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Music that Round Trips Between Africa, Cuba and Spanish Harlem

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Back in 1992, dancers at Latin clubs found themselves spinning, quick-stepping and swinging their hips to a new song that had easily slipped into the skein of tunes that carried them across the dancefloor, but there was something distinctly different about it: the vocals, the lyrics.

The band responsible for "Yay Boy," the first salsa hit sung in the west African language of Wolof, was called Africando and was the brainchild of African producer Ibrahima Sylla and arranger Boncana Maiga, who teamed New York salsa players with west African singers to create a new chapter in the long history of music traveling between Africa and Latin America, including the barrios of New York City.

What is now popularly known as salsa incubated decades ago in Cuba, where African slaves melded rhythms and percussion of their homeland with European melodies and instrumentation. The music, with its distinctive clave heartbeat rhythm, evolved through a variety of styles, popularized beyond Cuba's borders in part through the pre-Castro nightclubs of Havana.

The crossover popularity of what was called mambo, in part, filled a void for dancers in America who moved away from jazz. In Africa, this "imported" music was re-adopted like a long-lost child, and re-imagined by dance bands throughout western Africa to create genres such as Congolese rumba and soukous.

While Africando's success was powered by its unusual popularity among salsa fans, it also rekindled interest in the world-music community for its newly minted hybrid of Afro-Cuban music. The band became a franchise of sorts, with a changing lineup of African front men (though vocalist Shoubou is from Haiti).

Viva Africando is the group's eighth album and the first to be recorded outside New York City (visa problems for Sylla led them to Paris). The group's powerful, crackling-with-energy sound happily remains the same, while the song selection has diversified a bit. I have always felt that the Africando albums, with their bright beats, partying horns and sweet vocals, are a great place to start for people who are unfamiliar with salsa, but curious to give it a try.

Fast-moving songs such as "Ma Won Mio," and "Destino," urged on by the horn section, remain the irresistible calls to get up and move that got Africando its dance floor following. Pushing into other corners of the Afro-Cuban musical landscape, the group takes up the sweeter, gentler sounds of danzon, the half-forgotten elegant dance genre that pre-dates salsa and mambo.

On "Maria Mboka," the honeyed vocals of Lokombe Nkalulu and silvery guitar of Dizzy Mandjeku evoke the unhurried swing of Congolese rumba that charmed west African dance clubs decades ago, and has become the province of modern-era revivalist band Kekele.

In a tip of the hat to another hybridizer, the band does a sweetly swinging medley of a few Santana hits on "Noche con Santana," which sees the return of flute player Eddie Zervigon.

To further close the circle of musical movement between continents, the album closes with a tribute to Africando by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, whose leader, Oscar Hernandez, has been a long-time contributor to Africando's efforts.

Sadly, producer Sylla recently passed away in his adopted hometown of Paris, where he was responsible for hundreds of popular releases that defined contemporary African music around the world. As a young man, he reportedly amassed thousands of Latin albums and the clave beat insinuated itself into many of his productions throughout his widely varied career. Though his death was barely mentioned in the American press, his contributions were remembered both in Africa and Europe. This album was his last production, and Africando remains a tribute to his passion for the Afro-Cuban musical legacy and his contribution to continuing that cycle.

Africando's first hit, performed live with dancers:

Slightly cheesy video, and not sure why they show the violinist during flute solos, but nice showcase for the group's vocalists: