Not for the first time, Damon Albarn here enterprisingly helms a project exploring the interactions between a variety of musical cultures. If his Mali Music album felt like a laudable but tentative and skeletal gesture, Kinshasa One Two is a grander, more expansive operation, involving numerous contemporary Congolese artists and a raft of producers from the worlds of pop and electronica. Of the latter group, some are familiar (the predictable presence of Dan The Automator and the welcome presence of both XL records manager and Gil Scott-Heron producer Richard Russell and the ever inventive Actress). There are, however, also some lesser known names here that many listeners will be approaching for the first time (Rodaidh McDonald, Kwes and Jneiro Jarel among them).
Perhaps as much a defining characteristic as the diverse cast list is also the time constraint under which these recordings were made. Everything was recorded in Kinshasa over five days during July, although it is not entirely clear how much, if any, post-production work was completed elsewhere at a later stage. It’s certainly clear that this collaborative venture retains an appealing sense of risk, uncertainty and adventure and a good deal of spontaneous interaction that transcends any communication barriers.
The music here definitely works best when this spirit of interaction is at the forefront, with potentially disparate musical ideas serving to complement and enhance each other. There is a superb section at the heart of the collection that brilliantly exploits the relationship between the vocal execution and phrasing of the Congolese musicians and the rhythmic impetus of the production team. Lingala is perhaps as refined and restrained as it gets here, little more than a rhythm track and the vocals of Bokatola System and Evala Litongo, but it has energy, forward motion and attack in abundance. Equally special is Lourdes, every bit as insistent but fleshed out with a little more detail.
There are occasions, however, where the two groups on this project do not appear to be gelling quite so effortlessly. We Come From The Forest, again featuring Bokatola System is, with its chorus of thumb pianos, much more recognisably Congolese. The production role here, however, appears to be a good deal more invasive, with occasional swooshy sound effects that seem like casual afterthoughts. Similarly, the opening Hallo, one of the few tracks to feature Albarn as a frontline vocal presence, is a little too close to the frothy electronic pop offered by Gorillaz.
Nevertheless, the whole project is a very commedable exercise, not least because all proceeds will go to support Oxfam’s work in the DRC. There is a brilliant spirit of synergy and openness on tracks such as Customs and Ah Congo. Much more austere and foreboding than the traditional music of the region (there is more than a hint of UK bass music informing these edgy, mechanical moments), these highlights also somehow retain something of the DRC’s resilience and sense of musical celebration. It is a very neat balancing act.