Damon Albarn Crafts a Cross-Cultural LP in the Congo

The Brit-pop king jams with locals in Kinshasa, one of Africa's poorest cities

Simon Phipps
Damon Albarn jams with locals in Kinshasa
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On Damon Albarn's fifth day in Africa, things were looking up. The Gorillaz and Blur leader was in downtown Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, spearheading an ambitious weeklong collaboration between Congolese musicians and English and American producers. As he sat at the mixing board listening to a group of Batwa pygmies singing about their forest home, Albarn nodded his head exuberantly. "All right!" he shouted over the din. "It's starting to come together!" And then, as if on cue, the power went out. "Oh, for fuck's sake," he said, smiling despite himself. "We're trying to make a record!"

Just another day at work in Congo. Resource-wise, the central-Africa nation is one of the richest on Earth, with a staggering $24 trillion in estimated mineral wealth. But thanks to a heartbreaking history of colonial oppression, homegrown dictatorship and a bloody civil war that took more than 5 million lives, Congo's citizens remain some of the poorest in the world.

But listen to the country's music, and you'd almost never know it. Congolese music is a joyous, spirited affair, emanating from seemingly every corner and overcrowded apartment. In the six days that DRC Music, as the collective dubbed itself, spent in Kinshasa, it saw instruments made of everything from rusty coffee cans to oversize gourds to the kind of industrial tubing you'd find in the back of a washing machine. One percussionist had nothing but a plastic bag full of beans; another boasted an impressive junk-heap drum kit with an oscillating fan cover for the snare. "It took me two hours to make," the drummer, Cuba, said. "I've been playing it for 10 years."

Albarn's idea going in was simple: "We wanted to get these different cultures together and just see what we could create." The goal was to make an entire record in under a week; proceeds from the album, titled Kinshasa One Two (out now), benefit the aid organization Oxfam International.

Every morning, musicians would gather at the studio – a hot, cavelike space at the French Cultural Institute – and jam for 30 or 45 minutes at a stretch. The producers would disappear into a war-room-like command center to edit what they'd heard on their laptops and iPads. At the end of the week, it had somehow come together as a beautiful whole.

Among Albarn's crew were producer Dan the Automator and Richard Russell, head of U.K. indie XL (home to Thom Yorke, Vampire Weekend and Adele). But the locals were the real stars of the show. Take the wiry, Coolio-haired smooth talker Love, who was officially the group's escort but ended up being a natural on the mic. Or the black-leather-clad, glowering N'Gotshima – an (if the locals are to be believed) actual bank robber, whose band Gwata Vibra Brutal were his accomplices. As Cuba said, "Everyone plays music here. Everyone."

On the last day, Albarn visited a school built from Oxfam donations. He was polite and engaged, but he didn't seem too excited. "I kind of hate all that," he admitted later, referring to Bono-style glad-handing. "Do-gooder stuff. It makes me uncomfortable because it isn't really real. But when you've got musicians sweating together, learning together – music, that's real."

This story is from the November 24, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 1144: November 24, 2011