x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Africa Express up to speed

A trip to Mali by the musical collective founded by Blur’s Damon Albarn to record an album in October, coincided with the announcement by Islamists of a ban on music 
in the northern part of the country, John Robinson writes

Aliou Toure, left, and Bijou at the album launch of Maison Des Jeunes in London. Rob Ball / Redferns via Getty Images
Aliou Toure, left, and Bijou at the album launch of Maison Des Jeunes in London. Rob Ball / Redferns via Getty Images

Damon Albarn, one of the principal architects of Britpop, has spent the past 15 years doing everything in his power to escape his creation. True, there have been celebratory reformation gigs by his band, Blur, but in all his other musical activity, Albarn has moved far beyond chirpy, vaguely nostalgic rock hymning England’s green and pleasant land. He has collaborated frequently with the Nigerian drummer Tony Allen. He helps run what he scrupulously avoids calling a “world music” record label called Honest Jon’s, and has recorded in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, as part of a charitable collective called DRC Music. He has also written an opera in Chinese.

Most enduring, however, has been his relationship with west Africa. In 2000, Albarn went to travel and record in Mali to support Oxfam – an experience that with hindsight now seems to have served as his passport out of Britpop. The album he made on the trip (called Mali Music and featuring musicians including the world-renowned kora player Toumani Diabat’e) was clearly a eureka moment. Since 2000, he has largely abandoned bands for loose musical collectives. He hasn’t quite stopped writing songs, but the album also clearly whetted his appetite for collective composition of a less authored type. Even Blur’s last studio album, 2003’s Think Tank, began to incorporate African influence. It was all a long way from Parklife.

Mali Music was an interesting album, but today sounds very much like one made by an awestruck tourist, not a self-confident collaborator. It contains field recordings like Griot Village, which serves as a souvenir of Mali’s tradition of generational praise singing. There are self-explanatory tracks like 4am at Toumani’s, in which Albarn observes the scene as the kora player performs and tentatively sings. There are also moments such as Spoons, where the collaboration feels as if it has taken place only in a post-production sense. The most successful songs are recordings like Bamako City, which still stay very much within the city’s remit of melodic pop.

Albarn began Africa Express in 2006, with an eye to developing this kind of musical exchange. The informal collective’s first expedition was a visit to Mali by a troupe numbering Albarn, the dance producer Fatboy Slim, the folk singer Martha Wainwright and the UK singer/songwriter Jamie T. The idea was the same as on his initial visit – swift immersion, meaningful collaboration.

Since that time, varying permutations of Africa Express have held ad hoc musical summit meetings at the Glastonbury Festival, at major London concert halls and most notably (in 2012) at venues around the United Kingdom – when 100 musicians travelled together on a chartered train. There has been an Albarn-curated compilation album, but generally it’s all a more freeform business, across generation, nationality and genre. Africa Express events have attracted Paul McCartney to participate, as well as members of Led Zeppelin and The Clash. Their concerts have been known to last three hours. The more audacious the Africa Express project, the more successfully it seems to turn out.

Maison Des Jeunes is such a project. The personnel for this latest mission included Albarn, the producer and the ambient music pioneer Brian Eno, the rapper Ghostpoet, the producer Two Inch Punch (a Londoner named Ben Ash), and other musicians including Nick Zinner, the guitarist in the US band the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Among them, the delegates represented genres as diverse as alternative rock, hip-hop and post-dubstep. The British actor and musician Idris Elba was also along for the ride. Their plan was to spend a week in Mali, to assemble musicians in the Bamako youth hostel that gives the album its title and record enough material for an album. Clearly, though, they were shooting for something more significant than that. Participant Olugbenga Adelekan (the bassist in the British synth poppers Metronomy) published a journal about his experiences in The Guardian newspaper: “You could say we came here to make an album,” he wrote, “but we’re also here to document this moment in Malian music.”

At the time of the Africa Express visit in October 2013, this was not an auspicious moment. In May 2012, an alliance between the Islamist group Ansar Dine and the Tuareg MNLA declared northern Mali an Islamist state. Listening to music became a crime, while gatherings of more than 70 people were outlawed. The effect on music in the north of the country was self-evidently devastating. Musicians who had left the country preferred not to return, while many of those from the north fled south to Bamako, where a state of emergency was declared.

Such were Songhoy Blues. A stirring guitar band superficially in the vein of Tinariwen, they quickly decided to absent themselves from the north. Their song Soubour, produced (and contributed to) by Nick Zinner, is the lead single from the album, and with good reason: Zinner’s production is representative of the intuitive intelligence that lies at the heart of the collaborations we find there. It’s a process you might call “constructive interference”.

As a rule, producers here have offered suggestions to maximise what was already present. Brian Eno’s work with the Yacouba Sissoko Band is one such instance. With what was apparently gestural instruction, Eno guided the piece to the form it has been recorded. Listening to Chanson Denko Tapestry is like listening to a speedy and infinitely sophisticated piece of stringed machinery. It’s a thrilling piece.

The enjoyable Deni Kelen Be Koko by the Lobi Traoré Band develops the working practice. To the band’s surging and repetitive blues-guitar figures, David McLean (from the Scottish synth-poppers Django Django) adds delay and pulsing synth patterns – accentuating what was already there and taking it to a new place.

There are occasions where no overt interference seems to have been desirable. Damon Albarn produces two very different female vocalists: the dramatic singer Bijou’s Dougoudé Sarrafo and the warm and involving Gambari featuring Kankou Kouyat’e (here covering Yamore by the sometime Africa Express participant Salif Keita). Albarn, with apparent ease, creates a balance between the singers and the empathetic playing that accompanies them, adding synthesiser chords to the former, but otherwise leaving well alone.

It’s not hard to understand why the producers might tread lightly. Historically, African music has been co-opted by western musicians in ways that have not always been desirable. They’ve been fraught with ideological problems, like Paul Simon’s trips to South Africa to record his successful but controversial album Graceland. Meanwhile, in projects such as the 1981 Eno and David Byrne album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the music became a mere building block in a larger experimental structure.

Whether it’s the result of an increased familiarity with African music, or a more highly-evolved sensitivity among these musicians, the conditions under which this album is being made to seem to offer a far more meaningful exchange. You leave the collection appreciating a fusion of modern and traditional; digital and analogue, the interpreter and their environment. Adama Koita’s opening track Fantainfalla Toyi Bolo has been nipped and tucked intelligently by Two Inch Punch. Bouramsy by Lil Silva, a Bedford producer specialising in the immersive, soulful sounds of the UK funk scene is, meanwhile, a strong recipe from local ingredients. To a mixture of clattering looped percussion and found local melody, he adds his own melancholic synth. Though Silva seems to work as a lone wolf, his work is in the full open-ears spirit of the Africa Express enterprise.

These more radical, sample-based interactions with the environment are enormously successful. Ghostpoet is traditionally a fairly depressive, downbeat performer. However, Seasons Change, his track here jolts him – very nearly – from his torpor. His track is an impressionistic travelogue that hopes for political change in Mali. Two Inch Punch provides a production in which Ghostpoet’s sleepy ruminations (“Future’s bright … but I ain’t feeling it here …”) are soundtracked by beats from the drum band Doucoura, and by sensitive vocal hooks from Damon Albarn.

The best of the two hip-hop tracks, though, is Rapou Kanou by Tal B Halala, a Malian rapper. The piece, a previously available song delivered in irate French, showcases Talbi’s superior flow. It is Two Inch Punch’s bespoke production, however, that transforms it into something truly remarkable. A soundbed of evocative texture, the track is built from the nuts and bolts of room ambience and snippets of twinkling kora. It feels spontaneous and instantly puts you right there. The blend of documentary veracity and art on the hoof is surely what a record like this must be shooting for.

The Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell has said that this recent visit to Mali was “a form of solidarity”. A valuable goal, but holidays, even well-intentioned ones, can’t last for ever. The strength of Maison Des Jeunes is that it captures the experience like a snapshot. Its real achievement, however, is to make it feel substantial – something that will endure long after the musicians returned home.

John Robinson is the associate editor of Uncut and the Guardian Guide’s rock critic. He lives in London