Mali Music | MOJO – April 2016

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The Good, The Bad, and The King

Playing at Toumani Diabaté’s Festival Acoustik Bamako, Damon Albarn becomes an honorary royal?

Damon Albarn’s picking up an OBE in March. But before that, on January 31, he was granted the status of a local king in Mali and has a new name, Makandjan Kamissoko. It’s quite some honour, and was made by the country’s leading griots, hereditary musicians who are the guardians of Mali’s ancient history and songs.

Griots don’t forget, and they had taken note of Albarn’s commitment to the country, coming back here at a time when the Foreign Office advise against “all but essential” travel, after the terrorist attack on a luxury Bamako hotel in November, in which 20 people were killed.

Just five years ago, Mali was a tourist destination famous for its music festivals. But the continuing battle against Islamist extremists has changed all that. The music festivals have either been cancelled or cut right back, and tourism has collapsed. So now Toumani Diabaté’s new event, the four-day Festival Acoustik Bamako, aimed to start a fight-back.

Albarn said he was here because of the importance of, “actively participating in a festival in a place that in someways has become a no-go zone for Western artists, let alone tourists…if we don’t give them that revenue through tourism, and keep a conversation going, things could get really horrendous here. Things can just stop and never comeback to life.” He was first here 15 years ago, he says, and “spent every night in small bars and  music venues, of which there are none now. These streams have dried up. This culture needs water.”

He received his honour in the little village of Kirina, 25 miles south of Bamako, where there’s no running water or electricity, but there is a music school for griot children. He was greeted by griots playing drums and traditional instruments, and by dancers, some wearing masks. An imam led the prayers and Albarn was shown a classroom named in his honour. “My heart is here,” he said, pledging to give a gift to the school “every year for the rest of my life.”

Toumani Diabaté, kora genius and surely Mali’s best-known griot, told him “you’re in Mali at a very critical moment of our history, and you’ve come here to play for nothing. As we say, ‘You know your best friend when you’ve got a problem.’” Armed gendarmes guarding the event were a reminder that Mali’s main problem right now is security, yet Albarn pointed out that he’d brought his mum and daughter on the trip. He had been persuaded to stay in a well-guarded hotel (“like a very pleasant open prison”) but had been out in the market, where, he says, there was “no aggression, no visible sense of danger at all”.

But there’s still a State of Emergency, and there were heavily armed gendarmes outside the new Conservatoire Des Arts, where several concerts were held. Malian artists included Toumani and Songhoy Blues; among the visitors were Tony Allen, South African guitarist Derek Gripper, and Albarn, who gave by far the most experimental performance of the festival. Backed by Western musicians playing violin, cello, the ancient theorbo lute and sackbut, with Malians adding vocals, kora and balafon, he revived songs from his albums Mali Music and Dr Dee, along with songs from Gorillaz and his solo LP. Albarn said afterwards that it was “one of the best gigs I’ve ever done… it went a lot better than my last gig in Africa, at the Shrine [in Lagos] where we had bottles thrown at us.”

Albarn “likes doing lots of different things”, and next comes a project with the Syrian National Orchestra of Arabic Music, which is “part of the same thing… I’m trying to help, but also learning.” But first, the OBE. “It’s something I think you should accept graciously regardless of your politics,” he says. “It’s a very nice thing to happen, but it doesn’t make you a better musician. But I’m having terrible problems with my family as to what to wear. Certain members of the family are not willing to go with the dress code at the moment…”

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