with Ali Farka Touré, including the Grammy-winning In the Heart of the Moon (2004), Boulevard de l'Indépendance (2005) with his groundbreaking Symmetric Orchestra, and the acoustic solo kora collection The Mandé Variations (2008).
BASSEKOU KOUYATE ngoni (born Garana, Mali, 1966)
Descended from a long line of griots, Bassekou Kouyate was born in the Segu region of Mali, where his mother was a famous singer and his father was a celebrated player of the ngoni ba (banjo-like lute) on the local wedding party circuit. At the age of 16, Bassekou took his father's place, and by the end of the 1980s he had joined Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra.
Since then, Kouyate has revolutionized the playing of the ngoni, adding extra strings to give him a wider melodic range and inventing new plucking methods to allow faster runs and more versatility. He also became the first ngoni player to use the instrument like a guitar, performing on his feet, instead of in the traditional seated position. As an accompanist, he went on to record with a wide variety of performers, including Taj Mahal and Ali Farka Touré, before forming the ngoni quartet Ngoni Ba and making his debut as a band leader on Segu Blue, which won the 2007 BBC Radio 3 Award for World Music as Best Album. He followed it in 2009 with a second album, I Speak Fula.
KASSÉ MADY DIABATÉ vocals (born Kangaba, Mali, 1949)
The veteran griot singer Kasse Mady Diabaté began performing with the Super Mandé orchestra in his early 20s. He went on to become lead vocalist with Las Maravillas de Mali (later known as National Badema du Mali), a band famous for reworking traditional Mandé songs into a Cuban dance-band format. He recorded his debut solo album, Fode, in Paris, in 1989. An electric, dance-based recording produced by Ibrahima Sylla, Fode was followed a year later with a contrasting album of acoustic griot songs, Kela Tradition (1990). Kasse Mady Diabaté also sang on the fusion album Songhai 2 (1995) with Ketama and Toumani Diabaté.
After a decade in Paris, he returned to Mali in 1998 and joined Taj Mahal, Toumani Diabaté, and Bassekou Kouyate on the recording of Kulanjan and became lead vocalist with Toumani's Symmetric Orchestra on the 2006 album Boulevard de l'Indépendance. AfroCubism is not the first time he has worked with Cuban musicians, for the late Buena Vista Social Club star Cachaíto López guested on his 2003 solo album, Kassi Kasse. His solo album Manden Djeli Kan appeared in 2009.
DJELIMADY TOUNKARA guitars, (born Kita, Mali, in 1947)
Arguably the finest guitarist in Africa, Djelimady Tounkara was born Kita and grew up playing drums and the xalam (lute). His parents wanted him to become an Islamic cleric but the plan was abandoned as soon as he saw and heard his first guitar. After early success playing in the Kita regional band, by the mid-1960s he had moved to Bamako, where he joined Misra Jazz, before he was promoted to join the state-sponsored Orchestre National as rhythm guitarist.
After the orchestra was disbanded, Tounkara joined the now legendary Rail Band on its formation in 1970, playing at the Buffet Hotel de la Gare, next to Bamako's train station, in a line up that included the singers Salif Keita and Mory Kante. He remained the Rail Band's arranger and lead guitarist throughout its glory years and in its later revival as the Super Rail Band, and continues to perform with them in Bamako to this day. In addition to appearing on all the Rail Band's recordings, he has also released the solo acoustic albums Sigui (2001) and Solon Kono (2006), as well as Big String Theory (2002) with his trio Bajourou.
FODE LASSANA DIABATÉ balafon (born Conakry, Guinea, 1971)
Born in Guinea into a family of virtuoso balafon players, Lassana Diabaté moved as a young man to Bamako in the early 1990s. He has since become fêted as Mali's most gifted player of the 22-key xylophone of the Mandé griots, appearing on albums by Salif Keita, Bassekou Kouyate, and Kasse Mady Diabaté, among others, and has been a long-standing member of Toumani Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra. He also played on Kulanjan, Toumani's celebrated collaboration with the American bluesman Taj Mahal.
An innovator on his instrument, on AfroCubism, he can be heard playing two balafons tuned a semi-tone apart, extending the harmonic range of what is a fixed pitch instrument and allowing greater scope for improvisation.
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