The Senegalese love affair with Cuban music is nothing new. It goes back to at least the 1940s, and reached spectacular fruition in the pan-African sound of Orchestra Baobab in the ‘60s and ‘70s and the revival band Africando starting in the ‘90s. But as Senegalese bassman/vocalist Alune Wade and nimble-fingered Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa demonstrate on Havana Paris Dakar (World Village, 2015), the formula of fusing Afropop and Afro-Latin sensibilities still has legs.
The opening track “Aminata” delivers what we expect, a snappy Cuban groove with Senegalese-tinged vocals. But then the mix gets more adventurous with a cover of the Cape Verdean classic “Petit Pays” (made famous by Cesaria Evora) rendered beautifully as Wade harmonizes and trades verses with Sara Tavares. Other less-than-obvious covers include Salif Keita’s “Seydou” and the Algerian rai classic “Yarahya,” including the collaboration of Moroccan maestro Aziz Sahmaoui. The Congolese anthem to colonialism’s bitter end, “Independence Cha Cha,” also gets a lively read.
The guiding approach here is urbane and jazzy. The artists respectfully treat these songs as the standards they rightly are. But though the sound is almost too polite, the soloists, including members of Orquesta Aragón, can definitely kick out the stops when they need to, and López-Nussa’s piano chops are superb and tasty throughout. Wade’s silky vocal is clear and precise, and at times reminiscent of Youssou N’Dour’s voice. There’s also real originality and dynamism in the arrangements. Most of all it’s a welcome surprise to find such talented artists exploring the Afropop canon so broadly.