AFEL BOCOUM DAMON ALBARN TOUMANI DIABAT AND FRIENDS Mali Music (Honest Jons)
The recordings presented here were originally taped when Albarn undertook an Oxfam-sponsored jaunt to Mali with an entourage that included former Senseless Things drummer and Delakota member Cass Browne. They were then worked upon over the space of a year back in London, and have finally been released as the first album on Damon's own label, he being the second member of Blur to have been granted an outlet for his more left-field dabblings by EMI, following the launch of Graham Coxon's Transcopic label. Some of the proceeds from the album will be used to fund Oxfam's continuing work in Mali (why not all?).
Does "Mali Music" expose Albarn as the worst kind of cultural tourist, a dilettante intent on gaining some world music cred at any cost? Happily, not really. "Mali Music" is a joyous, mournful, intriguing way to spend an hour, an album that sounds like no other I can think of - which might say more about my whitebread Westernised listening habits rather than any intrinsic merit "Mali Music" may or may not possess, but there it is.
At its best, "Mali Music" is an enjoyably ragged fusion of exotic African music and first world tinkering. Opening track "Spoons" impresses immediately, with its floating melody and delicate piano savagely beaten about the stave by the sort of heavy-fingered filtering more usually found on a Daft Punk album. Albarn adds some half-hearted "Yeah yeah yeah"s and hesitant melodica lines over the top, almost as if in some desperate attempt to justify his co-credit, but even this fails to detract from the otherworldly excellence of the result. At the other extreme, tracks like "Nabintou Diakit", "Tennessee Hotel" and "Ko Kan Ko Sata Doumbia On River" are so unprocessed that you can still hear the insect choruses and car horns in the background. "Makelekele" is shaded by the kind of electronic squiggles so beloved of French dance music producers, whilst an acoustic guitar skitters through "Niger" like a dragonfly above a pond. "4AM At Toumanis" is one of the album's more controversial tracks, apparently included to the surprise and disquiet of at least one of the musicians who deemed it unrepresentative of his work. It also marks the first appearance of a melody disarmingly reminiscent of Sting's "Fields Of Gold", which proceeds to wind itself around the remainder of the album. It crops up amidst the charming clockwork mechanics of "Institut National Des Arts" and also features prominently on the album's finest moment, "Sunset Coming Down", a shining moment on which cultures clash to remarkable, symbiotic effect.
It might not have the immediate poptastic appeal of some of Damon's other projects, but "Mali Music" repays the acclimatisation it demands, and its future status as some kind of cult chill-out classic seems almost inevitable. Additionally, the CD is immaculately packaged, presented as a glossy paperback crammed with vibrant pictures that practically bleed colour off the page.