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World Music Features

Damon Albarn and Afel Bocoum

By Phil Meadley
Published January 26, 2006

“In any kind of music, you can’t really start to understand it until you’ve been to the country. You can appreciate it but to actually understand it you have to go there."--Damon Albarn

When Damon Albarn—Blur lead singer, Gorillaz conspirator and Britpop icon—was asked to go to Mali as a goodwill ambassador for Oxfam (a major U.K.-based non-profit organization that fights famine all over the world), many believed that he would be taking a downward slide into the murky world of the charity celebrity. After all, Albarn’s do-gooder predecessors included the Spice Girls and Princess Di, so anyone would’ve been forgiven for dismissing the idea as a Third World paparazzi glitter fest. It wouldn’t have been the first time that a star’s involvement in a cause threatened to put a glossy sheen over deplorable situations that demand long-term governmental initiatives, not quick fix celebrity weeping.

            In fact, no one was more aware of this than Damon Albarn, the singer and keyboardist of the mega-popular Blur since the British band’s formation in 1988. Asked in 1999 to film a documentary about the various projects supported by Oxfam, Albarn showed interest but politely declined. Instead he suggested that a better way of approaching the situation would be to use his favored medium of expression, music, to collaborate with Malian musicians as a kind of cultural exchange.

             “I told them that I’d love to help but I don’t feel that a documentary would be the appropriate way,” Albarn explains at the BBC Television Centre in London. Later that evening Albarn is set to appear with celebrated Malian musician Afel Bocoum, alongside members of Albarn’s alter-ego band the Gorillaz and various other Malian collaborators, on the respected live television music show Later With Jools Holland. Also sandwiched into the tiny dressing room is translator/World Circuit tour manager Fish Krish, who relates questions in French to the bi-lingual Bocoum.

 “I think that the (celebrity) documentary is kind of an outmoded way of getting a message across. I watched Live Aid like everyone else,” he says, referring to the massive 1985 concert that raised money to combat famine in Ethiopia. “I felt a little bit empty about the way this event was supposed to be about helping Africa, but ended up being all about Western culture. So I said that I would go out there but only if I could go there to listen to the music and see if I could make any kind of connection.

            “I really do feel that there has to be a re-think of the way people tackle these problems,” he elaborates, clearly fired up by this avenue of inquiry. “I know a lot of people are very well-meaning but actually I think the West is completely numb to this level of suffering and poverty. There has to be a quantum leap made and hopefully we are a part of that.”