On Damon Albarn’s DRC Music Collaboration

by Thomas Brett

It wasn’t all that long ago that indigenous, folk, popular, and art musics from Africa, Asia, South America, the South Pacific, the Caribbean–heck from most anywhere outside of North America and Western Europe–were hard to come by, relegated to the “international” or “world music” bins at your local record store.  Then, in the late 1980s, we saw Western pop stars such as Peter Gabriel and David Byrne become curators of non western music.  Both Gabriel and Byrne started their own (successful) record labels (Gabriel founding Real World Records, Byrne Luaka Bop) to release music by artists from all corners of the world.  In general, this kind of curating been a good thing: many of the recordings are excellent and they’ve brought new sounds to the ears of many North American music fans formerly unaware of musics from outside their beloved western pop and classical canons.  The curators themselves have too, I imagine, also been deeply influenced by the musics they’ve released.

Damon Albarn follows in this tradition of rock star as curator but his intent is more about having a shared musical experience with his collaborators to create new, hybrid work.  His first such collaboration was Mali Music (2002), where Albarn packed his melodica and some recording gear and traveled to Mali to work with Malian musicians including Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate, and others.  Some of this music sounded quite traditional and some of it quite un-Malian–like this final track, “Les Escrocs”, which sounds like it’s built around a sample of a field recording Alburn made during his visit.  But from there, it moves into very different musical territory:

This year, Albarn formed DRC Music to release Kinshasa One Two (2011).  Like Mali Music, DRC Music is an Oxfam-sponsored initiative (with proceeds going to Oxfam’s work in Africa), this time bringing together Albarn and some other electronic musicians and producers who travelled to the Democratic Republic Of Congo to collaborate with local musicians there.  In addition to Albarn, the visiting musicians include Darren Cunningham (aka Actress), Richard Russell, Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs, Dan The Automator, Jneiro Jarel, Marc Antoine, Alwest, Remi Kabaka, Rodaidh McDonald, and Kwes.  The Congolese musicians include Tout Puissant Mukao, Nelly Liyemge, Bokatola System, Evala Litongo, Yende Bongongo of Okwess International, Magakala Virginia Yollande, Jupiter Bokondji, Bebson, Washiba, and others.

Describing his solution to the question of how to structure his cross-cultural collaboration which has been characterized as “African pop futurism” (SPIN) and “thrillingly immediate & disorientatingly strange” (The Telegraph), Abarn says:

“I thought, well, an easy way to get around would be to invite a group of producers … give them five days, give them maximum access to the musicians in Kinshasa, and try to interpret what they were playing to us [...] The basic premise was that they would play and we would record, and then go off to our computers and sort of manipulate the sounds. There was one rule, which was that every sound we used had to come from the experiences we were having in Congo.”

Here is the promotional trailer for the recording, featuring its first track, “Hallo”:

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So then, what is this music?  Is it a real collaboration or are the local Congolese musicians just Albarn’s latest musical muse?  It’s hard to say for sure.  Some songs like “Hallo” (which is based on a sample Albarn made while in Kinshasa) seem to be mostly-Albarn affairs, with guest vocals of Nelly Liyemge adding local flavor. Other songs like “Love” sound like straight up, unadorned field recordings.  The second half of the album especially gets into far-out sonic territory; you can hear snippets and samples of Congolese musicians but they’re melted into a dense electronic soundscape.

It’s interesting to me that Albarn says “they would play and we would record, and then go off to our computers and sort of manipulate the sounds.” Let’s clarify this: not sort of manipulate, but really manipulate: making field recordings, sampling instrument sounds and voices, and then cutting them up and re-organizing them on laptops.  While this creative process can and does lead to fascinating results, it isn’t exactly an even collaboration, is it? Indeed, it feels as if the local musicians are working for the visitors. It’s also significant that Albarn says that “every sound we used had to come from the experiences we were having in Congo.”  From this we get a sense of the Albarn’s sense of compositional rigor being as strict as a 12-tone composer using only this or that particular note set.  Maybe this self-imposed set of rules is to ensure that the project embodies some kind of “authenticity”?  You can hear this rigor on tracks like track 10, “Three Piece Sweet” which features the sounds of an ingenious homemade drum kit (like that shown in the pic above).

Sonically, there’s much here that is fascinating and rewarding of multiple listenings. One of my favorite tracks is track 10, “Virginia” that somehow combines a tuned percussive sound with field recordings of children and adults talking, and some computer processing.  It’s three minutes of almost unclassifiable sonics that don’t try to represent anything or be authentic in any way, yet still manage to be moving:

There might be good reasons to try to further dissect cross-cultural musical projects like DRC Music because of how they might shed light on (asymmetrical) power relations between what has been labelled “the west and the rest.”  Musical practice is as good a forum as any other for exploring the politics of power and who gets a “voice.”  Indeed, what kind of voice do the African musicians on this recording really have and is it the one that they wanted or imagined they’d have when they agreed to participate?  Also, when they played for those microphones were they compensated in any way or did they just get a free copy of the finished recording?  Or will there maybe be tour at some point?  I have no idea.  But listening to the recorded sounds on Kinshasa One Two makes me wonder about all the sounds that never made it onto the record, sitting on a hard drive somewhere, waiting to be used on some other project.

To learn more about one UK musician’s experience participating in the DRC project, go here.

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