Review: AfroCubism Revisited @ Islington Assembly Hall (London, 23rd April 2017)

The concept behind the AfroCubism collaboration is to celebrate and unite some of Mali and Cuba’s hottest musicians and to explore their shared spirit of Afro-Cuban soul. In the Sixties, socialist Mali politics had close links to those of the new communist Cuban government, creating strong ties between the two countries. As a result, Cuban music became very popular in Mali. Additionally, the musical influence brought via the movement of Africans to the Caribbean in previous centuries means they now share a common rhythmic language.

AfroCubism Revisited is the second coming together of this collaboration, hosted at Islington Assembly Hall, a stunning art deco gem in North London. It seems fitting that the entrance is decked with a red carpet to welcome the guests.

The musicians certainly live up to the stature of the building. Only Bassekou Kouyaté (n’goni master) remains from the original line-up but he brought musical royalty with him in the form of Senegalese kora player Seckou Keita and Cuban musicians Yelfris Valdés (trumpet), Piki Bosh (guitar) and Hammadi Valdés (percussion). 

A smug, clued-up crowd looked on knowing they were due to be impressed as the set started with gentle birdsong.  The delicate braiding of kora strings from Keita with the nimble trumpet call gathering all the musicians on stage.

As the artists announced “just feel free to do what you want to do” they played the biggest crowd pleaser in the first half, Cuban folk song ‘Ai Vaiven De Mi Carreta’, a sultry tune that describes life in the Cuban countryside.  Yelfris Valdés stunned the audience with his horn solos as his romance and melodic ingenuity woo the senses in ways you can’t predict.  The heat was rising and the acoustic modulating sound of Bassekou Kouyaté’s n’goni animal skin connected the audience more closely, transporting them to tropical, faraway lands.

Each musician had their time to shine, and as always Keita painted the air with many shades of colour.  He invited the audience to escape the darkness with his solo piece ‘If Only I Knew’, where his charm brightened the hall like an impressive chandelier.

The second half of the show showcased the Afro-Cuban rhythms that both Cuban and Malian musicians adorn so freely. The floor started to shake and the rocking glitter ball added an injection of old glamour. Hammadi Valdés kept an impeccable dancing groove that gave no room to hide for your left foot. The crowd went crazy as the infectious beat for ‘Guantanamera’ started, singing loudly from the top of their lungs as they sashayed around the room.

This was a gig where, from the very first minute, mouths were agape and feet shuffled unwittingly.  Not only was the music beautifully crafted but each musician is a world leader in their instruments.  This evening was a marriage of spirituality, ancestry and skill and one that I would revisit over and over again if I only had the chance.