Mali Music

Mali Music (Astralwerks)

Without ever hearing the record, it would be easy to scorn Damon Albarn's Mali Music project. The Blur frontman traveled to West Africa toting a "battered" melodica, jammed with some of Mali's premier musicians, and then returned to his London studio to reconfigure the sessions into a multitracked collection of remixes. Hot on the heels of Bono's much-publicized African tour with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Paul O'Neill, one wonders if we really need another arena rocker slumming it in the Eastern Hemisphere.

It would be easy to heap derision, that is, if the resulting album weren't so damned good. (For skeptics in need of further convincing, the proceeds from Mali Music go to benefit Oxfam's charity efforts in the region.) As it turns out, "dubbed down" doesn't necessarily equal "dumbed down." Instead of producing a whitewashed version of West African music, Albarn has come up with a dynamic reflection of the quirks and complexities of globalism.

Fittingly for a record from Mali -- where the sound of the American South has made its way into the playing of local musicians such as Ali Farka Touré -- neither rootsy traditionalism nor pomo collage prevails. "Spoons," which opens the CD, juxtaposes melancholic barroom piano with wheezy melodica and Albarn's mopey humming, its cinematic mood invoking Venice or Paris far more than any African clime. "Bamako City," which follows the lead track, builds on a foundation of plunky finger piano and heavy dub bass, as the droning vocals of Afel Bocoum (a longtime collaborator of Touré) and his female backing group, Alkibar, twist like vines around the structure, shrouded in a fog of guitar feedback. The rest of the album deftly navigates these sorts of trade-offs. "Makelekele," a traditional tune for which new lyrics were written, hardly sounds like something from the songbook of Mali's oral historians, the griots -- it's a rousing, chorus-driven affair thick with metallic drumming, chattering guitars, and a pile-driving bass line. Similarly, "Niger" anchors drifting guitars and pretty chanting with dub reggae's rocksteady bass -- a reminder of the many ways that Afro-Caribbean music has impacted popular sounds around the globe.

It may be a truism to say "It Began in Afrika," as the Chemical Brothers recently stated, but Mali Music does a fine job of suggesting the way that Africa's and Europe's musical histories -- and, surely, destinies -- are intertwined.

 
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