YOU HAVE to admire his nerve, if nothing else. In between existing musical commitments to Blur and Gorillaz, Damon Albarn is going global with his most ambitious — and potentially disastrous — album yet.
Responding to a request from Oxfam, Albarn flew to Mali in the summer of 2000 to record 40 hours of music with local luminaries. He then tinkered with the tapes for months in London.
Happily, the result is no bland exercise in superstar musical tourism. With additional studio work by the fêted Malian singer and guitarist Afel Bocoum, Albarn and his Gorillaz team have shaped their raw material into a mellifluous, atmospheric, ramshackle collage of genuinely fresh cross-cultural compositions.
Several tracks serve as loose travelogues of Damon’s trip to Bamako, Mali’s capital. The sinewy dub reggae of ‘Le Relax’ is the name of a restaurant, for example, while the sleepy-voiced singalong jam of ‘The Djembe’ pays homage to one of Bamako’s buzzing live music clubs. Traditional West African xylophones, banjos and harp-like koras ring from every lopsided groove. Catchy motifs resurface many times.
Mali Music also launches Honest Jon’s, Albarn’s new roots music label, and he is donating all the royalties earned to Oxfam.
One of the album’s most refreshing aspects is its lack of typical Damonisms — no music-hall mockney gurning, no cartoon Ali G hip-hoppery. Albarn confines himself mostly to plaintive kindergarten melodica and abstract vocal mumbles. Only on ‘Sunset Coming On’ does he risk a full lyric, crafting a sublimely sorrowful lullaby in latter-day Blur mode.
Any flaws in Mali Music are there for the right reasons — no experiment can be perfect. But Albarn has audadously embraced a new continent of sound that dwarfs any of the parochial scene-makers in post-Britpop London. He sounds humbled, inspired and commendably out of his depth. Respect, for once, is due.
© Stephen Dalton, The Times, 13 April 2002