Damon Albarn captures the hum of Africa
Days after his opera wowed critics, Damon Albarn was in Kinshasa to record with street musicians. He explains why he revels in fresh sounds.
Just conceivably, Damon Albarn woke up one morning in July with that queasy feeling – familiar to most of us at some point – that he was out of his depth at work. Just conceivably, he checked his appointments for the month with a nagging sense that an opera based on the life of Elizabethan mystic Dr Dee for the Manchester International Festival followed by an album recorded over five days in the Democratic Republic of Congo might be stretching it a little.
But watching him bob around his west London studio two months later, beetroot and carrot health shake in one hand, cigarette in the other, bantering with fellow producer Remi Kabaka and holding forth on the joys of Mbuti pygmy thumb piano, I rather doubt it.
Albarn dispatched the opera to a chorus of approval – the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen called it “fresh, original and heartfelt” — and then boarded a plane with a group of 10 hand-picked producers, including Kabaka, Gorillaz collaborator Dan the Automator and Richard Russell, boss of Radiohead and Adele’s label XL, to the Congolese capital Kinshasa.
Albarn has already put on a series of live shows under the banner of Africa Express, in which Western and African musicians come together for a series of freewheeling, often improvised performances. A similar philosophy and sense of exuberant chaos characterised this new project, which Albarn has called DRC Music.
Most of the recordings were made at a large open venue in the centre of Kinshasa where more than 50 Congolese musicians, alerted to the producers’ arrival by Renaud Barret and Florent de La Tullaye (directors of a film about Congolese street band Staff Benda Bilili), turned up at different times to play. Some of them had instruments improvised out of objects from the street.
“They could make a fresh sound out of everything,” marvels Albarn. “One guy’s whole ensemble was bits of rubbish which he could make work percussively. One of his instruments was just a crumpled plastic bag.” And with the minimum of ceremony and irrespective of whether music was already being recorded, they found a corner to set up and joined in.
“Every aspect of the recording process was going on all around you in a short space of time,” explains Russell. “You’d have those things going on [in the main space] and then at the same time there’s a patch of grass outside and Damon would be playing a bit of keyboard over a piece that we’d just recorded, and meanwhile Remi’s somewhere else with three local vocalists. Lots of pop albums are made with a lot of producers all working separately and it’ll take a year. This was like a version of that, but with a spirit that you’d never get.”
The results, to be released under the title Kinshasa One Two, with proceeds going to Oxfam, sound both thrillingly immediate and disorientatingly strange. It is worlds away from many of the expensively recorded African/Western pop collaborations of the past – more like a mix of field recordings and an earthy variant on bassy Western dance music.
On early listens, the tastes of Albarn and his co-producers may seem a little outré. He describes the sections of pygmy thumb piano as “a masterclass in an approach to polyrhythmic practice”, as if daring me to laugh out loud. But the eerie percussive textures and skittish rhythms of the track in question, We Come From the Forest, work their way irresistibly under your skin.
And if Albarn is prone to moments of pseudery, he has earned the right to them. He speaks with the conviction of a man who has spent much of the latter part of his career flying in the face of scepticism and then proving everyone wrong.
Before Albarn’s Mali Music project in 2002, the African/Western pop collaboration was one of the least fashionable of musical forms, viewed by many as a patronising relic of the Live Aid Eighties. Even Paul Simon’s wonderful Graceland album was pushed to the back of many record collections like a guilty secret. Today, African musicians play the main stage at Glastonbury and the influence of African music has filtered across the spectrum of 21st-century pop, from the highlife-inspired indie of Vampire Weekend to the junkyard rave of MIA or Angolan expats Buraka Som Sistema.
DRC Music speaks more to the latter style. “Dance culture is one of the great great grandchildren of African music,” Albarn says, and later, “In a way we created our own pirate radio station and this record is a broadcast.” But more broadly, the project takes its place amid a new, more open-minded spirit of western and African musical collaboration.
DRC Music, from its title to the vibrant manner of its recording, tries to absorb and recreate something specific about Congolese music. It revels in the sounds and textures of the country’s musical traditions, and hums with the energy of Kinshasa life. Moreover as a charity record that aims to celebrate African culture rather than elicit pity, it knocks another nail into the coffin of Live Aid. “We’re not trying to feed the world,” says Russell. “We’re trying to understand, and relate, and connect.”
Albarn bats away questions about the versatility and creative restlessness which took him in a few weeks from a Manchester theatre to central Africa. What drives him to take on such different projects? “How can I answer that? I enjoy music. Music is truly a beautiful thing and I revel in it.”
But then he’s immediately on to his latest obsessions: the cheap recording software Garageband and house music from the Johannesburg neighbourhood of Soweto. And you can almost see the cogs beginning to turn, as the idea for another far-fetched musical project comes to him