Mojo JANUARY 2014 - by David Hutcheon


Albarn, Diabaté, Eno and more take the Africa Express on new freedom ride.

There has been no shortage of music news about Mali over the past eighteen months, after a branch of Al Qaeda seized the north and enforced a form of sharia law so strict that all non-Koranic music was banned and draconian punishments meted out to transgressors. In a country where low literacy levels means music serves as more than just entertainment, festivals were cancelled, radio stations closed and musicians fled.

Among those voicing their support for the country's artists were Damon Albarn and his Africa Express collective (including Ghostpoet, Metronomy's Olugbenga Adelekan and actor Dris Elba), who flew into the capital city, Bamako - several day's drive from the still-dangerous northeast - for a week of gigs, jamming and recording sessions in October

"lt was my first time in Africa," says Django Django's David Maclean, "and there was a sense of a city on edge. It felt like it was at a real crossroads, for social and economic reasons. That probably makes it frustrating and difficult to live in, but it was an exciting backdrop for making music.

Albarn and Brian Eno set up their studio in the Maison des Jeunes community centre and encouraged musicians such as Kankou Kouyaté, the Lobi Traoré Band and Toumani Diabaté to lay down basic tracks; Meanwhile, André de Ridder, principal conductor of Derby's Sinfonia Viva, was upstairs trying to find musicians for a version of Terry Riley's In C. Once something had been recorded, it would be handed over to one of the visitors to take away on their laptops and see what they could come up with in collaboration with their hosts.

"There were a lot of electronic producers sampling and using loops, but one guy I worked with was really into Chuck Berry, rock'n'roll and rockabilly," recalls Maclean. "We hadn't talked about it but I put his guitar through this tape delay echo deck, and he got what I was doing and his face lit up. It was quite a frenzied, creative week, and every morning you'd be getting up and making music."

"It was a thousand times more intense and rewarding than I could have imagined," agrees Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, an Africa Express veteran, having gone to Ethiopia with them in 2010. When we speak, he's just finished working on a track with a young Timbuktu group called Songhoy Blues.

"We arrived in the studio before them and found they had only one amp and an acoustic guitar. But when they sat down and started playing, it was just a matter of joining in and finding a place to fit within the music."

"I hadn't been that excited by live music for a while," says Maclean, "but this experience made me realise what's great about it, and in future I want to capture some of that essence.

Perhaps it was that rare essence that made Eno tell the BBC's Africa service: "The players are so extraordinarily good that it does make me think I might consider another career."