By Roy Kasten
By Kris Wernowsky
By Chaz Kangas
By Joseph Hess
By Julie Seabaugh
By Mike Appelstein
By Rachel Brodsky
By Kelsey McClure
Armed with only a melodica universally referred to as "battered," Damon Albarn set off from his London digs two years ago on a Malian sojourn. There, in the capital city of Bamako and its satellite villages, Albarn met and jammed with local musicians, both pro and amateur. Eventually he compiled 40 hours of tape, which the alpha Gorilla/Blur-meister brought back to England and layered with electronica, reggae, ragga, house and rock. "My idea is to set up loads of dialogues between this music and other music that I love," Albarn says. "I'm sick of the cultural assurance you get in the West. I want everyone to get into Malian music."
The press material tells us flatly that Mali is West Africa's most musical country, a claim with which denizens of Senegal, Nigeria, Gambia and Guinea would likely disagree -- not that many Malians would want to claim this bastard of a CD anyway. Somehow Albarn has managed to take a few of the most exciting modern Western styles and weld them with one of Africa's most amazing folk traditions and come up with an almost unrelentingly tedious album. Most of it is pleasant enough background music for, say, a Whole Earth outlet, but Albarn's ideas simply don't go anywhere beyond A to B and back to A, and the Sahelian snippets he recorded are far from the best music available in that region.
Sure, every tune here is interesting for the first minute or so. Unfortunately, there are usually three more minutes to go, wherein Albarn simply restates the same thoughts over and over again. It's not until the thirteenth cut, the winsome "Le Hobon," that a tune sustains from pip to post. Throughout, Albarn's melodica noodling sounds tacked-on and utterly nonessential.
If you're looking for a great cross-cultural Euro-Sahel CD, check out Dembo Konté and Kausu Kuyateh's recently expanded and re-released 1989 album Jali Roll. The British group 3 Mustaphas 3 was the backing band for the two master West African musicians. Even in its lesser moments, that disc outshines the best on offer here, but in Jali Roll's finer moments, such as the utterly magical cut "Madiba Jabi," there is simply no comparison.
But maybe Albarn's dismal offering will at least steer somebody in the Jali Rolldirection. Maybe he's just crazy like a Gorilla -- uh, fox.