In October, Damon Albarn’s cross-cultural music collective Africa Express once again set its wheels into motion, and Albarn led a mixed group of Western and African musicians on a weeklong trip to Bamako, Mali. Unlike the last Africa Express outing, a riotous tour around the UK, there was no actual train involved. But, as ever, an eye-catching group of musicians from around the globe were on board: Brian Eno, Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kankou Kouyaté (niece of the renowned Bassekou), Ghostpoet, Lobi Traoré Band, Holy Other, David Maclean of Django Django, Olugbenga Adelekan of Metronomy and many more.
Their goal was to write and record an album in just seven days, but for Africa Express – a sort of musique sans frontières project – unity and collaboration between different cultures are just as significant as laying down tracks in the studio. As a result the album, recorded in a city youth club called Maison des Jeunes, captures both the spontaneity and warmth of the occasion, and a more poignant aspect to the proceedings following last year’s ban on music in Mali by an alliance of Islamists and Tuareg rebels.
One of the album’s highlights, ‘Soubour’ sees Malian group Songhoy Blues (who were formed in reaction to that ban) team up with guitarist Zinner. Fittingly – from a country famed for its joyous musical heritage – this song is a celebration rather than a political diatribe. It’s a classic example of desert blues, a blur of mesmerising guitar licks and uplifting harmonies. Elsewhere, London producer Two Inch Punch brilliantly conjures an unexpectedly contemporary track, ‘Rapou Kanou’, out of traditional elements, blending Tal B Halala’s coarse Arabic vocals and the chiming kora (a West African stringed instrument) into something that sounds a little like Gold Panda. Lil Silva’s ‘Bouramsy’ is an intensely rhythmic instrumental, while Kouyaté’s cover of Salif Keita’s ‘Yamore’ exhibits her stirring vocals. The standout track here, though, is ‘Season Change’, on which Ghostpoet passionately addresses the plight of Malian musicians: ‘I gotta step up, I’m done with all the hiding’. He’s flanked by an earth-shattering bass and the percussive stomp of Doucoura’s talking drums, while a constant metal clanking in the background adds extra mysticism to a chorus that’s like a prayer to the gods.
The Africa Express musicians only returned from Mali just over a month ago, but despite the rapid release schedule, Albarn has here overseen a memorable and important album. ‘Maison des Jeunes’ teems with innovation, and shows the awesome diversity of music from Mali alone, while sections of the Western media still lump African music together as a single genre. Perhaps the only fault here is a slight glut of collaborators, which means that (for example) we hear little of Eno’s much-anticipated input. Nonetheless, ‘Maison des Jeunes’ shows that Africa Express is steaming ahead, and – in the face of musical oppression in Mali – more relevant than ever.
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Watch the video for 'Soubour' by Songhoy Blues