Damon Albarn And The Honest Jon’s Revue: Uptown Rankin’

OH DEAR. Damon Albarn is at it again.

Just when you thought that maybe a nouveau Chinese opera was as far as his fervent and fertile imagination might wander – he’s now gone and got New York’s rather dignified Lincoln Center to stage something called the Honest Jon’s Revue. It is, for all intents and purposes, a showcase for his brilliantly ideological little boutique “world music” record label of the same name.

Yes, Damon is, indeed, at it again. Bless him.

Now, it would be fairly ponderous to attempt to trace intensively the development of world music as a branch of modern pop. But it is perfectly reasonable to peg it to the aftermath of punk – which makes more sense than might be at first obvious. Colonization, for its sundry ills, did allow that British youth grew up with Africans and Jamaicans as a part of their Empire – they were brothers and sisters, of a sort. Punk may have sounded like a bloody racket, but its purveyors had been keenly nurtured on reggae and dub. (Something which was paid rather sardonic tribute in the lyrics to the The Clash’s ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’)

But punk didn’t just unleash the fury of a disaffected youth on a bleak post-post-war Britain – its most important legacy is that it flung open a Pandora’s Box of creative proclivities. ANYTHING went after punk, and bands sought inspiration from China, Egypt, Africa, Jamaica and even Motown (Detroit, of course).

It also makes perfect sense that Damon Albarn should now find himself as world music’s latest and greatest champion and impresario. Blur’s raison d’etre was veritably the laceration of white middle class culture, Damon going all Evelyn Waugh on the insipid pre-Millennial yuppie class. With that task thoroughly complete, his proclivities also ran amok: the wildly successful cartoon band Gorillaz (otherworld music, if you will), that aforementioned Chinese opera and The Good The Bad And The Queen album with Paul Simonon, Tony Allen and Simon Tong – which was a lengthy ode to the peculiar, poly-ethnic soul of West London.

That same West London, the Portobello Road to be more precise, has also been home since 1974 to Honest Jon’s, a passionate and treasured indie record shop selling vintage jazz, soul and reggae recordings, a shop that (as a hangout for punks and Rastas alike) epitomized its neighborhood – which has for more than forty years hosted the legendary multi-cultural street festival Notting Hill Carnival (also immortalized by The Clash in ‘White Riot’). Back in 2002, Damon partnered with Honest Jons to create an eponymous label, which was launched with Mali Music, an album veritably documenting his time spent amongst his new friends in that African nation’s music community. It was the sort of earnest affair, bereft of any real commercial considerations, that solidified Damon’s anti-popstar intentions.

Now he’s bringing together an astonishingly eclectic collection of musicians under the banner of Honest Jon’s Revue at New York’s eminent Lincoln Center on July 12th, for what promises to be a perception altering evening. Joining Damon, amongst others, are soul singers Simone White and Candi Staton, Malian guitarist-vocalist Afel Bocoum, mythic Kamalngoni (harp) player Kokanko Sata, “Bambara Bluesman” Lobi Traore, legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, and NYC’s own Hypnotic Brass Ensemble.

The Lincoln Center Festival, to its great credit, has, in the past, presented culturally wide-ranging programs. But there’s something particularly brilliant about Damon Albarn taking its stage with such a magnificent group of out-of-the-mainstream music luminaries; he, the guy who lampooned bourgeois cultural motivations in Blur songs like ‘Country House’ (“He’s reading Balzac/Knocking back Prozac”). Which only more sharply portends that, on one glorious New York summer evening in July 2008, he, along with his estimable musical collaborators, will once again be at the forefront of a whole new way of seeing (and hearing) things.

So, I’m watching the BBC News this morning, and they say that the inflated food prices are going to last another decade, effectively fucking the world’s poor for another…decade. Interesting, but it’s almost like what you’re doing now can’t help but be politicized, in a way.

“Oh, god yes! It’s really odd – just everything at the moment kind of…well, I started doing this Chinese opera two years ago, and now it’s ridiculously political. It’s a Buddhist opera performed by Chinese. It’s so odd! But I don’t know, maybe it’s impossible if you really put yourself out there to not…I mean, I don’t do it deliberately…”

Well, you’re not storming the barricades.

“No! Not at all. I think just having that desire to understand what makes the world tick gives you a perspective which I suppose inevitably becomes political.”

Do you see what you’re doing now as a natural progression from having lacerated white middle class culture for long enough – and this is your sort of reward, to get to move on to something more widely encompassing?

“Well, um…(laughs)…yes! (laughs again). I don’t know if I did anything that willfully. But two big things changed me in my career – the first was going to America, and the second was going to Mali. The latter had an immense effect – to just be amongst that level of genuine poverty, but be able to see it through positive eyes.”

Your first trip to Africa, and the resulting Mali Music CD – you got some criticism for being naïve. But isn’t that sort of naivete underrated in art?

“Well, that was a correct criticism, actually. It was like going back to kindergarten for me, in a way. I do think it’s important to maintain a balance between a sense of history, the [cultural] language, and a certain naivete.”

Who do you think has the high ground? There are people trying to live pure, simple lives, while surrounded by unbelievable poverty and being subjected to Medieval human rights abuses; then there’s us, who claim to be the enlightened ones – and we’re raping the Earth and so on. I’m never sure who…

“Who is right?”

Or who has the high ground.

“Well, we certainly don’t. And I’ll tell you why – because [through colonialism] we’ve imposed that sort of duality on Africa, an exploitation that continues to this day. In the West, we’ve created an endgame, which is based on an ever-accelerating greediness. You really get the sense that, when the time comes that there is no more food and money left, even in the West, their sort of optimism and humility…”

That will save them, and we’ll be fucked.

“Well, yeah! They know they can survive like that. But how are we going to lower our expectations, and become less greedy, and rediscover a sense of community? But we just will not address it – something that inevitably we have to do. We have to stop…”

Wanting everything.

“Wanting everything! We have to stop expecting breakfast, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, supper, late night snacks…”

We’re all turning into Henry VIII.

“Exactly! We are!”

But the Honest Jon’s Revue, in a way, is about that old idea of community.

“Yeah, it is. And this is the first time we’ve ever tried to do something like this.”

With The Good The Bad And The Queen, it seemed to be less about creating an entity than just capturing a moment. Is that what you’re trying to do with the Honest Jon’s Revue?

“Very much, yes – it will be about this moment in time, that hopefully people will take something away from. It’s certainly going to be interesting!”

Is it going to be fairly improvisational?

“Sort of rehearsed improvisation. We do want there to be some sense of us putting on an actual show. But at the end of June, we’re all going to meet up, including all the Malians, at this place called the Tabernacle, which is close to where the shop is. It’s sort of our spiritual home, our center; and we’re going to try and get it together. We’ve got a lot of ideas about how we’re going to construct the evening. But with all these kinds of things, they usually end up being completely different to what you imagined them to be.”

Why is Honest Jon’s, the label, the Revue, important to both you and us right now?

“Why is it important? Because, well…I think it still believes in the future [of people], and not a lot around does, really. Everyone seems to be so self-obsessed.”

Which is maybe okay if your heart is in the right place.

“Well, Missionaries’ hearts were in the right places, and they did an awful lot of damage. It’s not necessarily something to trust. Bono and Geldof’s hearts were in the right place, but I can’t help but think that they’ve separated the Continent [of Africa] even further away from us. It’s just not the right message to be sending out, loads of wealthy rock stars on stage with images of dying children as a backdrop.”

Ultimately, do you hope that the Honest Jon’s Revue will have a particular resonance and relevance in these times, and inspire some sort of meaningful enlightenment?

“I do hope it’s relevant. I hope it inspires a genuine dialogue that bridges identity. Honest Jon’s is all about making vital connections and linking ideas. In the evolution of mankind, it’s important to get back to the origin right now, to the essence. And that’s very much what my path in life is about now.”

© Ken ScrudatoFilter, June 2009

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