What Is Up with Damon Albarn? The New David Byrne or Just a World-Music Lovin,’ Appropriatin’ Jerk?

January 19, 2009

Once upon a time, Damon Albarn had a little English band called Blur.  This band made its fame in the 1990s through an keenly timed synthesis of British pop history, from the Beatles and the Kinks to the Jam to the Smiths.  When Blur chose to imitate a style, it wasn’t because they weren’t original, but because they had a thorough mastery of each of the styles: sharp, biting, Ray Davies-esque lyrics in “Country House” or “Ballad of a Charmless Man;” the Beatles in the heroin-slow-yet-completely-apropos “Beatlebum;” Johnny Marr-inspired guitar licks…well, in a lot of places.

In image, too, the band explored and exploited the visual stylings of British subcultures past: check out the rolled-up skinhead pants and slightly dirty mod jackets (No mod would be dressed in a dirty jacket, mind you) in the band’s infamous “British Image #1” promo shot:

Blur, pimping out subcultures British

Blur, pimping out subcultures British

I won’t get into what Blur, and Britpop more generally, did for reinvigorating a sense of “Cool Britannia,” or setting up a path to make it OK to wear the English flag across your boobies a la Geri Halliwell, or how they were middle-class kids slumming it and made it OK for middle-class kids to be slumming it until Oasis came along, or anything like that.  Really, that’s not the point of this post.  The example to the left serves just to remind us that Damon Albarn was willing to use his own people before he got to the present day, when he generally likes to collaborate with world music stars and force them into his own stylistic world.

In recent years, Albarn has worked with hip-hop fiends on his Gorillaz albums, wherein Jamie Hewlitt’s simian cartoon characters problematically replace real people; recorded musicians in Mali on a project called Mali Music (2002); added superawesome Nigerian funky drummer Tony Allen to The Good, the Bad, and the Queen (2007); and collaborated with Hewlitt again on the Chinese opera, Monkey: Journey to the West (2008), based on a 16th-century folktale; and produced Amadou and Mariam’s well regarded single, “Sambali” (2008).

As a fan of Blur, I kind of want to say, “Well, as long as the music is good…” and dismiss my hesitation about these projects.   As a fan of music more generally, I tend to think that collaboration is a good thing, and that exposing audiences to really great music from other cultures is a definite plus.  As an ethnomusicologist, though, something about these collaborations really bugs me.  In the courses I’ve taken on world music, I’ve read articles that have gone over the problems of appropriation, inequality in production, and difficulties in collaboration in these kinds of projects.  I’ve read David Byrne talk about how he “hates world music” as a term for good reasons and then contradict himself in his practices.  I’ve read numerous ethnomusicologists take on Paul Simon’s rather inappropriate appropriation of various musical styles on Graceland, where he gets sole songwriting credit on songs that clearly are much more the product of other people’s labor.

And so, listening to Damon Albarn’s post-Blur work certainly troubles me.  Below, a list of a few of those things and why they bug me:

1. Mali Music (2002).  Albarn went to Mali, hung out with good musicians, recorded them, edited it down, and came up with an album that many people called “authentic.”  Aside from the strange issue of some English pop musician determining authenticity in Malian music, I have heard that his own collaborators thought he was a bit of a joke.  That, at least, makes me feel better.

I haven’t really listened to this album that much, but I will say this: the thing that bugs me the most is the sticker on the cover.  Among other quotes, Paul Weller extolls, “Brilliant… a perfect way in to the music of Mali.”  OK, so I love Paul Weller, but I don’t really care if he thinks its a great intro to the music of Mali because I doubt he knows anything about said music.  It reminds me of a quote in John Harris’s Britpop Bible, The Last Party, regarding Weller’s involvement in Labour Party politics via the Red Wedge: “You would have Paul Weller waxing lyrical about Labour’s employment policy.  Well, franky, who cares what Paul Weller thinks?”

2. The Good, the Bad, and the Queen (2007).  Aside from being the most boring album I purchased in 2007, the entire project seemed a waste of Tony Allen’s talents.  A paean to London, it once again called on the musical styles of Albarn’s native land.  As a collaboration, though, it had a lot of promise, pulling in Paul Simonon and Simon Tong, as well as the aforementioned Tony Allen.  The other two worked quite well in the English milieu, but Allen became a regular, dull four-on-the-floor kind of drummer.  So, you go and recruit the best Nigerian funk drummer ever, and you make him play really boring beats?  What is the point of that?

3. Monkey: Journey to the East (2008).  Albarn went to China, recorded the sounds of the streets, and then had an instrument built that he calls a “klaxophone,” which reproduces said sounds.  He uses pentatonic scales.  And this, my friends, is China.  (I say sarcastically.)  At first, when I listened to it, I thought, “This isn’t as bad as it could be.”  And some of it is, in fact, great pop music.  It’s when Albarn tries to ape (sorry for the pun) the Chinese musical styles that it becomes a sigh-worthy production.

4. “Sambali,” Amadou and Mariam (2008).  When I first heard this song, I thought, “How does anyone who’s heard ‘Monkey Bee’ not recognize that this is the same thing?” OK, that’s a little facile.  Here’s what I mean: both songs employ Victrola-esque female vocals somewhat divorced from any other musical context.  Each song then employs a variety of synthesized sounds recalling the minimalist stylings of Philip Glass, as well as string sections that are inserted into the song to greater or lesser degree.  The only thing separating them is that “Sambali” features a sparser texture and no interacting male voice.  It’s as though Mariam Doumbia’s voice is an isolated, disembodied departure point, rather than a source of collaboration.

And, that, I think is what bothers me the most.  Collaboration implies equal footing, and that simply isn’t here in any of this music.  It’s especially galling to hear Mariam Doumbia as a heavily electronified, distant voice, essentially unengaged with the musical setting below, since this is the extreme version of the way that many women are presented in “world music”: disembodied voices, signifying the “Other.”

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