Damon Albarn: Journey into the beating heart of Africa

What happens when Damon Albarn invites a diverse bunch of mates and musicians to join him in Mali for a few days of cross-cultural jamming? Ian Birrell reports from Bamako
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The Independent Culture

We ducked into a covered alleyway, where two elderly men with grizzled beards, skullcaps and indigo robes lay on straw mats. I nodded a greeting as we passed through into a courtyard. One woman sat on a stool sorting a huge mound of charcoal, while several others chopped up vegetables and prepared fires for the post-sunset Ramadan meal. Children stopped to stare as we clambered on to a spiral staircase.

Inside the flat, there was a long, dark corridor. We were ushered along, passing rooms filled with people who glanced up at us from behind net curtains hanging limply in the doorways. Finally we entered a small living-room, where a six-piece band was waiting for us, crammed between two dark wooden sideboards holding a handful of ornaments behind glass doors. Three women singers sat at their feet, one wearing an iridescent purple headscarf, the other two with their hair uncovered.

We shuffled in, all 19 of us, squeezing on to couches and chairs lining the faded blue walls. Some joined the women on the floor, including three American music students we met in a restaurant and invited along, to their amazement. Damon Albarn sat next to the young British rapper Jamie-T, while Zane Lowe sank into a corner seat by Fatboy Slim. Martha Wainwright, the American singer-songwriter, perched next to me. A solitary roof-fan fought a losing battle against the heat as the band finished tuning up.

This was the Bamako home of Bassekou Kouyaté, Mali's finest player of the n'goni, a traditional desert lute. His rippling solos can be heard on Savane, the acclaimed posthumous album by Ali Farka Touré, released in July. After welcoming us to his house, Bassekou began picking out a gentle arpeggio on his four-stringed instrument, backed by a flighty rhythm drummed out on a calabash. I sat back, mentally preparing for an hour of light entertainment.

The dreadlocked bassist in a patterned gold shirt sitting inches away from my left shoulder fiddled with the leather attachments that bound strings made of fishing line to the broomhandle-like neck of his n'goni. Then he smiled, flexed his fingers, and let rip. The whole band kicked in, Bassekou grinning with delight as they fired out unexpectedly grungey blues. A talking drum flitted over the top, while the floorbound vocalists swayed their arms in time to the music. It was the start of an extraordinary set that seemed to run from hard rock to jazz flicks to dub reggae, at times trancelike, at times heavy, at times delicate, but all carried off with astonishing virtuosity on these traditional instruments. Like the best of Africa's music, it was powerful and contemporary while remaining recognisably in touch with its roots.

Afterwards, on the bus back to the hotel, there was a stunned silence. "Man, that was a life-changing experience," said Lowe, the ebullient radio and television presenter whose more usual terrain is the world of indie, emo and hip-hop.

At the back, Albarn smiled. "That was such a fantastic example of how music can lift your mind and soul at the same time," he said later. "And it was the perfect proof of how inspirational African music can be, how it can touch so many people on so many levels."

The trip to Mali was organised by the former Blur singer as the latest step in his mission to promote African music and inspire cross-cultural exchanges. Albarn has always been open to music from other cultures and genres, as witnessed by Gorillaz and some of his film soundtrack work. He is currently working on a Chinese opera, while his latest band, The Good, The Bad and The Queen, features the Nigerian Afrobeat pioneer Tony Allen on drums alongside The Clash's Paul Simonon on bass and Simon Tong, the ex-Verve guitarist.

Albarn's passion for African music was fired by a trip to Mali, organised by Oxfam, in 2000. Invited out as an ambassador for the charity, he felt uncomfortable adopting such a political role when he knew little about the country, so he asked instead to meet local musicians. The result was 40 hours of recordings that led to the Mali Music album and the start of a love affair with the world's fourth-poorest nation, which is, for historic reasons dating back hundreds of years, home to so many extraordinary musicians.

He sent out colourful invitations to a selection of artists he thought might be inspired by such a trip: "Africa '06 cordially invites you to one of Africa's musical powerhouses: Bamako, capital of Mali. 3 days and nights of people, music and culture. Cost: your time only. RSVP." The names of Malian artists and nightclubs were in stars, and there was a handwritten covering note explaining that he thought this would be a good way of getting like-minded people in the same place at the same time. It ended with his trademark signature featuring a peace sign in the O of his name.

We met at Heathrow at 9am on a Wednesday morning. Mylo went down ill the day before departure, so failed to make it, while the soul singer Martina Topley-Bird was late, oversleeping after a gig the previous night. Several artists had little idea what the trip was about, but were intrigued by Albarn's invitation. "There are two musicians I would follow anywhere," Norman Cook (aka Fatboy Slim) told me in Bamako: "David Byrne and Damon Albarn." The other artists clearly held him in similar admiration.

By 10am, two pints had already been sunk and I was beginning to worry about my liver lasting the five-day trip. Somehow the sight of Scratch, the tattooed beatboxer from the American hip-hop outfit The Roots, sitting there ready for the flight with two pillows and a pair of chunky grey felt slippers on his feet was strangely reassuring.

Twelve hours later, we were checking into our hotel on the banks of the river Niger and heading out to find a bar. We ended up in a ramshackle joint, two small rooms made of breeze blocks and decorated with advertisements for Flag beer. "It was like something out of the Wild West," Lowe said later.

Three men hacking up the remnants of a goat on the other side of the street watched with interest as our party filed into the bar. A four-piece band was playing, their sound dripping with echo and distorted through the dilapidated PA. We ordered a crate of beer, then another, as members of the party got to know one another; a plate of plantain chips with some kind of fig relish was passed round.

Shortly after midnight, Scratch asked if he could take the mic. Putting it close to his lips, be began creating a gentle backbeat, imitating the sound of a bass and snare drum. Then, to the band's amazement, he built on the rhythm * * by dropping in vocal samples, imitation scratches and different drum sounds over their music, still using only his mouth. It was an astonishing display of the art of beatboxing, the so-called fifth element of hip-hop.

By the time I left at three o'clock, Albarn had joined the band on guitar. I waited outside while a puncture in our pick-up truck was quickly fixed, then we drove back through streets still filled with people working, chatting and drinking tea.

After a day spent mostly recovering around the pool, the next evening promised to be something special; Salif Keita, the golden voice of Africa, had invited us to a private acoustic session at his club. An albino who defied his royal lineage to become a singer, something traditionally seen as the preserve of the griot class, Keita is Mali's most famous singer and has won huge global acclaim over the past three decades.

Keita was there to greet us as we pulled up at Moffou, the whitewashed complex that houses his home, his studio and his club. He hugged Albarn, then solemnly shook hands with the rest of us. We went into a courtyard, where 6ft-high carved human figures, arms bolt upright, stood guard beside huge wooden doors. Amadou and Mariam, the blind couple whose latest record propelled them to international stardom in middle-age, were unexpectedly waiting for us, wearing their usual Philippe Starck sunglasses, alongside Idrissa Soumaoro, their former teacher, himself a renowned guitarist.

As Keita showed us round his studio, one of his friends told me that the complex, built on shifting sands, had been rebuilt three times. We went into the club, where red velvet seating was arranged in a semi-circle; bottles of beer were passed round. When Keita headlined the Womad festival in July he wore stonewashed jeans and a T-shirt, but now he looked dapper in white shirt, glittery trousers and pointed white shoes.

"I hope you will forgive me, since I am an old man and my voice is not what it used to be," he said, picking his Ovation guitar with just thumb and forefinger. Then he began singing, his high-pitched, tremulous voice mesmerising the small audience. It was a masterclass in simplicity and strength. To his right, Amadou clapped out the time, Mariam occasionally joining in and singing.

After three songs, Keita smiled. "Now it is your turn," he said, handing his guitar to the person in front of him. Unfortunately it was Stephen Budd, a music industry manager, but he gamely took the instrument, plonked himself down next to Keita and made his live debut at the age of 47 in front of three Grammy award winners. The performance lasted under a minute.

Wainwright took up the challenge next, playing "Don't Forget", a gorgeous lament to a former lover. Although the song is unmistakably rooted in an American tradition, it complemented Keita's songs in its emotional pull and sparseness. The African stars looked moved; towards the end of her number, the Montreal-born singer was bantering with them in French.

Then it was Scratch - and this time he had an electronic box of tricks allowing him to sample his own output and loop it back. It was an even more astonishing display, performed without backing music, a dense wall of hip-hop sounds and beats coming out of one mouth. Keita was first surprised, then he started smiling and joking with Amadou, laughing next to him. Mariam looked slightly baffled.

The variety show continued: two stunning acoustic songs by Amadou and Mariam; a reflective song by Albarn off his new band's album; another couple of numbers by Salif Keita. Jesse Hackett, the young Londoner behind Elmore Judd, played Greek music on his baglamas, which fascinated Keita, perhaps because it sounded oddly like a Malian lute. The display ended with unlikely trip-hop created by Albarn on his melodica, Hackett on his baglamas and Scratch providing the beats. "That was like the greatest ever edition of Later... with Jools Holland," said Cook as we left.

Albarn insisted we went to the Djembe club next, the first bar he had visited in Mali. Another band was playing, the sound again distorted and full of echo, and they played for the three hours we were there, the singers changing occasionally. Rain began to fall, quickly turning into a vicious thunderstorm with lightning flashing above us, puddles forming at our feet and water pouring down the wall at the back over the electrical sockets.

An eight-year-old boy in a fake England football shirt took over on drums. "I've never seen such talent in a person that young," said Albarn, watching in amazement. After 10 minutes the child was hustled off, presumably to bed. It was 4.30am before we made it to our own beds, following nightcaps at the hotel bar and an impromptu number from the irrepressible Jamie-T.

The next day - Independence Day in Mali - followed a similar pattern. Some people went into town, others recuperated by the pool. There was nearly a disaster when several artists, including Cook, Wainwright and Topley-Bird, went out on the swollen river in a pirogue that promptly began to sink, but they made it back unscathed. The incident did not seem to put anyone off: Wainwright talked later about how there had to be good lyrics in being beside such a mighty African river - "the feel, the smells, how you react physically".

That evening there was a blistering show at the Hogon, Bamako's hottest nightclub, staged for us by its owner, Toumani Diabaté. It opened with a fiery set by our new friends Amadou and Mariam, before two hours of Diabaté's Symmetric Orchestra, which seeks to recreate the spirit of the old Mande Empire by uniting musicians from across West Africa. For anyone expecting the sedate kora-playing that won him his recent Grammy alongside Farka Touré, it would have been a shock; it was a dazzling display of high-energy, no-holds-barred Afro-funk. There were flourishes that owed as much to Brazil as Bamako, hammered out on traditional instruments such as balafon and djembe, all held together by the smiling Diabaté, sitting in the back row and performing magic on his 21 strings.

When Scratch joined the orchestra, taking the sounds of inner-city America and grafting them on to the traditional music of West Africa, it seemed an entirely natural fit. Albarn and Hackett also joined the band towards the end of the show, rounding off an inspirational night.

On our last full day we were asked to congregate at 9.30am. A fleet of four-wheel-drives was waiting to take us on the 65-mile journey to the village of Kela, near the border with Guinea. This is a place famous for its griots, the praise-singers, poets and musicians who formed an endogamous caste and are part of the reason Mali has such an immense musical tradition.

The trip took four hours, bouncing along dusty red tracks as we passed mango plantations, shea nut trees and cotton fields. By the time we reached Kela, those of us in the rearmost vehicles appeared painted in thick red make-up. We walked into the village, where swarms of children were waiting - one in four children die in Mali before the age of five, so large families remain the norm. The children grabbed our hands and laughed as they were shown digital photographs of themselves. An infant bawled until its mother touched my white arm with its hand to show there was no cause for fear.

After a short greeting ceremony with the elders, we sat on the floor in front of one of the thatched village huts. Bowls of water were brought to wash our hands. Then came garish plastic bowls, placed on the ground in front of us. I looked in one: a fish head stared back, alongside a tail, a sliced onion, two white fleshy vegetables and a dollop of chilli sauce on rice. This was a fish yassa, the staple West African dish. It tasted sensational. We scooped up balls of food in our right hands and ate guiltily while the villagers looked on; they had to wait until sunset before eating, as it was the first day of Ramadan.

Afterwards, we were led to another part of the village where two speaker cones were strung up underneath trees. Wainwright was visibly moved by a disabled boy she befriended, who dragged himself along the path on his bottom then sat firmly next to her on benches set up for us. Albarn had become the pied piper of Kela, surrounded by children clinging to him and tooting his melodica.

A row of men on rickety chairs with n'gonis and djembes began playing, joined by an elderly man in vivid blue robes and battered tweed deerstalker with a talking drum. A woman in orange dress began singing, her magnificent voice muffled by the primitive PA. She was joined by two other singers, then a dozen women began a shuffling, circular dance. Wainwright and Topley-Bird were cajoled to join in, then Albarn, then Lowe. At the foot of a mango tree Valgeir Sigurdsson, Björk's producer, let village kids take turns to listen through headphones on hi-tech recording equipment.

We had been told to be back in Bamako by darkness, given the state of the roads, but inevitably we left Kela much later than planned. As dusk fell, so did the rains, and within seconds water was lashing down and the cars were ploughing into lakes created in the potholed roads. It felt like being on a boat during a storm at sea. "I thought we were going to die," said Lowe, as he walked into the hotel. "Shit, that was scary."

After another late night, enlivened by Wainwright doing the splits on a seedy nightclub dancefloor while still wearing her wellies, the banter was flowing all the next day. Despite the differences in ages and backgrounds, everyone had become firm friends. Lowe was telling people he'd drunk enough beer for a year. Cook told a story about how one of the American students we had met confided in him that Fatboy Slim was on the bus. Albarn, now nicknamed Papa Mali, suggested we went to the market before leaving, where there was bulk buying of masks and jewellery, before the amazing show at Bassekou Kouyaté's home and on to the airport.

So what did the artists make of the trip? Jesse Hackett said it was the best few days of his life. "It was so far removed from anything I had ever seen before. The people had the biggest hearts and such soulful energy, and it was amazing to get involved musically and play with these African musicians.

"Damon created a trip that was as much about having great fun as it was a profound cultural and spiritual experience. I had expected to see some egos on the trip but everyone was humbled by what they saw - people with so little money and such big problems, but so much positivity, culture and depth."

Wainwright was similarly moved. "I've been travelling the world for the past year and a half, but that was the most important, the most memorable, trip I've ever taken. It was like being a teenager again, seeing something so new, so exciting, so inspirational."

And Lowe? "I'm just speechless at what I've seen." On the back of the bus, Albarn was smiling again.

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