Under the blistering midday sun, two young musicians shook hands. “Would you like to rap on a track I’ve done?” asked Ben Ash, a London-based producer who goes under the name Two Inch Punch and has worked with Jessie Ware, Sam Smith and Lianne La Havas.
“Of course – I’d like that very much,” replied Tal B Halala. The chunky chain around his neck was the only clue that this confident son of a Malian police officer was one of his country’s finest young rappers.
As the pair wandered off to find a room where they could record in Maison des Jeunes, the Bamako youth centre we were using as our base, I asked Tal B if he rapped in Bambara – the local language – as well as French, which can sound soft for hip-hop. Turned out he spoke six languages, putting us monolinguists to shame.
Minutes later, the three of us were in a turquoise-painted upstairs room, gold curtains billowing in the breeze. The tall Malian put on a pair of headphones connected to Ash’s laptop and began spitting over a beat and catchy kora sample. Fifteen mesmerising minutes later, the track was done.
“Rapou Kanou”, which speaks of Tal B’s love of hip-hop, is one of 11 tracks on the Africa Express collective’s new album, named after the youth centre, which is released digitally on Monday. The song was described as “unexpectedly contemporary ... like Gold Panda” by one critic, while the video was premiered by NME; it must be the first Bambara rap featured on that website.
This track, an instant fusion of cultures, genres and grooves, symbolises why Africa Express went back to Mali in October to make Maison des Jeunes. The album, recorded in seven days and on sale six weeks later, showcases stunning new talent from a uniquely musical nation which has been through such troubled times recently.
The day after we landed, I was chatting to Jeff Wootton, a talented guitarist who has played with Beady Eye and Gorillaz. Shaking his head, he told me that he felt like a beginner after watching local musicians performing on the club’s stage.
I heard such sentiments again and again from the Western artists. David Maclean, from Django Django, told me he was going to rethink his band’s music after seeing such improvisation and hearing powerful polyrhythms. Even Brian Eno, perhaps the world’s greatest producer, said that it felt like “a week-long musical humiliation”.
For the younger Western producers, it was a daunting experience – working with incredible Malian musicians on their first trip to Africa, alongside the likes of Eno and Damon Albarn. They showed no fear, although some later confessed that it had been nerve-wracking.
Five days into the trip, we held the first playback; you could sense everyone relax as their songs pounded out of the speakers. Afterwards, Olugbenga and Ghostpoet DJed while people danced sweatily until the early hours; I won’t forget leaping up and down next to Eno as The Cure’s “Love Cats” blared into the hot West African night.
Nor, indeed, watching Ghostpoet write lyrics to an impassioned song called “Season Change” on his iPhone as we bounced in our bus along Bamako’s roads, then listening to Albarn record backing vocals beside me in a makeshift studio.
What was really riveting was to be reminded not just of the strength of Malian music, but of how it evolves while retaining its roots. You can hear a common thread linking rappers such as Tal B, the emotive soul singer Bijou, a traditional group such as Gambari, trancey drumming ensembles such as Doucoura and even the desert indie band Songhoy Blues.
This four-piece group, described by one awed Western artist as “The Smiths crossed with Ali Farka Touré”, was formed by graduates who fled Timbuktu after last year’s takeover by Islamist militants. “We couldn’t let our lives be shipwrecked by the crisis, so we decided to form a band to boost the morale of our fellow refugees,” said Garba Touré, the guitarist.
And this crisis was why Africa Express returned to Mali. It was our response to a meltdown that saw music banned by jihadists in two-thirds of the nation. That was after the coup and subsequent collapse of the north, and was followed by a French-led invasion that restored some stability – although a curfew continued to make life difficult for clubs and musicians.
Our project began, after all, in Bamako. It started seven years ago when Damon Albarn, whom I first met a decade ago at the Festival in the Desert near Timbuktu, invited a handful of Western artists including Fatboy Slim, Martha Wainwright and Jamie T to Mali.
They met and played with Salif Keita, Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté and Amadou & Mariam, the success of which gave birth to the idea for spontaneous collaborative concerts, unveiled publicly with a now-legendary five-hour gig at the Glastonbury Festival in 2007. Since then there have been shows for up to 50,000 fans, a train tour around Britain last summer, and trips to Addis Ababa, Kinshasa and Lagos.
But Africa Express has always been about more than just the crazy, chaotic concerts that made it famous, aiming also to encourage a larger culture of collaboration, of unity and of musical adventure. As ever, first-timers in Africa had their clichés and assumptions blown away soon after landing.
“I’d never been before and it felt so different to what I expected. The place was so friendly, the people so positive despite obvious difficulties,” said Maclean. “And it was a reminder that music should not be about impressing people or making money but just a basic part of life, as important as eating and drinking. That’s so reinvigorating.”
‘Africa Express Presents: Maison Des Jeunes’ is released on Monday. The album launch, featuring the UK live debuts of Songhoy Blues, Kankou Kouyaté and Bijou, is at Oval Space, London E2 on Monday (ovalspace.co.uk)
Ian Birrell is co-founder of Africa Express