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Afel Bocum, Damon Albarn & Friends : Mali Music

A skilfully avoided faux-pas[/i] landmine...

Afel Bocum, Damon Albarn & Friends : Mali Music

6 / 10 Damon Albarn has a face for every occasion. Be it grinning cheeky Britpop
monkey boy, tearful lover or two-dimensional cartoon character, his great
virtue is to be able to change his musical persona as often as he changes
his clothes. Now here's a face you've maybe not seen before - it's the face
of earnest Damon, a bit less Chelsea Football Club, a lot more Buena Vista
Social Club.

Born of an Oxfam-sponsored visit to the African country of Mali a couple of
years ago 'Mali Music' is a pretty strange album. Partly comprised of field
recordings, it's the story of a journey where Damon, accompanied only by a
melodica, would witness Malian musicians like kora player Toumani Diabate at
work, then have a bit of a jam with them. Which Duke Of Edinburgh-like
faux-pas landmine skilfully avoided, the tapes journeyed between his studio
and Mali for two years, being tweaked all the while.

As such, the album feels ever-so-slightly like a compromise. Obviously
determined not to have the whole thing come across as a tawdry bit of
cultural tourism, Albarn is painstakingly faithful to much of the material
he recorded. Which is fine, of course, but his largely hands-off approach
deprives us of what might have been a more engaging fusion of the parties
involved. The tracks which work best here do, after all, feature Albarn
jumping right in there with his contribution: 'Sunset Coming On' uses the
kora as a backing track, but ultimately sounds like something from Blur's
'13', while on closer 'Les Escrocs' he adds some mournful "Sha-la-las",
which make the mood his own. 'Le Relax', on the other hand, sounds a bit
like The Sabres Of Paradise.

Elsewhere, as on the likes of 'Kela Village', this is by and large a
polished rendering of some musicians from another country going about their
work, and as enjoyable a document as that is (the kora's a pretty hypnotic
thing and there's some lovely singing), these other tracks offer a glimpse
of what might have been. No-one ever said Damon Albarn was afraid of being a
bit patronising, but it seems on this occasion, Damon Albarn was maybe
afraid of being a bit patronising.

It's surely for the best. Some musicians get some proper recognition. Albarn
breaks another market, while in the world of 'world music' - you don't have
to be WOMAD to work there. But it can sometimes help.

John Robinson

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