In July of 2000, in between work on a number of musical projects and seemingly as a means of unplugging from the world as he knew it, Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn traveled to Mali with a melodica, a DAT recorder, and 2 sound engineers as part of a project for Oxfam. His mission was simple: to go to “the middle of nowhere” and record collaborations between professional (known) Malian and street musicians and himself…on the street, on boats, anywhere and everywhere.
The result, after almost 2 years and some studio magic to massage some of the raw sound elements (which at times were so guerilla that they proved unusable) Albarn released Mali Music. The album is a truly stunning portrait of Albarn’s experience in Mali. It really captures his wonder and has an inspired, joyful spirit. It is like a love letter to that time and place.
A little over a decade later, Albarn has done it again. However, this time he has pushed himself and a fantastic gang of production collaborators (Dan the Automator, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Jneiro Jarel to name a few) to the outer limits of comfort and control.
Albarn determined that he and his collaborators would travel to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for 7 days, and record with local musicians. Smack in the middle of Africa and sadly marred by a seemingly perpetual history of violence, the DRC is not a popular tourist destination. Whatever the outcome of the project, just on paper, this would not be as pleasant or romantic as his Mali excursion.
That being said, the collaboration; DRC Music is complete, and it is an edgy and moving listen. For the most part, to maximize their potential, the collaboration staged recording sessions at a central location in Kinshasa and via word of mouth different artists and musicians would swing by to share their ideas. When it was done, over 50 musicians came and went over a 5 day period, some with basic instruments, others with little more than a plastic bag as a percussive instrument.
Although there is an intensity to DRC Music, there are also suprisingly tender, haunting moments. For me the highlight is “Virginia,” a track with a toddler (presumably Virginia) singing and giggling.
DRC Music is a sobering reminder of the fragility of innocence and the beauty of human life, especially in crisis situations. Proceeds from the album go directly to assisting Oxfam’s humanitarian efforts in the DRC.