Missionary of Sound
Words: Stephen Dalton / NME
Damon Albarn’s pan-global pop dream is falling apart, live onstage, right before his eyes. It’s the end of a steaming hot week of all-day rehearsals in Bamako, the capital of Mali, and Damon is attempting the debut public marriage of local musicians and his Gorillaz band. Three weeks ago this Grammy-nominated groove machine was playing arenas across North America. But the audience at Mali’s Institut National des Arts, a concrete barn in Bamako’s dusty downtown, barely tops 100. Damon has not played to a crowd this small since Blur were called Seymour.
Meanwhile, his band is in tatters. He has already lost Gorillaz bass player Junior Dan, jailed in Milwaukee on an ancient drugs and firearms charge. Local legend Toumani Diabate has only agreed to play his harp-like kora at this shambolic public rehearsal after days of backstage bartering. Diabate apparently dislikes how Damon has used his work on the Blur frontman’s latest collaborative album, ‘Mali Music’, claiming he was not even informed it was being released. Oh crikey. Everything’s going Jackanory.
Diabate’s rivalry with other musicians on the album, whom he considers his social inferiors, is another factor – Mali’s centuries-old music scene is riddled with so much tribal snobbery it makes even the Britpop wars look tame. It is still highly debatable whether Diabate will board the plane to London for a Barbican gig, just five days away. The same goes for the entire Malian contingent after their visas went missing somewhere in this huge landlocked nation’s bottomless pit of corruption, red tape and backhanders.
As the show unravels into chaos, Damon flashes a terrified grin at your NME reporter. Behind his matey manner lies a deep suspicion that we are in Mali to rubbish his music and confirm his ‘serial prat maker’ reputation. He’s wrong – we actually came to celebrate his most fresh, soulful and open-minded album to date. But the paranoid voices inside Damon’s head are louder than any logical, balanced argument. And getting louder by the minute.
Mali is one of the poorest countries on earth, but musically one of the richest. The sinewy Saharan blues of Salif Keita, Ali Farka Toure and Diabate are already famous far beyond the patronising marketing niche of ‘world’ music. On the day NME arrives, Bamako is also the hottest city on the planet, with temperatures topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit. We are wearing a polar fleece, much to Damon’s amusement.
Barely two hours after touching down, we are in an open-air music club, the Djembe, a riotous place commemorated on ‘Mali Music’. A young band hammer out breakneck rhythms while a steaming drunk Damon gets seriously jiggy on the dancefloor. Welcome to Bamako.
Blur and Gorillaz are unknown in this largely Muslim country, although Osama bin Laden enjoys bumper sticker status. During his stay, Damon is offered a gigantic sword by a street vendor who says his ambition is to “bomb George Bush”. And recent global events, claims Damon, gave the Mali album fresh impetus.
“After September 11, I felt I’ve got to raise my arm as high as I possibly can,” he says. “We are living on the brink of extinction! People are so desperate to be heard outside of America that they’re doing things like that. America rules our planet. We are all servants of America.”
Damon is cynical about First World intervention in Africa, even by charities. So when Oxfam initially asked him to front a documentary about their work in Mali two years ago, he turned it down.
“I just balked at the idea, to be honest,” he nods. “I thought, ‘it makes no sense to me, it’s not going to mean anything to anyone and it’s going to do more harm than good.’”
Instead of playing the celebrity spokesman, Damon agreed to make a musical contribution with the Mali album. Oxfam introduced him to a gallery of local musicians during his initial eight-day visit in July 2000, and Damon returned to London with 40 hours of field recordings to edit and reshape in the studio. The resulting album is an inventive fusion of high-tech and lo-fi, Afro-techno and Studio One dub, with Damon’s plaintive melodica and dreamy vocals mostly eclipsed by his African collaborators.
Even so, ‘Mali Music’ will inevitably be seen as a pop star vanity project in some quarters.
“Well, I don’t see myself as a pop star, I see myself as a proper musician,” Damon sniffs. “I don’t play many notes, but I do play with my heart.”
Well, OK. Of course, if Damon was simply the globe-trotting “musical odd-job man” he claims to be, Oxfam would never have invited him to Mali and EMI would not be distributing the album. To some, Damon’s African experiment may seem like his latest desperate attempt at post-celebrity reinvention. But whatever his personal motivation, ‘Mali Music’ is one of his most genuinely soulful and innovative albums yet – imagine an African ‘Gorillaz’, or a post-rock ‘Buena Vista Social Club’.
Cass Browne, formerly of the Senseless Things and Delakota, is Damon’s deputy and mouthpiece both in Gorillaz and Mali. He insists that ‘Mali Music’ is more than just a cheap holiday in someone else’s mystery, and bears no relation to the whole Sting/Peter Gabriel school of sterile ethnic crossover.
“The aesthetic that it’s been put together with is still quite a ragged, lo-fi, almost punk attitude,” insists Cass. “It hasn’t been precious.”
Composer Michael Nyman, another friend and collaborator of Damon’s, is also out in Mali and defends Damon against potential charges of musical colonialism.
“He’s not relying on the Mali musicians to resuscitate a dead, stale, MOR composer,” Nyman argues. “There’s a certain childish glee with what he does, but also a total respect for musicians who are obviously, in the virtuosity department, light years ahead of anything he’d ever do as a performer. He recognises that and doesn’t exploit it.”
The dapper Malian singer and guitarist Afel Bocoum, essentially the frontman of ‘Mali Music’, pinpoints Damon’s nature succinctly.
“Damon is very proud,” smiles Afel. “But onstage, he is not proud. He is not the boss there, he’s just a musician.”
The Mali album also launches Damon’s latest non-Blur venture, a label offshoot of his favourite local record shop in Portobello Road, Honest Jon’s. Run by shop owners Alan Scholefield and Mark Ainley, with Damon as third partner, the Honest Jon’s imprint aims to showcase everything from Asian hip-hop to sound system reggae to 1950s calypso.
“Honest Jon’s has been my library for many years now,” says Damon. “It’s a fantastic shop. All we’re trying to do is make it a fantastic record company as well.”
Scholefield and Ainley are also in Mali for the rehearsals. Mark admits that signing a deal with Damon’s corporate paymasters at EMI is:
“definitely a pact with the devil, but for good reasons. If we can do it on our own terms as much as possible, then it’s plausible. But this couldn’t happen without Damon.”
Of course, EMI will continue to bankroll Damon’s side projects as long as Blur and Gorillaz remain profitable. In fact, the loop-and-sample bedrock of both ‘Gorillaz’ and ‘Mali Music’ has apparently influenced the new Blur album, which is largely written and due for completion this summer. But after three years of hugely successful extra-curricular ventures, surely Damon will now find Blur a creative straitjacket?
“Not at all,” he states carefully. “But you know, when you’re young you get involved with different people for different reasons than when you’re slightly more grown up. I still love Graham, I still love Alex, I still love Dave, and we’re making our best record yet.”
Damon is back on the defensive for NME’s official interview on our final afternoon in Mali.
“For me, this is as exciting as punk,” he proclaims of ‘Mali Music’. “This is the first time I’ve felt I’m part of something that’s really going to change music. End of story. End of interview.”
“End of interview,” Damon scowls.
Oh dear. Last night, in a super-tacky Essex-style nightclub full of boozy bonhomie and teenage prostitutes, Damon could hardly have been friendlier. But after an all-night session of hardcore whisky abuse he is in volatile, Jekyll-and-Hyde mood. Welcome to the Buena Vista Anti-Social Club. End of interview?
“Yes,” Damon snaps. “I’ve talked to you, and we’re going to hang out, but that’s it. Unless… unless you feel that I haven’t answered all your questions.”
Does Damon think NME is here to attack him?
“Look, let’s not be naive about this,” he sighs. “I’m trying to get a message across. I’m not here to f***ing talk about myself, I’m here to talk about how exciting and fascinating and positive being in a country like this is.”
Us too. But Damon is making this very hard. He seems to feel NME has flown 3,000 miles and spent four days in Mali as part of some sinister ongoing feud – all based, apparently, on being mocked and caricatured at the peak of Blurmania back in the last millennium.
You are very paranoid, Damon.
“I’m not paranoid! I’m not paranoid!” he snaps. “It’s not paranoia. It’s a frustration at not being able to get ideas across which I feel are important. I’m not very articulate, that’s all.”
Hmmm. We always had Damon down as a highly articulate and sussed pop politician. Look how easily he swings from tongue-tied innocent to media-savvy art yob.
“Listen, mate. I don’t want to blow my own trumpet but I had the singer of The Strokes kissing my feet at the Brits, alright? That’s a fact! The singer from The Strokes kissing my feet! And a nice bloke he was too – when he got up. Hur hur!”
Before long, Damon is on the attack again, re-opening old wounds.
“Shall I tell you the problem with NME? The Strokes. Very good example. Really good band, nice melodies – they’ve got everything required at that age to make good music. But you know, they’re not the only good band in the world, and as soon as they make a mistake, you bury them. And they will make a mistake. We all make mistakes. We’re humans. But as long as you’re striving – we should all be striving towards excellence.”
Righty ho, can we press on now?
Eventually, after several false starts, icy silences and a bizarre pause to throw himself in the hotel pool, Damon relaxes enough to discuss ‘Mali Music’.
“Malian music in on fire at the moment and it’s set to make the same kind of influence that Cuban music has in the world,” he gushes. “I just was very lucky to be here at the right time.”
‘Mali Music’ was funded by Damon himself, with every penny of his royalties going to Oxfam. Respect. How much is he motivated by white liberal guilt?
“I don’t feel any liberal guilt at all because I’ve been working so hard,” he says. “I got over that one, actually, in my list of paranoias. With a little help from the Gallaghers, I got over that. Thanks, lads.”
Pardon? How do the Gallaghers figure in all this?
“I don’t need to say any more, do I? That’s the end of that comment.”
But we didn’t understand it.
“Well,” Damon smiles, “enjoy its ambiguity.”
Charity element aside, ‘Mali Music’ definitely ranks among Damon’s most creative, ego-free, commendably ambitious works to date. But however noble his intentions, he must admit there is a fundamental perception problem when Europop millionaires appear to use the Third World as a source of musical Viagra.
“Yeah, but let’s not beat around the bush,” Damon says. “There is a fundamental problem of perception around anything someone like me does, you know? And I’m not going to reiterate things I’ve said a million times in NME. Get over it, and just f***ing listen to the music. Just get over it.”
We are over it, Damon. In fact, NME had a fantastic time in Mali. We heard some incredible, awe-inspiring music. We even met an off-duty Damon who was charming, energetic and funny – although his on-duty self was paranoid, stroppy and condescending.
Damon Albarn has made possibly his best album yet. Now he just needs to get over himself. End of interview.