Release Date: Nov 8, 2011
Record label: Warp
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, International
The Democratic Republic Of Congo is a country ravaged by decades of civil war, military coups and disputed elections, not to mention the ongoing pillage of its natural resources and the massacre, rape and torture of its citizens by bands of armed militia. It’s incredible that any contemporary Congolese music has managed to reach Western ears. But we’re lucky that it has, otherwise we’d have been denied the pleasures of Konono No 1’s thrilling Afro-rave cacophony, or Staff Benda Bilili’s exhilarating junkyard bop.
At the dawn of the 2000s, Damon Albarn traveled to Mali and made some recordings with a handful of local musicians, later shaped into Mali Music, a curious, casual, satisfyingly undefined collaborative foray that marked the starting point of his continued public fascination with the music of Africa. Ten years later -- following a decade that found the incessantly networking Albarn joining forces with many more African musicians through his myriad musical guises (Gorillaz, Blur, the Good, the Bad & the Queen), not to mention releasing the work of several others via his Honest Jon's label -- he returned to the continent for a similar project with a considerably grander scope, descending on metropolis of Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with a veritable army of British and American producers (ten of them, including Actress, Dan the Automator, Jneiro Jarel, and XL Recordings head Richard Russell) to interface with a much larger number of Congolese players and vocalists. What's more, the whole recording process lasted a mere five days.
David Toop imagined future music in his book Ocean of Sound as "all winking lights and digital exchanges across alien cultures." In July of this year Blur/Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn brought a group of producers to Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in an attempt to forge some of those exchanges of his own. Along for the ride were XL Recordings boss Richard Russell, frequent Albarn collaborator Dan the Automator, and self-styled "R&B concrete" producer Actress. Over the course of five days, local musicians came and went, bringing with them various esoteric instruments and lending their vocals to different songs, while Albarn's producer-collective worked as a unit to fashion the finished product into Kinshasa One Two.
It's a credit to Damon Albarn's reinvention of himself as a musical polymath that he can announce a project as bold as this – bringing a stellar cast of dance and hip-hop producers to the Democratic Republic of Congo to collaborate with local musicians – and it almost feels like business as usual. "Is that all?" you're tempted to ask. He's not even going to convert the results into the Pelog scale and stage it as an opera? Underwater? Dude's slacking off.
Altruism aside, musical charity records are usually giant creative busts. “We Are the World” may have helped starving Africans, but I’d rather listen to 30 Rock‘s “Kidney Now!” Proving these efforts can actually sound good, Gorillaz/Blur head Damon Albarn organized DRC Music, comprised of himself, hip-hop producer extraordinaire Dan the Automator, and over 50 local musicians out of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Don’t let the names attached fool you, though; this is a mere minor musical distraction.
Former Blur member-turned-master collaborator Damon Albarn led the ‘virtual band’ Gorillaz to the top of the charts with a little help from big name guests like MF Doom, Snoop Dogg, and Bobby Womack (not to mention Bruce Willis), and in 2006 he spearheaded the Good, The Bad And The Queen project with Danger Mouse, Paul Simonon of the Clash and Tony Allen of Fela Kuti’s Africa 70 band. For his newest collaboration, Albarn returned to territory similar to what he explored on his 2002 record, Mali Music, with the new DRC Music project. Made up of a group of producers including T-E-E-D (Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs), Dan The Automator and Jneiro Jarel among others, the DRC Music producers adventured to the Congo earlier this year with the plan to make an album in seven days and donate all proceeds to Oxfam.
An intriguing mixture of the ancient and contemporary, with every track different. Robin Denselow 2011 Kinshasa is a vast, sprawling and chaotic city with a glorious musical tradition. The capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo may have suffered from war and dictatorship, with the result that many live in poverty, eking out a living on the streets; but there’s also an energy and a wild optimism that is reflected in the sounds that can be heard across the city.