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African Legends

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Africando
By Christina Roden

Published November 17, 2006

In the autumn of 1992, the influential Senegalese producer Ibrahima Sylla arrived in New York City accompanied by Boncana Maïga, a much-revered Malian flautist/arranger. Their upcoming project would develop into Africando.

Also along for the ride were three of Sylla’s singing countrymen. Two were seasoned veterans—Medoune Diallo’s liquid tenor had once fronted Orchestra Baobab while Pape Seck’s gravelly basso profundo had graced Star Band de Dakar. Young Nicholas Menheim, a Super Etoile de Dakar alum with a florid, robust baritone, rounded out the trio.

Africando resulted from a series of intersecting histories and fortunate confluences. Maïga had once been an exchange student in Cuba, where he formed a band called Maravillas de Mali and married a local woman. Sylla owned thousands of salsa albums and knew the genre inside-out. Both men understood that Latin music was based upon rhythms imported into the Caribbean by slaves from the Continent and were actively involved in re-Africanizing it. So it seemed to them that the time was ripe for an encounter between two long-estranged but parallel scenes, to re-seal a broken circle from source-to-source.

With assistance from Maïga‘s brother-in-law, Orquestra Broadway singer Ronnie Baró, they recruited some of New York’s finest Latin musicians, including Adalberto Santiago, Yayo El Indio, Sergio George, Jose “Chombo” Silva, Eddie Zervigon, Hector “Bomberito” Zarzuelo, Johnny Torres, Bobby Allende and Papo Pepín. Communication was a problem, so poly-lingual participants were drafted as translators (Maestro Maïga was fluent in French, Spanish, Wolof and Manding) while Baró rushed about teaching everyone their parts via the International Phonetic Alphabet. After an initial summing up on both sides, the entire roster realized that they were making history and the good times, lubricated by 150-proof rum, rolled.

Africando’s first two releases, Trovador and Tierra Tradicional, created a sensation. One tune, “Yaye Boy,” even crossed over into the New York Latin charts but this triumph was mitigated by the untimely death of lead singer Pape Seck. Even so, demand continued to grow. Other African superstars like Gnonnas Pedro (a longtime member who died in 2005), Sekouba Bambino, Amadou Balaké, Thione Seck, Lokua Kanza, Salif Keita and Koffi Olomide, were induced to sit in. The band’s musical vocabulary also expanded: the original Cuban and Puerto Rican grooves were joined by Mexican and Colombian styles. Some interpolations have been more successful than others but even so, Africando is a joyfully audacious and inspiring success-story-in-progress.

Recommended Recordings

Volume 1: Trovador (Stern’s)
Volume 2: Tierra Tradicional (Stern’s)
Africando Live (DVD) (Syllart/Sono)

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