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Pop star showcases African music

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Robin Denselow
By Robin Denselow
BBC Newsnight reporter in Mali
line
It's just after midnight in Bamako, the capital of the west African state of Mali, and a wildly ambitious new band are giving their first ever public performance.

British singer Damon Albarn and members of his Gorillaz band have joined forces with some of the finest musicians in Mali to perform songs from their new album.

There are no crowds here to check them out, but that's hardly surprising. The only publicity for this show is a small handbill on the wall outside.

A Malian musician and Damon Albarn
Malian music first inspired Albarn in 2000
Albarn is delighted. The frontman of Blur and co-founder of Gorillaz can't have played to such a small gathering for years. He is positively bouncing with enthusiasm.

"We only got the posters up a couple of hours ago, as we weren't completely sure there would be a show until then. But it's so good to be playing in Africa for the first time," he said.

Surrounding him on the low stage is an unlikely assortment of musicians and instruments.

There are Malians with balafons (traditional African xylophones), njarkas (tiny desert fiddles), and harp-like koras and banjo-like ngonis.

Around them are young westerners with guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and electronics.

The small crowd sweltering in the midnight heat may not know it, but this is an important night for Albarn.

Culture clash

There are just four days to go before this new band performs at the Barbican in London. They will be playing songs from the forthcoming album, Mali Music, and there have been problems.

Damon Albarn
Albarn: convert to world music
Albarn has to prove that Gorillaz-style beats and electronics really can be matched with virtuoso African acoustic playing. It hasn't proved easy.

The pounding Makelekele is one of the most rousing songs on the forthcoming album, and should have been a key element of any live set. But it had to be dropped from the show because the African singers found it impossible.

Then there were personnel problems. Albarn had persuaded many of the finest musicians in Mali to join him, including Diabaté, the world's most celebrated kora player.

But Diabaté had attended scarcely any of the rehearsals. There was speculation that he had pulled out, almost until the moment when he finally arrived - after the show was meant to have started.

Triumph

But the first ever Mali Music performance was something of a chaotic triumph. Some songs needed far more rehearsal, but on others the heavy drum'n'bass and stomping electronics worked well against the African instruments.

And the Albarn effects were not allowed to dominate throughout. Almost half the concert was given over to the Malian stars, performing by themselves.

"I feel like a Luddite joining in with all that," confessed one of the Gorillaz afterwards.


The amazing thing about West Africa is you can hear all the components of western music

Damon Albarn
Albarn may seem an unlikely convert to world music. But since starting out with Blur as a chirpy mockney hero of 1990s Britpop, he has been expanding his musical horizons at an astonishing rate.

His first trip to Mali came two years ago, at the invitation of Oxfam, to whom he is donating his royalties from the Mali Music album.

Albarn enjoyed his stay. Some western musicians who come to Mali hear echoes of the blues, but for Albarn it was different.

"I'd just spent two months in Jamaica making the Gorillaz album, and what I locked into here was the sound of reggae. The amazing thing about West Africa is you can hear all the components of western music."

Musical fusion

Back in the UK he took the tapes he had recorded to his studio. Albarn added new melodies, beats and effects to some of the tracks. He then sent his tapes back to Mali, where his collaborator Afel Bocoum added more vocals and instrumental work.


There will be a lot of sniping from the world music police

Michael Nyman
So the album is not just Albarn's treatment of local styles, but also a Malian treatment of what Albarn had done.

During the week, as the musicians rehearsed in the sweltering heat, they were watched by a small group of Albarn's friends including the composer Michael Nyman.

"There will be a lot of sniping from the world music police, and some will be suspicious of anything that Damon does that goes beyond being a rock musician. But he has a magic trick of shaking Albarn fairy-dust over every project.

"Crossover collaborations depend on how much respect you give to the musicians with whom you are collaborating, and his respect is very genuine."

Mali's greatest singer, Salif Keita, also approves. He is encouraged that western musicians come to Mali.

"I like what Damon Albarn is doing. He listens to our music out of respect," he said.

"Every day I play with these musicians I feel that just one London show would be a waste. But there's no agenda. It could turn into something else, " Albarn said.

"I'm a working musician and if there's anything that sets me apart, it's that I work hard... I'm not a good musician - not good with my hands - but I have something and I'm trying to make the most of it."

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The BBC's Robin Denselow
"Albarn was bouncing with enthusiasm"
See also:

25 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Mali
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