You can say what you like about Damon Albarn, but nobody can accuse of him of being lazy. As well as the still ongoing concern that is Blur and the phenomenally successful cartoon side project of Gorillaz, now comes a collaborative effort with several Malian musicians.
The result probably won’t appeal to the Britpop buyers of Country House, and will certainly leave cold the pre-teens who lapped up Clint Eastwood, but one gets the feeling that’s the last thing Albarn’s concerned about, having promoted the project on BBC Radio 4 and BBC2’s Newsnight, to say nothing of his musicOMH interview.
This seems like a particularly personal project for Albarn. When he visited Mali two years ago at the request of Oxfam, he was armed with a DAT recorder and a melodica and promptly fell in love with the music he encountered there. This album is the result of some 40 hours of jamming sessions with local musicians. Albarn brought his recordings back to Britain and edited and mixed the music, and then sent the tapes back to Mali for extra vocals and instrumental passages to be added.
The temptation is to label him the new Paul Simon, but one listen to Mali Music confirms that this isn’t Graceland Part 2. Whereas Simon took elements of African music and incorporated them into his own sound, here Albarn comes across more participant than bandleader.
Spoons is an excellent, if untypical, beginning to the album. An atmospheric instrumental, laced with stately piano and Damon’s familiar vocals intoning “yeah, yeah, yeah”, it’s more reminiscent of the Gorillaz album than the dusty townships of Mali. However, after Spoons, Damon takes a back seat and lets the Malians take centre stage.
Bamako City is an infectious song, built on a heavily percussive background with some impressive vocals. The live aspect is kept to the forefront, so much so that you can almost smell the carnival atmosphere on some tracks.
The songs here seem to be divided into the traditional Mali Music of the title (such as Nabintou Diakite and Niger, which showcases Afel Bocoum‘s marvellous way with an acoustic guitar) and the more Westernised tracks. You can argue all you like about the merits of diluting ethnic music to be more digestible to a European palate, but it does work fantastically here.
In particular, Makelekele begins in a very traditional way with African vocals to the forefront, before a viscous guitar kicks in and all manner of Chemical Brothers-style bleeps and bloops take the track over. It should sound horrible, but is actually quite exhilarating.
Similarly, Sunset Coming On could have sat quite easily on Blur’s finest moment, the 13 record, and not sounded out of place. A mournful, slightly uneasy ballad featuring the melodica motif that seems to wind round many tracks here, it may not sound particularly African, but is a definite highlight.
It’s easy to sneer at Albarn’s earnestness about his new project – indeed some sections of the music press castigated him after his return from Mali, dubbing him the ‘new Ali G’. However, enthusiasm is no crime, and if some of Albarn’s contemporaries were as open minded as he is, the music world would be a much more intriguing place. As it is, if a few people are tempted to further explore this inspiring, uplifting music, his journey won’t have been wasted.