Early in the 1960s a remarkable co-operation brought together musicians from Mali and Cuba who created a distinctive fusion sound. Las Maravillas de Mali achieved recognition and popularity very quickly, but turbulent political changes in Africa intervened and the group broke up.

Now they have reconvened, led by the sole surviving member of the original lineup, Boncana Maiga.  He is a distinguished figure who moves around the stage slowly but with an easy grace fitting the rhythms perfectly.  He effortlessly directs the fourteen strong ensemble to produce some of the liveliest music you will have come across for a while. The rhythms and melodies seem both familiar and unknown at the same time, evoking memories of hazy nights listening to the Buena Vista Social Club and catching bits of Malian music late at night when Andy Kershaw was still allowed out to play.

This performance is full of joyful music, but seems a bit stumbling in its presentation.  The reconstituted band have yet to fall into an easy familiarity with each other, understandably since they have only recently hit the road.  They could have done with an MC to introduce them to Norwich, where familiarity with French and Spanish is yet to be universal.  This led to a few confusing moments when the audience were pressed to sing or clap along with what was happening on stage.  The stout yeomen of Norfolk are not easily persuaded to adopt the rhythm of anywhere else on the planet, so some interesting outbursts of clapping near my seat could best be described as individual efforts.  This does not reflect on the genuine enthusiasm and warmth shown to this well honed band by tonight’s theatregoers, who clearly loved the music and in some cases knew it well.

My quibbles aside this was a thoroughly enjoyable performance that reminds us that there is a big world out there and it is full of great music. The four lead singers are not young, and have absolutely no need to show off, but each are masters of their craft.  Boncana Maiga, the founder of the ensemble, is joined by Florent Alapini Atoyebi, aka Jospinto and Juan Hurtado. After a while we are introduced also to Mory Kante Valero.  Get your search engine on all these lads.  All of the players are good, but one or two stood out for me.  David Bencomo Guedes is stunning on flute, and Jose Rivero (Pepe) on piano is bursting with energy.  Musical director Felipe Cabrera Cardenas is musical director and bass-wielder and the only female member Nahomi Guerra Mayan plays viola and dances rather nicely along with other band members.

If festivals are to survive this is just what we need – a joyful evening of world music within walking distance of home.  Why waste those air miles when such splendour comes to Norwich?  I look forward to their return to this fine city.

© Julian Swainson 2019


More here: https://nnfestival.org.uk/whats-on/las-maravillas-de-mali/