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Monday, 15 April, 2002, 09:09 GMT 10:09 UK
Albarn's Mali mission
Damon Albarn (left) in Mali
Albarn was asked to become an Oxfam ambassador
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By Michael Hubbard
BBC News Online

Before helping create the phenomenon that is Gorillaz, Damon Albarn was best known for fronting indie pop band Blur.

But when Gorillaz hit the music scene , featuring rap, dub, Buena Vista Social Club's octogenarian front man Ibrahim Ferrer - and all fronted by a cartoon band - the world sat up, took notice and bought the record by the million.

Yet his film soundtrack collaborations had already quietly suggested that Albarn was open to music of different genres and from many regions.

When he travelled to Mali for Oxfam's On the Line project, his most ambitious music project yet was to begin.

"I was approached by Oxfam to go to Mali as their ambassador and get involved in their various initiatives out there," he explains, "but I felt that was missing the point of using me, a musician."

"I'm not really one of those people who believes that if you're a musician you can just leave that behind and start getting into politics," he adds.

I hadn't wanted vocals on it because I didn't understand what anyone was singing about!

Damon Albarn
"So I went back to them and said that I'd rather go and meet the musicians and see if there is some kind of common link that I could develop something from."

Oxfam set up chances for Albarn to meet and play with Malian musicians and the experience worked.


"I just listened and talked and occasionally joined in with my melodica," he says, sounding rather proud.

"I played it on the last few albums I've made and it's just become my instrument of choice. In the context of Mali music it worked really well. It's a very simple instrument and it sonically fits in, for some reason."

He recorded his collaborations in Mali and returned to his London studio with more than 40 hours of music.

"I spent two years figuring out how I could turn it into something that would satisfy me as a musician but also make some kind of cross-cultural link," he says.

Damon Albarn
Albarn hopes Mali Music will kickstart the Honest Jon's label
One of the people he asked the advice of was Nick Gold, of respected label World Curcuit, who listened to the album and suggested more vocals were needed.

"But I hadn't wanted vocals on it because I didn't understand what anyone was singing about," he reasons.

"I didn't want to sample vocals just because they were fun. I wanted them to make sense."

The answer lay in Mali music master Afel Bocoum. "I didn't meet him in Mali the first time I was there," he recalls.

"He got involved with it when it was sent back to Mali and was given carte blanche to add vocals and violin."

New label

The final result is released through Honest Jon's, a new label set up by Albarn and two men he calls his "mentors".

"I wouldn't have been into Mali music in the first place without the encouragement of Mark and Alan at Honest Jon's [a west London record shop].

"To me it made perfect sense - a good record shop should be able to put out good records. It's a bit like what Rough Trade [leading London indie record shop and music label] was in its early days."

And signing world artists to a label is, for Albarn, a process that other labels haven't been getting right. He wants Honest Jon's to change this.

Damon Albarn
Britpop days: Damon Albarn in 1997
"When you're doing a deal with someone in the southern Sahara, it's a very different way of doing business than in London.

"You can't sign them in the usual way because they'd end up getting ripped off, which would defeat the object of setting up a label like this."

When quizzed why he didn't just sign up the Malian artists to Honest Jon's in their own right, rather than involve himself in the music, he is keen to defend his role in creating Mali Music.

"I made this record off my own back, so it's an important record for me personally. I feel that I kind of at least touched on the possibilities of cross-cultural music, but it is a lifetime's work and I don't profess to be anything other than a novice at it.

"But if you're going to promote African artists then there needs to be an impetus - and that's what this record has been, I think."

See also:

28 Mar 02 | Reviews
Mali music leaves Albarn behind
31 Mar 02 | Reviews
Mali Music: Your views
25 Mar 02 | Newsnight
Pop star showcases African music
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