A slightly tenuous connection, but it’s odd to think that, when the record I blogged about yesterday, “Brighten The Corners”, first came out, Damon Albarn was at the height of his Pavement phase. I remember going to see Pavement in Oxford on that tour (“Westie Can Drum”, “The Killing Moon”. . .) and Albarn was there with Justine Frischmann, looking conspicuously inconspicuous in a baseball cap pulled down low.
Nowadays, of course, Albarn’s public enthusiasms are directed much more towards the likes of Amadou & Mariam, the blind Malian couple who have become, I suspect, one of African music’s most lucrative exports in the past few years. If 2005’s “Dimanche A Bamako” was a kind of slick, syncopated hybrid of Malian music, R&B and Francophone global pop – as represented by producer Manu Chao (whose own records I can’t deal with, incidentally; all a bit Eurovision Mescaleros for me) – then “Welcome To Mali” introduces the Albarn-endorsed world of Africa Express to the party, too.
Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that Amadou & Mariam have invited all those dubious UK indie sloggers that seem to crop up on Africa Express bills like Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly, Reverend And The Makers, Hard-Fi, and so on – though perhaps we should give these bands credit for having the guts to jam with people like Toumani Diabaté. Maybe some more illustrious Western names are too scared, one way or the other?
It does mean, though, that Damon Albarn himself turns up on this hectic, long, generally euphoric record. For the most part, it’s pretty exhilarating stuff, with all the disparate sounds and influences meticulously crafted into a coherent, if frantic, musical expression of joy. On “Batoman” and “Sebeke” in particular, it feels like producers Marc-Antoine Moreau and Lauren Jais are throwing multiple digitally-rendered kitchen sinks into the mix, but the spirit of Amadou and Mariam just about emerges intact – even, on “Sebeke”, when it comes filtered through a vocoder.
The whole album is spattered with great moments of fusion: the seething R&B Hammond runs in “Compagnon De La Vie”; the euphoric blues-rock solo that Amadou unleashes in the midst of the particularly lively “Masiteladi” (this one helmed by Vanessa Paradis’ mentor, M); the mighty face-off between Amadou and Toumani Diabaté’s kora on “Djuru”. Only one contributor really grates: the Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan, an Africa Express regular whose own records and gigs have left me more irritated than impressed, contributes some lame rhymes to “Africa”.
It is Albarn, predictably, whose contribution will get most publicity. “Sabali” opens the album, plants Mariam’s voice into a chintzy synthscape very close in tone to his Olympics theme, and doesn’t feature Amadou at all. Audacious and pretty, perhaps, but the muso in me can’t help thinking that it’s a bit of waste of such a fantastic guitarist.
And that thought, to be honest, recurs intermittently throughout the rest of the record. There’s so much going on here, so much technoflash and delirium, that those serpentine, unravelling riffs aren’t anywhere near as prominent as I’d like. I was writing a review of this record last night, and I was trying to pithily express how there seems to have been a paradigm shift in the tastes of African music fans of late: that where they once fetishised purity and authenticity, now fusion is seen as something desirable, rather than a sell-out.
“Welcome To Mali” and Africa Express are clearly manifestations of this, and clearly good things in general; as I’ve said before here many times, I always think the pursuit of authenticity, realism or whatever in music is a bit bogus, or at least a waste of time. But for all the pleasures of “Welcome To Mali”, it strikes me that its hi-tech polish occasionally smothers the character and charm of Amadou & Mariam themselves.
Then this morning I realised that, by worrying about this, I wasn’t actually bemoaning a lack of authenticity or whatever in their music. It was simply a question of production techniques – after all, Amadou & Mariam were playing a distinct fusion of Malian forms and Western R&B long before they were picked up by Western music biz grandees. “Welcome To Mali” is a shiny pop record, very now, very likely to date, very good fun.
But maybe it’s my rockist, indie-boy aesthetics that lead me to prefer the Malian likes of Tinariwen; another fusion between local Saharan music and rock, of course, but one which is less gilded, more psychedelic perhaps, which lets the music breathe a little more. There’s plenty on “Welcome To Mali” which is dazzling, but I wonder how Amadou & Mariam would sound if they’d fallen in with, say, the Robert Plant crowd rather than the Manu Chao scene in the first place?
And while we’re on this subject, can I briefly recommend a record by Terakaft called “Akh Issudar”? It’s a Tinariwen spin-off, very much in the same vein, and it’s terrific.