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Reviews: Harold Lopez-Nussa, Richard Bona, Gawurra, Stee Downes

Richard Bona and Mandekan Cubano, Qwest/Warner

4 stars

Heritage, by Richard Bona and Mandekan Cubano

While explorations of the nexus between Cuban and West African music — most notably 2010’s AfroCubism, which brought together Buena Vista Social Club alumnus Eliades Ochoa and Malian kora marvel Toumani Diabate — have yielded notable releases, world music and jazz buffs still await the ultimate album linking those fecund cultures.

Richard Bona and his new band, Mandekan Cubano, and pianist Harold Lopez-Nussa and his sidemen tip a hat to AfroCubism and Buena Vista while expanding the frontiers of 21st century Afro-Cuban collaboration with more singular and ambitious albums. With El Viaje, dual Cuban/French citizen Lopez-Nussa integrates the West African vocalese of Senegalese singer Alune Wade with elegant and sinuous Latin-jazz piano chops.

US-based Cameroonian Bona takes a funkier and less cerebral approach with Heritage, an album closer in essence to those produced by Afro-Cuban bands Los Van Van and Irakere. Inviting comparison, Wade and Bona sing in a similarly soft falsetto style and play energetic electric bass guitar lines. Both records showcase superior piano and percussion playing. In his mid-20s, Lopez-Nussa shows sufficient invention and talent as a pianist to be cited alongside Cuban keyboard giants Ruben Gonzalez, Bebo Valdes, Chucho Valdes and Roberto Fonseca. There’s refreshing originality and daring in El Viaje, plenty of rhythmic variation and expansive soloing.

Heritage adheres closer to a Cuban dance template, albeit viewed through the prism of Bona’s African sensibilities. A title track that translates to The Journey is representative of Lopez-Nussa’s latest release.

Combining the leader’s sublime ivory tinkling, mellow trumpet and soothing vocals, this wistful work expresses the pianist’s yearning for Havana while travelling elsewhere. Me Voy Pa Cuba quickens appreciably in tempo to facilitate fearless riffing from the young maestro. Furious piano flurries flow in Mozambique En Mi and Duna Fa Bula. In Heritage, Bona acknowledges more overtly the influence of Cuban son, especially so in Bilongo, a revamped Buena Vista song. In the self-composed Kivu, to a lulling piano progression from the admirable Osmany Paredes, this multi-talented muso shows he can sing bolero with the subtlety of the Social Club’s Ibrahim Ferrer.

Tony Hillier