The electronic musical project Dirtmusic is probably the only time that the tag “world music” may be used in the 21st century without sounding pretentious or pejorative. Lion City, the group’s second album in 12 months, is a rich, expansive album that is worldly in every sense of the word. Lion City is a rich and fully integrative experience that adapts cultural and musical differences between Mali, Australia, and the United States.
Dirtmusic’s members are American Chris Eckman and Australian Hugo Race. The project collaborates with West African artists, chiefly the afrobeat artist Ben Zabo and his band (who are labelmates with Dirtmusic). The Lion City samples are culled from the same sessions as the group’s mid-2013 album Troubles, which were recorded in Mali’s capital, Bamako. The synthesis of traditional Malian music and Western electronic rock might sound jarring, but Dirtmusic is successful in its acknowledgement and integration of the dichotomy through seemingly contradictory sounds and musical backgrounds.
There is a distinctly ambient atmosphere through the majority of the tracks that recalls the spaciousness of garage and dubstep artists. The darkness of Burial is a sure analogy, as seen on Narha, and the orchestrated compositional style of Illum Sphere comes forth in the opening track Stars Of Gao. A bass-heavy jive underpins the album (see Movin’ Careful), and Lion City gets pretty funky at times, especially in the lower end of the spectrum, and it’s almost Daft Punk-esque in some areas. In particular, the track Blind City recalls Random Access Memories in its groovy, fun times bass line. There’s a bit of an indie pop texture that belies Eckman’s Pacific Northwest roots in subdued electronic backbeats and moderately anthemic choruses, once again seen in Blind City. Winding, slightly Frippertronics-esque guitars add to the wordly milieu.
The most important and striking aspect of Lion City is that the Malian artists are at the forefront. They are not buried, nor are they used as the backdrop of some Westerner’s cultural panderings to the “other.” Eckman and Race have ensured the integration of these artists, and as such the tracks that highlight the Malian singers and musicians are by far the strongest ones – Aminata Wassidjé Traoré on Narha and Samba Touré on Red Dust, for instance. Members of Tamikrest also drop by.
That concept only falls apart on two tracks (Justice and Starlight Club), where the Malian influences are on the backburner, and the party feel of the songs contrasts with the sincerity and deepness of the more African-influenced tracks, requiring a suspension of disbelief that should not be demanded on behalf of the listener.
Lion City is a politically and socially charged album, facets which are difficult to separate from the cultural flashpoints of Western Africa. However, there is a pervasive sense of hopefulness for the future and change, not unlike the same messages exuded by the Los Angeles Chicano/African-American music of Las Cafeteras. It is starkly political: Red Dust focuses on an admonition to the listener, asking one to question their need to fight and compete with others. In other respects, Lion City is subtle; Clouds Are Cover’s ode to the Malian countryside reads as a speech to a lover. Lion City is a strong, viscerally stirring album and a true highlight of intercultural awareness in the contemporary music climate.