’4AM At Toumani’s’
Damon Albarn’s Mali Music project is an overlooked album of beautiful mood and texture that barely belongs to the hideous ‘category’ of world music. This is very much a subjectivised, western account of African moods and musicianship, taken largely from muddled field recordings and mixed down in London. Mostly the range of instrumentation drifts in and out of the mix unhurried in a manner that has more in common with sample-based music and electronica than world music. Indeed Mali Music starts disappointingly with the track ‘Spoons’ that seems to bare no superficial resemblance to African music at all, more like the slick trip hop of Faithless’s quieter moments. But listen carefully and you will hear all manner of found sound bubbling under the surface; the nocturnal vibes pervade, evidently recorded over night-long Mali jam sessions and banter. Track titles like ’4AM At Toumani’s', ‘Kela Village’ and ‘Bamako City’ give testament to the approach, which seems aimed at capturing the mood of a place rather than provide a platform for specific artists. Perhaps this is not for the purists of whom Michael Nyman referred to as the ‘World Music Police’.
There are moments of loveliness throughout Mali Music that evoke a sense of Albarn’s heartbreaking nostalgia for his experience, especially on songs fronted by him (Sunset Coming On). Absolutely a subjectivised and romanticised account, it drifts and swells in a heady brew that uses African music and atmosphere as texture. ‘Makelekele’ splices together its range of instrumentation into a kind of demented African techno, while ‘Le Relax’ and ‘The Djembe’ are spectral, humid dub. Most of Mali Music‘s tracks have irresistable hooks and grooves given added insistence by a variety of singers, as well as Albarn’s melodica, which underpins some of the, er, melodies. The fragmented loops on ‘Tennessee Hotel’ recall mellower moments on Eno and Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, the voices, guitar refrains and found sound slipping hypnotically in and out of the mix. ‘Niger’, arguably one of Mali Music‘s more untampered tracks, revolves around some simple guitar loops so beautiful that it makes you wonder what other African music you may be missing in your ignorance. It’s not all light and groovy though, the slightly funereal closer ‘Les Ecrocs’ seems to have the darkness of the African night pulsing in its very blood, while the ghostly ‘Institut National Des Arts’ sends shivers up your spine.
On the whole though, Mali Music is not an album of individual songs but of atmosphere and place. A journey, not a set of specific peformances or statements. Albarn, for all his political activity, doesn’t resort to any po-faced hectoring about African poverty in the music or sleeve notes. Unnecessary really since some of the proceeds of this record go to Oxfam projects in the region. If I have one (minor) complaint, its that the cut of ‘Sunset Coming On’ here is inferior to the track’s live performance available to view on YouTube, which is extended by a mind-blowing three minute jam (check it out). If you like this you will also enjoy the crossover fusion of Crammed label’s 20 Ways to Float Through Walls.