Music Interviews

ROBERT SIEGEL, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

GUY RAZ, host: And I'm Guy Raz. Here's a brief history of the sound evolution of Damon Albarn. Back in the 1990s, he fronted the hugely popular British indie band Blur.


RAZ: This past decade, Albarn turned the music industry on its head by forming a virtual band called Gorillaz. You never saw the humans in the band. They were represented by cartoon characters. And Gorillaz merged a variety of sounds: hip-hop, rock, dance and electronica.


GORILLAZ: (Singing) Finally, someone let me out of my cage. Now, time for me is nothing 'cause I'm counting no age.

RAZ: This year, Albarn's written and mounted an acclaimed opera based on the life of a 16th-century English mystic. Here's a performance of one of the songs from the opera.


DAMON ALBARN: (Singing) Pull the apple carts up from Silbury Hill higher into heaven revealed.

RAZ: Which brings us to this past summer. Damon Albarn went on a five-day journey to Kinshasa to produce an album of Congolese music.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: In Kinshasa, Albarn gathered a collective of Congolese performers, and he produced this new record. It's called "Kinshasa One Two," and it's just out now. All the proceeds go to the aid organization Oxfam. And the album is designed to bring attention to Congo, where corruption and a brutal civil war have left millions in extreme poverty. And Damon Albarn joins me now from London to talk more about the record. Welcome.

ALBARN: Thank you very much. That was a concise precis of my life.


RAZ: In about a minute and 20 seconds.


RAZ: I know you were approached by Oxfam to help produce a record. Why Congo? Why did you end up going there?

ALBARN: Well, I actually started my relationship with them 10 years ago, and I - they invited me out there. And I didn't really want to just sort of walk around and sort of be a sort of alien on the ground and stick out like a sore thumb. I wanted to get involved, and the thing that I'm passionate about is music. So they were amazingly open to the idea, and they introduced me to some extraordinary musicians from Mali. And there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then. But 10 years later, we felt that it was time to do another record in that - with that kind of spirit.


ALBARN: And this time, I just didn't have the sort of time that I had last time. And I thought, well, an easy way to get around that would be to invite a group of producers, not musicians, a group of producers, and take them and give them five days, give them maximum access to the musicians in Kinshasa and try to interpret what they were playing to us. Because, I mean, the basic premise was that they would play, and we would record and then go off to our computers and sort of manipulate the sounds and - but there was one rule, which was that every sound we use had to come from the experiences we were having in Congo.


RAZ: There are elements of dance music in here and electronic music and also very spare, more sort of traditional African music.

ALBARN: Yeah. Yeah. I think - I mean, it's only a snapshot really, if you like. I am a part of a radio broadcast of what was happening.


RAZ: There's a track on the record called "Customs," and it features a Congolese act called Bokatola System.

ALBARN: Yeah. They're from - they're (unintelligible) tribesmen and one tribeswoman.

RAZ: On that track, you hear these layers of sound, almost industrial sounds.


RAZ: Can you walk us through this track? Can you tell us what we're hearing?

ALBARN: Yeah. This came together just literally having a tape recorder, a hard drive recorder. Allison(ph), under a tree, and they're all playing thumb pianos. Now, for those who are not aware of what thumb piano is, it's kind of like a resonator box with strips of metal on, which are kind of - have their own individual tuning. And there were three of the musicians playing that, and they build up trance-like sound.


RAZ: I read that some of the sounds that you used on some of these tracks were really found sounds, like plastic bags, for example.

ALBARN: Yeah. I mean, that's is a standout kind of sort of soundbite, really, about the Congo is that, you know, living conditions on the ground are so sort of meager in many senses of the word. But people don't have the money to buy conventional instruments, so they made their own out of anything: from old plastic tubs to pieces of piping, to radio wires, from old tires. You know, it's extraordinary because through that process, they actually create a whole new language and sonics and a new musical language as well.


RAZ: One of the tracks is so different from the others. It's spare. It's simple. It's called "Love."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: What's the story behind that recording because it is so different from the other ones? It's...

ALBARN: Well, it's just - it's how all the stuff originated. We all - we recorded it all with one mike, you know, a good mike and just recorded the performances.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: So with most of the tracks in the record, I mean, a lot of this sounds like it was - it really was recorded in different places: outdoors, indoors.

ALBARN: Yeah. Yeah. Just anywhere in Kinshasa, really, that we found ourselves. The tape recorder was on, and then this sort of transitioned from that to a produced track. It sort of happened individually with the producers in the sort of time allocated to work on what we listened to.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: You recorded this record in just five days. You had to gather dozens of Congolese musicians. Did that chaos create in a strange sort of way a kind of order as well?

ALBARN: Well...


ALBARN: ...inevitably, as long as everyone is kind of on the same page, something gets done, you know? If there is a sort of more political context to the whole creative process is that and that only, that through chaos and through a sort of willingness to be on the same page, people can do extraordinary things.


RAZ: I've been talking to singer-songwriter and record producer Damon Albarn. His latest project is the album "Kinshasa One Two," recorded in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with all proceeds benefiting the nonprofit Oxfam. Damon, thank you.

ALBARN: It's my pleasure. Thank you.


ALBARN: (Singing) ...last night. In the car, my heart is racing. In the joyful darkness, bright.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing in foreign language)

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