The Observer DECEMBER 8, 2013 - by Kitty Empire


There's a reason this Africa Express album comes from Mali, and it's not just expediency. Damon Albarn's evolution from pop star to world music fixer began with an Oxfam trip to Mali in 2000, followed through by his own conversion document, Mali Music (2002). Of course this West African country punches above its population density in musicality too, having given the wider world breakout stars such as Ali Farka Touré, Amadou & Mariam, Toumani Diabaté, Salif Keita and Rokia Traoré. More pertinently, until recently much of northern Mali was a war zone caught up in regional Islamist struggles, further complicated by the issue of Tuareg independence. Even The Sun noticed that musicians were having their instruments smashed (and worse) and girls were kept from school (and worse) as villages changed hands and Sharia law was enforced.

So it was in solidarity with Mali's beleaguered musicians that the international contingent of this Express - Albarn, Brian Eno, Nick Zinner of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, actor-cum-producer Idris Elba, Olugbenga Adelekan from Metronomy, one of Django Django, producer Two Inch Punch, rapper Ghostpoet and others - fetched up at a makeshift field studio in a Bamako youth hostel to record with up-and-coming local bands, instrumentalists and singers. The result is emphatically not some worthy compilation of well-meaning fusions and trite jams with superstars, but a West African-timbred frenzy of time-pressed creativity in which the westerners slot inventively into the picture.

There's a reason that the mighty, rolling Soubour - a collaboration between desert rock protest outfit Songhoy Blues and Zinner - is the lead single. Zinner introduces one more fluid guitar line and a little mixing into a track whose groove is pretty much irresistible to begin with. Ditto the late Lobi Traoré's band, whose relentless party music is lent a discreetly electronic sheen by David Maclean of Django Django. The album's notional western heavyweight, Brian Eno, maintains a similarly light touch throughout, allowing the Yacouba Sissoko Band (no relation to the more famous kora player) to get on with their pell-mell ur-blues. Two Inch Punch - a very interfering sort of producer - does more, without sacrificing a sense of spontaneity. He's tasked with embellishing the album's two rappers: our own melancholy MC Ghostpoet, who mourns Mali's hard times on Season Change, and the fiercer Malian Tal B Halala. There's a previous version of Halala's Rapou Kanou online which lays bare Two Inch Punch's shimmering, simpatico contribution.

In Kankou Kouyaté and Bijou, the album boasts two very different female vocalists. The more conventionally dulcet Kouyaté (niece of the renowned Bassekou) joins Groupe Gambari (who share a membership with Bassekou Kouyaté's Ngoni Ba outfit) for a simple, expressive Yamore, previously recorded by Salif Keita. Even more intriguing is Bijou - the stage name of Korotoumou Dembelé, who sings with Groupe Tchoundé Blu. Her Dougoudé Sarrafo is a lament straight from the gut, soundtracked sensitively by Albarn himself.

Not all who travelled made it on to this collection. You do wonder what happened to the works of producer Holy Other and Idris Elba - presumably both were relegated to "vibes"? - or, indeed, to conductor André de Ridder and his attempt to cover experimental composer Terry Riley's In C with Malian instrumentation. There must have been a few failures for every successful leap across the language barrier, making these eleven tracks all the more luminous.