Better known as the lead in British pop group Blur and the ‘virtual’ band Gorillaz, you’d expect to find Damon Albarn in London’s more fashionable watering holes. So it’s something of a surprise that he’s fetched up in Africa and, with a little help from illustrious friends, come up with an album as infectious and thoughtful as Mali Music. There’s none of the ‘exotica’ spirit that can affect such collaborations. Mali Music seems to come from a genuinely felt attempt to make links between musics: it lilts along to Toumani Diabaté’s kora, opens up the great dub expanse of experimental reggae and flickers through fado guitar licks and gently thought-out dancebeats. Recorded as part of Oxfam’s work in Mali, it is funded entirely by Albarn and all proceeds go to projects in the country.
The CD began life as a 40-hour tape made on location; recordings of village singing and ambient urban noise were carefully woven into the main series of songs and instrumentals. These were then subjected to 18 months’ worth of studio work, tapes and overdubs journeying between Mali and Britain. Given that, it’s incredible that Mali Music retains an air of spontaneity and space. Diabaté provides a kora riff that travels through 15 tracks. Singer Afel Bocoum turns ‘Bamako City’ into an atmospheric, stripped-down affair that evokes a wide sensuality. The tracks where Albarn himself is most apparent – ‘Spoons’ and ‘Sunset Coming On’ – are perfect, bittersweet summer songs. But the genuine thrill is getting to hear ngoni-player and singer Ko Kan Ko Sta Doumbia. This spirited woman is one to watch.