Mali Music | Sound on Sound – September 2002

Words: Paul Tingen

Mali Music is one of the most ambitious collaborations yet between European and African musicians. The brainchild of Blur frontman Damon Albarn, it also represented the first big break for producer Simon Burwell.

Medium-sized and landlocked Mali is located on the south-western outskirts of the Sahara, and consists largely of flat desert plains. Being one of the poorest nations in the world, and with barely 11 million people within its borders, one would expect it to be known as a bit of a sleepy backwater. And indeed, the name of Mali’s best-known town, Timbuktu, has become a byword for The Middle Of Nowhere.

Nevertheless, Mali has one of the most influential music scenes in Africa. Music is at the heart of its culture and is often performed by members of the country’s musician caste called jalis, or ‘praise singers.’ In addition to having a prominent role in Malian life, the nation’s vibrant music culture has a great impact across the whole of north-western Africa, and has given birth to at least three landmark crossover records that have sold widely in the West: Salif Keita’s album Soro, Mory Kanté’s ‘Yéké Yéké’, a traditional Malian song propelled by a sequenced disco beat which became a huge hit in Europe, and Talking Timbuktu, a collaboration between Malian guitarist/ singer Ali Farka Toure and legendary Californian guitarist/producer Ry Cooder.

This year has given rise to another influential crossover album featuring collaborations between Malian and Western musicians. Called Mali Music, it is the fruit of the labours of Blur frontman and Gorillaz co-creator Damon Albarn and a wide range of Malian musicians, and it topped the world music charts in the UK within days of its release. Mali Music is the result of a journey Albarn made to Mali in July 2000 in the context of Oxfam’s educational project On The Line. The occasion was the new millennium and the idea was to visit all countries located on the Greenwich meridian.

Oxfam asked Albarn to visit Mali as a sort of cultural ambassador, and the singer made it a precondition that he could record with Malian musicians during his visit. A long-standing admirer of Malian music, Albarn commented on Oxfam’s web site (www.oxfam.org.uk): “My idea is to set up loads of dialogues between this music and other music that I love. I’m sick of the cultural self-assurance you get in the West. I want to get everyone into Malian music.”

And so Albarn set off for Mali, with a melodica and the two sound engineers who man his west London studio 13, Tom Girling and Jason Cox (profiled in SOS August 1999 and September 2001). After jamming with a wealth of Malian musicians, ranging from famous kora player Toumani Diabeté to unknown street musicians, the Britons returned to the UK with 40-hours worth of music, recorded in stereo on DAT tapes. At 13, Albarn, Cox and Girling spent weeks listening to the recordings, selecting the most promising parts, loading them into a Pro Tools system, and cutting, pasting and looping the material, with Albarn improvising new ideas on top. More than a year later, having also worked on two film soundtracks and the Gorillaz project in the same period, Albarn, Cox and Girling had amassed a wealth of ideas in Pro Tools, but were not quite clear how to give shape to the final result.

Albarn played some of what the trio had created to producer Nick Gold, a man with extensive experience of working with Malian musicians and owner of the World Circuit label, on which he releases music by many Malian musicians. Gold made two suggestions to Albarn: send some of the material back to Mali to allow Malian musicians to respond to Albarn’s ideas, and particularly ask them to add more vocals; and bring in someone with a fresh pair of ears, who also had experience of working with Malian music. Gold also suggested two names: Malian guitarist/singer and World Circuit artist Afel Bacoum, and British engineer Simon Burwell.

Albarn’s View

It’s rumoured that Damon Albarn has lost a lot of money on Mali Music, since the album’s royalties go to Oxfam even before expenses have been covered, but he doesn’t seem to like the phrase ‘lost a lot of money.’

“It’s not that I’ve lost a lot of money. I’ve financed the whole record myself because it is so hard to get record companies to finance projects like these, and it’s true that I don’t receive any money from it. But for me the main aim was to make it the best record that I could make, as good as anything else I’ve made, if not better.

“I was already into Malian music before this project. Once you get into African music, it becomes a lifelong voyage of discovery. Oxfam initially asked me to go to Mali as a kind of goodwill ambassador for the British press. I was very suspicious of doing that, because I felt that too many Western people have been airlifted into difficult areas, stayed there for a couple of days, made a documentary, and left. I already liked Malian music, so I used Oxfam’s contacts to hook up with some of the greatest Malian musicians. It was like ‘I’ll take a few tape recorders and a melodica, and sit in and listen and absorb the music.’ I wasn’t thinking about a record and wasn’t making any promises for one.”

A Mali Music performance, with Damon Albarn on melodica.

On coming home with 40 hours of DAT tape, the idea and shape of the album only very slowly took form. “I was listening every day when I had the time,” Albarn recalls, “and would get a nice piece of music from the DAT library and build my own interpretation around it. I avoided using vocal music because I didn’t understand what anyone was singing about. Eventually an instrumental record came out of this, and Nick Gold suggested it needed some vocals, so Afel Bocoum sang on a lot of nearly finished tracks. He worked without a producer and was given two months. Virtually everything he and his musicians did was perfect. So the record was made equal parts in London and in Mali!”

As is explained in the main text, it was around this time that Simon Burwell became involved in the project. “He struck me as someone who I could really work with,” Albarn states, “and he was fantastic really. I didn’t quite know how to finish off the record, and Simon came in and gave the last 10 percent that extra lift that made all the difference. That was invaluable. A lot of stuff needed tidying up, but that’s the way I work. I have about 25 songs pretty much finished for the next Blur album, and for the next few months I need some really good editors. I’m great with ideas, but terrible about finishing the last bit off. Producers can be very helpful for me at the end of a project.”

According to Albarn, the strange mixture of equipment in his 13 studio plays an important part in his creative process. “We’re pretty much trying to combine the best of the old and the new. I get a lot of ideas from the unusual instruments that are lying around. But some days even that’s not enough, so when I travel I bring back as many instruments as I can. Sometimes whole corners of the studio gather dust for a few years, and then suddenly that’s the only corner I use.

“For recording and structuring material I use Pro Tools, because I prefer to avoid samples. I think that sampling restricts you in where you move to: you can end up making music that’s all on one chord. I prefer to move around a bit. So I just make my own samples in Pro Tools and play grooves and ideas and lines and elaborate on them in the computer.”

Albarn relates how the impressionistic, almost messy nature of the arrangements and production of Mali Music was very deliberately designed to reflect some of his experiences in Mali. “I felt that there have been so many overproduced African recordings that all sound as if they come out of recording studios, and not out of Africa. So I wanted to retain the sense of chaos and excitement that I had in Mali.”

Albarn declares himself “totally happy” with Mali Music, adding “It was an extremely rewarding recording to make, so it’s been really nice that it did really well, and to get the personal messages from musicians that I respect who have told me they really like the record. But the biggest reward of all has been to have the opportunity to listen to that kind of music in a very intimate way, having been shown the exoticism of it all, and being allowed to participate in it.”

Blur’s next album is scheduled for release in January. Albarn is also working on the score for an animated Gorillaz film for late 2003 release.

Enter The Producer

Gold’s recommendation coincided with a visit by Albarn to Livingston Studios in North London. Burwell was working there with Gold and producer/engineer Jerry Boys on the mix for an album called Cachaito by the Cuban bassist Orlando Lopez. Burwell functioned as assistant recording engineer, and was also involved in the mix.

“Jerry had done a straight mix of a track called ‘Tumbanga’ that featured Hugh Masekela on flugelhorn, and then suggested that I did a dub mix of the same track,” Burwell recalled. “So I stayed up till three in the morning and experimented with spin delays, spring reverbs and tape echo, using the fantastic Roland RE501 chorus-echo box and quarter-inch tape. We later assembled a combination of Jerry’s mix and my mix in a SADiE system, which is the version you can hear on the album. Damon came in the next day to play some melodica on the tune — which we ended up not using — and the desk was still set up for the dub mix. He loved it, and I think it was because of that track that he asked me to work on and co-produce Mali Music.”

The album would be Burwell’s first big break on the production front. After joining the Mali Music project, he worked for half a year in 13 with Albarn, Cox and Girling on its completion. Bringing his experience in Western classical music and keyboard skills, as well as his experience of working with West African music, Burwell played an important role in the creation of what has turned out a very unusual album. In contrast to the detailed and precise structures and arrangements that have characterised previous Malian-Western collaborations, Mali Music is very impressionistic, and in places deliberately messy and chaotic. There are a few snippets of unadulterated on-location recordings, but for the most part the music consists of adventurous juxtapositions of two musical cultures, with the four Britons using the Malian source material in a very creative and irreverent manner.

Burwell explains how this came to be. “The project was in a pretty raw state when I got there. Some of the tracks were pretty much finished, but some of them still needed a lot of work. About 15 DA88 tapes with stereo mixes on two tracks had been sent out to Afel Bocoum in Mali, and he was given completely free rein in what he did with them. He added his own vocals and female vocals and violin and so on. When we received the DA88s back we loaded them into Pro Tools and chopped things up and rearranged them, just like with the original DAT material. We also recorded three tracks from scratch after my arrival, ‘Spoons’, ‘Le Relax’ and ‘Institut National Des Arts’.

“In the beginning my main work on the album involved creating cohesion — taking the source material and Damon’s creativity, and arranging this into a listenable format. The other three had worked on the project for so long, that my capacity of being able to look at it from a fresh perspective and have some objectivity was very important. I had musical input through playing keyboards, creating little chord structures to link up sections, arranging things and creating song structures, and adding textures.”

According to Burwell, working with African music doesn’t involve any kind of special know-how: it’s more a matter of “feeling safe and confident in working with what may sound like strange, weird African sounds. Because I am used to the sonic world of African music I did not have to acclimatise to Mali Music. In the end it involves just trusting your ears and going with your instincts. One thing working with Nick Gold has taught me is to treat it as music. Don’t be too precious about it.”

Blurring The Boundaries

Because of his laid-back attitude towards African music, Burwell had no qualms about imposing Western song structures on the pieces, nor about chopping up and looping the Malian source material in musique concrète-like fashion. “When I arrived, a lot of the sound worlds and ideas for the tracks were already there,” Burwell elaborates. “They had selected and arranged certain samples, and Damon would come in and chuck a whole load of ideas at it. And then it was like, ‘Help me to arrange this into a song.’ He hadn’t really thought of imposing Western song structures, so I said, ‘People are already going to be blown away by these sounds, so let’s give them something to hang on to, let’s give them the kind of structures they’re used to.’ It just needed a bit of direction. And this involved doing things like adding chord structures, or creating little links with chord changes, moving things around in Pro Tools, and so on.”

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