Damon Albarn clearly isn’t content with fronting Blur and being a mastermind of the hugely successful Gorillaz project. For his latest venture, the Britpop survivor has travelled to the West African country of Mali, been bowled over by its music, and brought back a coterie of Malian performers to play with him at London’s Barbican Hall.
Before the lights dimmed for this musical first, the stage was littered with a sea of instruments. The usual drums, keyboard and guitars were on one side- but the ones in the middle were the eye-catchers, with fantastic names like balafon, calabash and kora. When the musicians trooped on, Damon and his band were outshone by the beautiful costumes of their Malian counterparts – which set the tone for the whole performance.
Albarn’s latest vision is to capture the remarkable essence of Malian music and meld them together with contemporary Western sounds, and what followed was an interesting experiment in harmonising Africa and Europe. From the jollied-up instrumental opener Spoons, it became clear that there were two musical camps at work here- and it seemed the Malian musicians were playing second fiddle to the directing hand of the Brits.
The Malians managed to equalise when their fabulous, piercing vocals were raised above the level of a distinctly Western bass line- and the resulting fusion worked. But only when Albarn melted away to the back of the stage and allowed the Malians to take centre-stage did the performance really manage to tingle spines. Freed from their collaborative ties, the West Africans came into their own. They no longer looked slightly awkward when they were able to let their natural rhythm flow freely.
And what a sound they produced. Those captivating vocals, intensely-plucked strings of the kora and beefy percussion seemed to truly entrance the audience. Meanwhile, Albarn mooched around the stage in his vest, smoking the odd cigarette and chatting to his band mates. But he’s probably grown accustomed to playing with Gorillaz shielded by a screen.
Malian main man Afel Bocoum was by far the greater showman with his soaring vocals and an ability to pluck an ethereal sound from an acoustic guitar. As for Albarn, his musical contribution was peripheral for most of the evening. He was happy to stomp along to the rhythm, play a few guitar riffs, and clearly has an obsession with the melodica, which he zealously tooted.
He only merited centre-stage to play Sunset Coming On, singing his familiar cracked vocals building up to a riveting wall of sound – but owing far less to Mali.
This musical experiment was a measured success. The fusion pieces sounded good, but the Africans seemed musically hemmed-in. It was when they were given free rein to perform that the Barbican came alive and enthused the crowd. Hats off to Albarn for championing the rich bounty of Malian music- but next time I will seek it out without his assistance.