Damon Albarn's musical excursion to the Congo

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DRC Music
  • DRC Music
Damon Albarn of Blur and Gorillaz fame has long worn his musical curiosity on his sleeve, from his involvement with the terrific, casually eclectic London label Honest Jon’s to organizing freeform, collaborative recording projects in Africa—such as the surprisingly decent Mali Music project where he worked with greats like Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate. Earlier this summer he planned an ambitious trip to the Congo, bringing along some singular electronic music producers like Actress and Dan the Automator to work with a raft of singers and musicians from Kinshasa. They worked quickly. Kinshasa One Two (released by Warp a couple of weeks ago and billed to DRC Music) was made in just five days. Proceeds from the album benefit Oxfam.

By its very nature the collaboration is sprawling and a bit uneven. On some tracks house, dubstep, or hip-hop grooves dominate, with Congolese singers or musicians trying to find their place, while other tunes find the Africans performing instinctually and forcing the visitors to adapt. “Virginia” sounds like little more than an eavesdropped conversation blended into a minimal electronic track, while “We Come From the Forest,” which prominently features Bokatola System, sounds like something that might turn up on a Congotronics album, with primitive percussion, driving likembe riffs, and chanted vocals. Sometimes the meetings don’t jell and sometimes they do, but I’ve found nearly all of the attempts rewarding in one way or another. The technological and financial gap between the UK and the Congo doesn't affect a shared musicality, as many of the Congolese participants—none of whom I was previously familiar with—sound totally conversant in the styles the producers traffic in; rhythmically, most of the singers fit into the modern beats with complete ease. Albarn and company seem determined not to control the shit too much and the short timeline seems to have prevented the results from sounding calculated and slick. Below you can watch the video for the album opener “Hallo,” which as the lead single naturally features generous singing from Albarn—though his voice is generally a faint presence on the album.

I’ll also be playing “We Come From the Forest” later tonight when I make my monthly appearance on WBEZ’s Radio M with Tony Sarabia—the show begins at 9 PM, and I’ll be on around 9:30. I’ll also play music from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Ghana, Mali, and Norway.

Today’s playlist:

Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack & Donnie Hathaway (Atlantic)
Stefano Pilia, The Suncrows Fall and Tree (Sedimental)
Jorn Øien Trio, Digging in the Dark (Bolage)
Ramon Lazkano, Hauskor/Ortzi Isilak/Ilunkor (Kairos)
Jackson 5, Diana Ross Presents the Jackson 5/ABC (Motown)

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