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Mali Music - Mali Music

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Artist: Mali Music

Album: Mali Music

Label: Astralwerks

Review date: Nov. 4, 2002

Blurring Cultural Boundaries

Damon Albarn’s latest project finds the Blur frontman diving head-on into world music. Based upon a series of trips to Africa, where Albarn jammed-with and recorded local musicians, the songs on Mali Music were then pieced together from the 40 hours of tape that was collected.

Obviously, fans of Blur will certainly be surprised by the turn Albarn has taken with Mali Music. Far from anglophile art-pop, the record is truly a world disc – even if occasionally made a bit more digestible courtesy of dub bass lines and mild electronics. In that respect, the record is far closer to the work that Albarn has done with Gorillaz. Like Gorrillaz, Mali Music is a blend of many styles, cut and crafted into a marketable pop.

World music purists may scoff at the Western touches, (the house beats and tribal chant of “Makelekele”), but Albarn has done a commendable job of producing tracks that showcase the power of Malian music, while also ultimately creating an album that wouldn’t be out of place next to the swank modern grooves of Thievery Corporation or other modern downtempo stars.

Swinging between more traditional Malian cuts and Albarn’s chill-out room reworkings, the album offers everything from intricate trip-hop to live Malian recordings. “Spoons,” with its espionage-heavy slinky piano riff and Albarn’s “yeah, yeah, yeah” mumblings would provide the perfect soundtrack for James Bond’s African vacation. “Tennessee Hotel” is one of the most intricate compositions on the record. Amidst a bed of buzzing crickets, Albarn layers guitar, Melodica, spoken-word, half-sung vocals, creating a fascinating exploration of sound. “Sunset Coming On” is the only true pop song on the album. Swirling violins, keyboards, guitar and hand drums frame Albarn as he transforms a simple Melodica riff into a cut destined for inclusion on many a chill-out compilation.

Occasionally, Albarn goes a little overboard in his attempts to repackage the music for Western hipsters (the aforementioned “Makelekele”). Yet, more often than not, Albarn is surprisingly light-handed with his production, giving the tracks a remarkably natural feel. For those unaccustomed to world music, Mali Music will take some getting used to. But even the most uninitiated listeners will eventually be won over by the elliptical grooves and fascinating field recordings.

By Ethan Covey

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