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Richard Bona review – Cuban-African fusion hits a bright groove

The world music vocalist reveals his remarkable singing skills in an evening of coaxing dance rhythms and exultant percussive clamour

By John Fordham for The Guardian

 

For over two decades, the Cameroonian singer-songwriter Richard Bona’s gifts as a world music vocalist of enchanting grace, and his dazzling sideline as a great bass guitarist, have powered a unique fusion of west African music, pop, jazz, Cuban, Brazilian and Caribbean grooves. And somehow, he has continued to stir up the most rousingly communal music without ever seeming to hit anything hard or raise his remarkable voice.

Bona and his new Mandekan Cubano group – a sextet devoted to reappraising Africa’s influence on Cuban rhythms – did just that on the first of their two nights in London. A cruising Cuban chant was first invitingly warmed by gently goading trombone and trumpet riffs and the clatter of timbales. Dennis Hernandez’s muted trumpet line danced coaxingly around Bona’s falsetto on the ensuing ballad, and the first of a string of sparkling piano breaks from the superb Osmany Paredes opened in clipped jazz phrases and sly trills and built to percussive chords.

The group exuded the amiable understatement of an old-school Havana restaurant band on a bright groover built on tight brass counterpoint and brisker vocals of bustling accents and wild yodels. The radiantly smiling leader shared a jokey call-and-response with the audience before an exultant finale of horn hooks and percussion clamor. The only downside was that Bona tightly rationed his bass-playing firepower – but putting the vibe and meaning of music before any kind of grandstanding is always his guiding light.