Afel Bocum, Damon Albarn & Friends : Mali Music

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

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