Most people wouldn’t choose to record a new album in a country where extremist militants last year attempted to outlaw music itself, but Damon Albarn isn’t most people. The Blur frontman rounded up a motley crew including Brian Eno and members of Metronomy, Django Django and Yeah Yeah Yeahs to travel to Bamako, in conflict-torn Mali in West Africa. There they convened with a group of African musicians at a youth club where they recorded a fascinating and funky new record named after the club itself: ‘Maison Des Jeunes’.
It’s part of the Africa Express project, but while they’ve visited Ethiopia and toured the UK by train in previous years, producing a whole albumwas a new challenge. Even as an Africa Express veteran, Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner was blown away by this year’s adventure: “I’ve never been a part of anything like this at all. It was non-stop music: writing and recording all the time. It was one of the most inspiring experiences of my life.”
Zinner plays on one of the album’s standout tracks ‘Soubour’, joining the group Songhoy Blues for their first ever studio session. The band formed last year in opposition to the ban on music which the jihadist rebels who controlled the north of the country were trying to enforce. “The band are originally from Timbuktu,” Zinner explains, “but they fled because of the absurd law.”
It took Zinner some time to adjust to his new studio surroundings. “They literally had one amp,” he explains. “Then one acoustic guitar and a bunch of microphones, but these guys came in and just immediately started playing and jamming. It’s an amazing song with a phenomenal guitar riff so I loved it immediately from the first time I heard them play.”
Albarn adds backing vocals to the track, but Zinner says the singer is happy to let all of the participating musicians do their own thing. “He’s incredibly open and encouraging and inspiring,” he says, “Ultimately it’s his undertaking but he wants everyone to be equally involved.”
He says he was more star struck by having Brian Eno join the trip: “It’s so mind-blowing that he’s right there, but so cool because he’s such a lovely guy. In the back of your head you’re like: ‘Fuck! It’s Brian Eno!’”
So can we expect the next Yeah Yeah Yeahs record to be full of Malian rhythms and songs of resistance against those who seek to banmusic? Maybe. “We recorded some incredible music,” says Zinner. “I don’t know specifically what will come from it, but with so many rhythms and songs around and resonating with me then it’s going to come out in some way.”
Originally published in NME, 14 December 2013.