As big as the names may be, Damon Albarn has long been more than Blur and Gorillaz. He has been involved with music in Mali since his 2000 visit to the country with the international charity Oxfam; he soon recorded with Malian artists Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabaté; and eventually he produced Amadou And Mariam’s 2010 album Welcome To Mali. In 2006 he had a major stake in launching Africa Express, a coming together of African and Western (predominantly British) artists in the name of music, peace and cross-cultural exchange. And it includes a tour on an Africa Express train that makes stops at rail stations across the U.K., with the collaborative group writing and performing en route.
These compilations typically represent a few countries in Africa, but this go-round is heavily rooted with Malian artists.
Maison Des Jeunes means “Youth Club” in French, and it’s also a club/hostel and community space. But the record takes the title quite literally. Though the latest train tour may have included Mali’s heavy-hitters and internationally acclaimed artists, Africa Express Presents: Maison Des Jeunes is front-loaded with new, young talent.
Members of Songhoy Blues, an indie act out of Timbuktu, fled their homes in the north for the capitol of Bamako, due to the jihadist occupation in 2012. Upon arrival in Bamako, Songhoy Blues was formed (Songhoy people comprise a major ethnic group in northern Mali). Their Soubour was recorded with Nick Zinner for Africa Express during the band’s first ever studio session. It’s a clap-happy blues bit that’s equally representatives of the building blues of the Black Keys and the psychedelic desert-rock sound of Bombino, who is from Agedez in neighboring Niger.
Kankou Kouyaté (niece of the famous ngoni player Bassekou Kouyaté) is only 21 years old, but harbors an austere presence and unwavering, deep voice ripe with soul that complements the soft strings of Gambari, who she accompanies on Yamore.
There might appear to be a hodge-podge mish-mash of genres here, with artist credits ranging from U.K. funk producer Lil Silva to hip-hop’s heady Ghostpoet (who’s Season Change with Doucoura is another album stand-out), but the blending of these somewhat disparate sounds is seamless. The African musicians recorded here don’t yet have the illustrious cachet of who’s-who Western producers like Brian Eno or Nick Zinner. But these young men and women are worthy of watching as they kick-start their careers.