MUSIC / You can feel it in the mix: Afro-salsa? Strange, but true, as Philip Sweeney reports

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The Independent Culture
SCRATCH the surface of an African musician over 40 and you'll usually find Latin American corpuscles in his blood. This is not surprising, given the 50 per cent African input into the original Latin mix.

From the 1930s, all the Latin styles fashionable in Paris and New York were doubly so in Africa. What was the song composed by the great Zairean Joseph Kabaseld to celebrate the birth of his new nation in 1960? 'Independence Cha Cha', Salif Keita, king of Mandingo world-techno-funk, once sang in Spanish.

Over the last decade a handful of lonely African salseros have continued to ply their trade, but most young people haven't been interested. In influential Zaire, the Latin rumba base of soukous atrophied and the music hardened and speeded up. In Senegal and Mali, Youssou N'Dour's mbalax sound, Salif Keita's Mandingo funk and Abdoulay Disbate's electric Bambara rock dominated cassette sales.

If there is to be a Latin revival in Africa, the first blow has been struck in Senegal. Since last December, Africando, an album combining Senegalese singers with New York salseros, has been selling strongly in Dakar. Ibrahima Sylla, the Senegalese producer of Africando, is a Latin aficionado of long standing, having been weaned on the records of the great Cubans and Americans in the Sixties.

'I remember going to see the Johnny Pacheco Band with my father in Dakar stadium when I was 14,' he said last week. 'I became a devotee especially of Cuban bands . . . only the best . . . very, very classic. When I went to Paris to university, I began to buy Latin albums seriously. I've got over 6,000 now.' Sylla's entrepreneurial career was founded on this collection, duplicating cassettes of Latin compilations, at first for his friends, and then commercially in Dakar. Twenty-five years on, pressure from his old Latin-loving companions reinforced Sylla's determination to have a stab at a new Afro-salsa production.

Sylla approached two vocal veterans of the Dakar music scene, Pape Seck and Medoune Diallo. Pape Seck had fronted the seminal Star Band, founded in 1960 for Senegal's independence and responsible for the introduction of the little traditional tama talking drum into an electric group format. Youssou N'Dour succeeded Pape Seck as Star Band chief vocalist and Seventies recordings feature the future darling of the world music boom still singing in phonetic Spanish over an intoxicating mix of tama and conventional percussion. Medoune Diallo's background is similarly distinguished, as former singer with the Orchestre Baobab. Finally, Sylla engaged Nicholas Menheim, a young singer who has persisted with a salsa repertoire through the Eighties with his band Nico Star.

Sylla left the instrumental side to his regular associate, the Malian flautist, composer, arranger and bandleader Boncana Maiga. The Latin tradition in Malian music was boosted by educational aid from Cuba, and Maiga's early career was immersed in Afro-Cuban sounds: nine years at Havana Conservatory and the creation of Las Maravillas de Mali (the Malian Marvels). Maiga's brother-in-law, Ronnie Baro, former singer with the New York charanga band Orquesta Broadway, was largely responsible for recruiting the 19 top New York Latin musicians, including Eddie Zervigon, Broadway's leader and virtuoso of the five-key flute.

Africando's nine polished tracks combine classic charanga (flute and violin-led) and conjunto (brass-led) arrangements with vocals in Wolof. Diallo's and Menheim's voices are high and plaintive, Seck's is gruff and barking. The songs are based on Cuban song form. Often they are Wolof adaptations of well-known Latin numbers, as in the case of 'Doley Mbolo' which transforms the Gran Combo's 'La Eliminacion de los Foos' into a praise-song.

If one has a regret, it is that they don't go further, specifically back to the wonderful sound created by the Dakar bands at the point where, still retaining a Cuban base, they introduced local percussion and the agile multi-tonal tattoo of the tama. 'I wanted to bring a tama player,' Sylla said, 'but Boncana is a real purist - pur et pur. Next time, maybe.'

For all its classical restraint, Africando does create its own identity. No track does so more than Mdoune Diallo's lovely 'Gouye Gui', an old Orchestre Baobab hit currently going down a bomb in Dakar, particularly with a female audience. The piece builds slowly, dreamy piano, a haunting tenor sax, Diallo's plaintive voice recalling in a jumble of Spanish and Wolof the dances, the friendships, the heyday of the great Dakar band. Ninety seconds in, musicological considerations evaporate and you're hooked. Which spells success in Spanish or Wolof - and for Ibrahima Sylla, once again, in cash.