World stars of Africa Express seek to revive Mali's music industry

The Africa Express has been touring Bamako looking for new talent

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A collective of musicians from around the world, known as Africa Express, is in the Malian capital, Bamako to give the music industry a much-needed boost.

The event is taking place just a few months after the defeat, by French-led troops, of Islamist militants who took over the northern part of the country last year.

In their attempt to introduce Sharia (Islamic law), the militants destroyed ancient shrines and monuments and banned secular music in a country known for having some of the finest performers in Africa.

The Islamists decreed that only Koranic verses could be sung and started confiscating recordings from radio stations, destroying instruments and forcing artists to flee.

Start Quote

Music is in language. It's in everything”

End Quote Damon Albarn Co-founder, Africa Express

Two musical gatherings which used to attract performers and fans from all over the world - the Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu, and the Festival on the Niger, in Segou - were cancelled.

For a nation where music is central to everyday life, this was a tragedy.

In a show of solidarity with Mali's musicians - many of whom denounced at great personal risk what was happening in the north - artists working with Africa Express have come to Bamako to help revitalise the music scene.

"It's totally abhorrent to any musician to be told they can't play music… It's a very particular interpretation of the Koran that prohibits all music," said Damon Albarn, one of the Africa Express co-founders.

"I mean, what is music itself? Music is everywhere, every day. If you're gonna genuinely do that, you prohibit all sound because music is in language, it's in everything," the Blur frontman told the BBC.

Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Olubenga Brian Eno, Damon Albarn and Olugbenga are among the Africa Express musicians taking part in the Malian recording project
'Living music'

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The players are so extraordinarily good that it does make me think I might consider another career”

End Quote Brian Eno Musician

He and around 20 other musicians and producers - among them the legendary Brian Eno, Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner, Django Django's David Maclean, Andre de Ridder and Olugbenga - have come to Bamako to source new talent. Their aim is to offer these new artists a starting point in their international careers.

Local artists were invited to perform at the Maison des Jeunes - one of Bamako's favourite hangouts for young people.

For the last few days, members of Africa Express have been considering which ones to include in an album they are recording in an improvised studio on the site.

Brian Eno said that for him, the process of selecting the Malian musicians had been a humbling experience.

"I've just been listening to them and I said to Damon: 'This is a week-long musical humiliation.' The players are so extraordinarily good that it does make me think I might consider another career," he told BBC Africa.

"The other thing about Mali is that this is a real living music. It's not sort of a heritage music, it's not some celebration of something that was great 50 years ago. This is a music that is living and changing now," he said.

Malian artists performing at Bamako's Maison des Jeunes Young musicians have been auditioning for the chance to take part in the album
'In love with Mali'

For local musicians, this has been an extraordinary opportunity to showcase their work.

"For me, it's been a huge surprise. It's the first time I play with musicians who are not from Mali," said 20-year-old singer Kankou Kouyate, who captivated the Africa Express artists and producers. They have already recorded with her.

"It's good to have foreign musicians coming to Mali because there are a lot of great artists here that need recognition for their work," she said.

Kankou Kouyate, singer Kankou Kouyate says the project is a huge opportunity

Damon Albarn founded Africa Express in 2006 after a chance meeting with journalist Ian Birrell at the Festival in the Desert.

"I came to Mali the first time in 2000… I fell in love with the music of this country and I found the people extremely receptive to 'foreigners'. It's not a term I like to use," Albarn said.

"You know, I felt the culture was very sure of itself, had a very clear sense and connection with its past, and its oral tradition was still totally intact. I had never experienced that sort of immersion in music that I found here."

The group's first trip was, of course, Bamako but they have also taken musicians to Ethiopia, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

They have also produced live collaborations at events such as Glastonbury festival and the BBC's Electric Proms.

Last year they toured the UK for a week on a train with some 80 leading musicians from Africa, Europe and other parts of the world.

Africa Express will also headline the Fiesta des Suds festival in the French city of Marseille on Saturday 19 October.

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