Various Artists: 1 Giant Leap; Mali Music
Jul 27, 2002
1 GIANT LEAP, Various Artists (Palm Pictures)
MALI MUSIC, Damon Albarn, Afel Bocoum, Toumani Diabate and Friends (Honest Jon’s Records)
"Dear …", went the form letter sent out to prospective collaborators. "We are recording an album and an audio-visual DVD for Palm Pictures, fusing spoken word, musicians, sounds, rhythms and images from all around the world. The project will celebrate the creative diversity of a number of artistes, storytellers, scientists, authors and philosophers from different cultures to show the deeper unity shared by us all. The final piece will be like a music-based time-capsule of planet earth now, including the most tuned-in artists, thinkers and images of the moment".
It was signed Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman, a pair of London-based musician-filmmakers, previously involved with groups such as Faithless and Take That.
The response was encouraging, and with laptop and digicam they set out on a 25-country-tour to make 1 Giant Leap. They even got as far as New Zealand, where the voices of Whirimako Black and George Nuku were filed on their hard drive alongside those of Michael Stipe, Robbie Williams, Baaba Maal, Kurt Vonnegut and Asha Bhosle, the sounds of tablas, djembes, darbookas, sepeweras, and other assorted exotica. Finally the whole thing was taken back to London for editing and mixing.
Catto and Bridgeman’s modus operandi appears at first to have been truly collaborative. Turning up in Senegal or Darjeeling with the musical outline of a track already prepared, they invited the local musicians to play along in real time rather than simply sampling them.
At its best the result is a multi-cultural traffic jam – noisy, urban, chaotic and wild, voices blaring, instruments hooting. And yet the overall effect remains one of slick, high-production pop, albeit with some colourful flourishes.
As for tuned-in thought, there are some undeniably poetic moments, notably from our own Whirimako Black. But are the voices really speaking to each other, or are the Asian and African poets as confused as I am when that noted philosopher Robbie Williams sings "I feel what I’m feeling is surreal/I’m a mass of spinning wheels/always digging in my heels"?
Sweeter to my ears, partly because it is rougher and crankier, is Mali Music, another project of British origin, this time driven by Blur and Gorillaz prime mover Damon Albarn. The result of a sojourn in Mali at the behest of Oxfam, it may be no purer in either its origins or intentions than 1 Giant Leap. Albarn has remixed and overdubbed his field-recordings to create an album unlike any African record I’ve ever heard. Instead I’m reminded of Augustus Pablo’s dub reggae masterpiece, East of the River Nile, an album that brilliantly imagined an Africa the artist had never even visited.
Crucially, though, Albarn has thrown himself into the music of Malian masters like Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate, rather than the reverse, the result being that even when it is Albarn thumping the hand drum or plunking a thumb piano, the groove is unmistakably African. And when he gets out his melodica he finds his own path into a style that existed long before he showed up.
By contrast, 1 Giant Leap, for all its diversity of languages and scales, sounds inescapably English. You can’t imagine this potpourri being concocted by any of the cultures visited by Catto and Bridgeman. When did an Indian, African or Maori last go to Britain seeking soundbites of wisdom to pep up their product?
Of course, sonically it’s magnificent. There are textures to send shivers down your spine, and as an advertisement for what can be done with Apple Mac’s Logic Audio software it is spectacular. And its underlying mission is noble if naïve; Lord knows, at this point humanity needs all the unity it can get.
It is interesting, heartening even, that musicians from 25 different countries can be blended seamlessly into a whole. But in the end, wouldn’t music be more diverse and exciting if they couldn’t?