Damon Albarn has just returned to London from a U.S. tour with his animated band Gorillaz, and he's currently finishing recording Blur's first studio album in three years. But there's something more important on his mind as he hangs out in the back office at Honest Jon's record shop. The shop, along the city's famed Portobello Road, has been known for decades as a place where "eclectic selection" is a massive understatement. A place where punk, reggae and singer-songwriters can be found shelved side-by-side, and world music isn't a cliched term but a definition for the store's entire stock.
The shop, an insider's legend for more than thirty years, is also the home of a new record label that bears its name and is co-owned by Albarn. The label's first release is Mali Music -- a collaboration between Albarn and a group of musicians from the Western African country of Mali he met on a trip there in July of 2000 on behalf of the anti-poverty charity Oxfam.
"They approached me as sort of being a goodwill ambassador -- which is basically a euphemism for someone who can attract a lot of press and not say anything," says Albarn. "I balked at that and said, 'Fuck it! I'll go to Mali as a musician, but not in a political context. If you can organize for me to meet a lot of musicians, then maybe I'll come out of the experience with some music in my head to make a record, and you can have all the profits from it.'"
Oxfam agreed, and Albarn spent weeks in Mali, trying to understand the country's native culture. "I was very fortunate that I was brought up more in the world of [native music] than I was in the Western pop tradition," Albarn says. "My dad bored me to tears with his Indian raggas and New Orleans blues when I was a kid. But like anyone, you wake up one day and think, I'm not going to fight my upbringing and make the most of it."
Albarn was introduced to Malian musicians who welcomed him into their world. "When I got to Mali I very quickly lost myself in the music," he says. "Everyone who I met knew that I wasn't there to take advantage. It made them feel more at home, and they were very open to the idea of collaborating."
Instead of bringing a guitar and trying to adapt the Malian music to his own style, Albarn brought only a melodica -- a wind piano that is blown into like a horn, and can often sound like an accordion -- a DAT recorder and an engineer. The normally in-your-face frontman -- he of battles with Oasis' Gallagher brothers and the rushing "woo-hoos" of "Song 2" -- found no immediate desire to join the musicians as they played all forms of their indigenous music. "The melodica, while very un-intimidating, is a very basic and somewhat abrasive instrument," he says. "It forced me to listen for a long while before I joined in."
Albarn amassed forty hours of recordings, playing with noted Mali musicians like Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate and Ko Kan Ko Sata Doumbia, the only woman playing traditional Mali instruments publicly. But he also jammed on street corners and in clubs and at private parties with musicians he simply encountered along the way. Once back in London he spent more than two years documenting the music and sounds he'd captured and contributing further bits and pieces to it, massaging and refining it with ProTools, constructing a unique and beautiful mixture of the traditional and contemporary.
"I used all these elements of this massive music that I experienced, and then I came to a sort of brick wall," Albarn remembers. "I realized I'd made this record but I didn't have any voices on it. The voices I'd recorded in the field -- I had no idea what they were saying, and so I was really resistant to chop them up and use them."
At the suggestion of his mentor, noted world music producer Nick Gold, Albarn sent the tapes of his self-described "ambient mess" back to Mali and asked Afel Bocoum to work on contributing lyrics and vocal melodies to the unfinished tracks. What came out of the further collaboration is an album of unparalleled success. While not attempting to create a bridge between Western music and its African origins, Mali Music does something similar -- it envelops the music of the people of former French Sudan in a warm, modern production style that treats the indigenous rhythms and melodies with respect, yet opens up the songs to pop appreciation. If you've never been a fan of "world" music, you can understand this. If you have been, it won't seem like a rip-off, and might deepen your understanding of the connection between the past and the present.
On "The Djembe," a slow, deliberate rhythm and Malian chanting is caressed by melodica and slight electronic flourishes that soften it into an almost-lullaby. "4 AM at Toumanis" introduces a bright string-picked and chanted melody that returns on later tracks "Le Hobon" and "Sunset Coming On," a more fully-formed song with Albarn's vocals (one of very few songs on the sixteen-track album to feature them) that could easily be a radio hit.
Mali Music will be released in the U.S. by Astralwerks Records on July 30th. Albarn performed music from the album with many of its musicians in London in late March and he hopes to assemble a tour, not unlike the Buena Vista Social Club concerts.
"There's obviously going to be a little bit of skepticism when you go against the grain," he says. "I was brought up in the wake of Band Aid, and even at that age I felt it was a little bit of a con. For me, if you're going to seriously get involved in someone else's well being, you have to understand them and be friends with them instead of throwing money at them."