Days after the Record Store Day exclusive release of ‘Maison Des Junes’, and with the long-awaited solo album by Damon Albarn out this week, it seems like the ideal time to talk to Africa Express.
A collective put together by Albarn, Guardian columnist Ian Birrell, music executive Stephen Budd and others, the group sees western musicians collaborate with lesser-known African artists both on record and in unique live spaces, making western audiences aware of the outrageous amounts of talent in countries across Africa.
Having united 85 musicians from over 42 countries on a train around Britain previously, their latest project, ‘Maison Des Junes’, could yet prove their most worthy. This is due to the location of this most recent project, Mali, having had two thirds of its country overtaken by an alliance of Islamists in July 2012, who, after rolling into the nation in their dust-clad trucks, made it theirs, defeating the Malian army and promptly imposing their interpretation of sharia law on the vulnerable citizens.
Pretty much any music other than that of traditional Qu’ranic verses was banned; fires reduced radio stations to dust; recording equipment, collected over various lifetimes, were destroyed; instruments were added to the heap; and Khaira Arby, a musician from the North known as the ‘Nightingale of the North’, faced threats of having her tongue cut out.
Although this trouble seemed to have ended within six months, when French forces overthrew the Islamists in January 2013 and for a short time music was enjoyed once again, it did not last long though as a state of emergency soon befell the nation, banning weddings, concerts, and christenings, dragging away the events that put food on a tables of musicians, again plunging them into poverty.
This state of emergency was not lifted for a further 6 months, meaning musicians remained starved and without work for a year, whilst the rest of Mali was deprived of the very lifeblood that flows through its arteries; music.
Although musicians can now legally play, there is still a swathe of issues that plague them in their careers and music remains in a far worse state than it was before the Islamic revolt. Africa Express, therefore, decided on the project ‘Maison Des Junes’ – a recording of an album in a youth club in Bamako. It would see western artists such as Brian Eno, Olugbenga of Metronomy and Damon Albarn collaborate with lesser-known Mali artists, throwing light on the wealth of talent in Mali and hopefully enticing tourists to visit once again.
Africa Express Director Stephen Budd speaks to me today from his London office. A large poster of afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti hangs behind him, as if to make concrete his love for African music, and throughout the interview his fervour and excitement for the Africa Express project is infectious.
We discuss the current situation in Mali and assess the possible impact this project has had or could have on these musicians in the future.
When did you decide to go to Mali?
“I think there’d been a desire to go back to Mali for quite a long time. There was a lot of desire to do something in Mali and work with the people in there because of what had gone on over the last couple of years, and I guess we decided that we were going to go back probably about last April.
“It was to show solidarity to the musicians in Mali. We made a lot of musical friends on the first trip there and we wanted to reconnect with those people, but we’d also heard there were a lot of great musicians who were not getting any attention and we wanted to find out who those people were.”
Was your aim to put focus on musicians who, as yet, remain unearthed?
“Absolutely. It’s like quite a few of the Malian musicians who are internationally known are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, people like Oumou Sangare, Selif Keita, Amadou Mariam. There are one or two younger ones, Fatoumata Diawara, being a notable one, but there are relatively few in their 20s and this is an opportunity to give them a little bit of a focus.”
How excited where they by this opportunity?
“Well, they were very excited, like any other artist would be, but we don’t want them to be grateful, we’re very happy for them to be just going out and playing. If we’ve been able to contribute something to their career internationally, then we’re very happy about that.”
Did you find these musicians were less confident to play following the troubles?
“I don’t think the people lack confidence. One thing that comes to Malian musicians very naturally is that they are filled with confidence, willingness and a desire to play, but they lack a platform, they lack a stage, they lack an opportunity sometimes. This has given some of them a little window of opportunity and shone some light on them already, which is fantastic and that’s the purpose of what this is, to shine the attention on the quality of Malian musicians and give them a sort of opportunity.
“It wasn’t hard to find musicians to record with there. I mean, people were very happy that we were there and very keen to get involved in the project, and extremely enthusiastic so it was very easy to find people, it was very easy for us to find an enormous pool of talent.”
From associating with the musicians, how did you find the troubles affected them?
“Well, you know, it’s made it very hard to earn a living – economically, the war has affected them. In the North, you know, they were forced out of their homes, recording materials were destroyed, instruments confiscated and destroyed; for that period, it was extremely disruptive and it’s not safe for the people to go up yet, a lot of the musicians have not left Bamako and returned to the North, so effectively their whole livelihoods have been turned on their head, so it’s been pretty tough for a lot of them.
“You know what music means to you, I know what it means to me, and if it was taken out of my life I know how difficult I’d find it, so for us it’s a shocking concept and for the Malians it’s a shocking concept. I think music has even more social importance in Mali; music was used to communicate news, all sorts of aspects of social life.”
What is the current situation like for musicians in Mali?
“You know a lot of the clubs in Bamako had been very quiet and some of them had closed down so, you know, things are starting to get back to normal again. This is a country that has been on a fairly instable road, so nightlife tends to take a bit of a backstop, but the musicians nevertheless want to play – it’s so much ingrained in their culture. Things have been pretty disrupted by the war – I mean, the festivals they had, Festival of The Desert, other musical events, just the sort of commerce and to be able to play and play at people’s weddings people can’t afford it, all of that stuff was badly disrupted by the war. There’s a bit of fighting going on. It’s still fairly instable from what I hear, but people have started to go out and you know attend events, so it’s an improving situation I would say.
“There are discussions about festivals starting up again in Mali, I am aware of a discussion about a big new festival that the Malian government wants to help bring back, so it can shine a light again on Malian music, and do what we talked about earlier about in bringing tourists back. In fact, I’m waiting to have a discussion about that in the next couple of weeks to see if there’s some involvement we can contribute.”
How do you assess the impact the album could potentially have for these artists?
“Well, it got a lot of publicity and I imagine that’s kept it on peoples minds and peoples agendas. It got a lot of airplay, the physical release of the album has come out on double vinyl and cd, and there’s another album we’re looking at releasing in September or October of one specific project. Plus, it now looks like one of the artists we brought over for the launch of the album in the UK, as a result of that, is getting a record deal with a proper record company, which is quite exciting because they will be one of the first African artists to sing with a mainstream label for a very long time and that’s as a direct result of this project. So, we hope that will be kept alive and the lifetime of this album will continue for quite a while.”
I’m guessing this was another project that allowed you to see music overcome language barriers?
“Yes, I think is the answer. Our experience has been yes, some of them have a smattering of English, of course, they all speak French and some of the western artists have a smattering of French. While we were there we would have people who could speak both languages and that would help, but to be honest the general experience when I was talking to producers that don’t speak French is that it wasn’t an impediment to getting creative with people, they still managed to get stuck in and get creative with music. Even if they couldn’t speak the language, the musical context allowed them to create something meaningful.”
Is that one of the greatest things you’ve seen?
“It’s one of the most joyous things, absolutely, you know it’s a cliché to say music brings people together, in fact didn’t Madonna say that, but it’s true, you know, it’s absolutely true, it’s very difficult to fight with someone that you dance with.”