“We have to make the best album possible: no egos.” Damon Albarn.
Yet it wasn’t easy, at least on the surface of it. The aforementioned Albarn, Brian Eno, Nick Zinner, Ghostpoet, Two Inch Punch, Lil Silva, Django Django’s Dave Maclean, Metronomy’s Olugbenga – and, seemingly randomly, Idris Elba – all tasked with making a brand new album during seven days in Mali.
However, there was a greater purpose beneath: something beyond the sheer appeal of creative abandon. As the Financial Times concisely depicted during a resultant review:
“The French military intervened in Mali last year to overturn an Islamist uprising.
Now comes a group of western musicians under the aegis of Africa Express, established by Blur’s Damon Albarn in 2006.
With non-religious music having been banned by the Islamist rebels in the areas they controlled, the intention is to show solidarity with Malian musicians.”
And so, in just one week, a plane’s worth of our most talented voices endeavoured to collaborate with, and unlock, unheard, new Malian talent, and hopefully create a defining document from the encounter; an intent to undo the shackles of a silenced culture.
For music isn’t just a pleasure, a backdrop in Mali; it’s intrinsic to communication. The fact it had been stolen from the people – with violent results unto anyone ‘caught’ creating it – remains a perplexing, harrowing tragedy. Despite the politics, however, Maison des Jeunes – the title of the album, and specifically the location in Bamako that heralded the week’s recording sessions – marks a rare occasion where efforts paid off on a multitude of levels.
As a label, Transgressive has a rule to really try and limit Record Store Day titles. In our minds, it seems counter-intuitive to over-press unless we deem the music genuinely vital (which, despite our wildest enthusiasms, it often isn’t). It really would be a shame if greed or desperation ever spoiled the annual retail blip of Record Store Day.
In 2014, taking such intent to a slight extreme, Transgressive has only one worldwide release for RSD: Africa Express Presents… Maison des Jeunes.
And as we near our tenth year of existence, I truly believe it to be one of the finest albums we have ever released: musically, socially, artistically, culturally, politically… However you choose to look at it.
Its arrival to us came in the autumn of last year. Alongside Transgressive, we run a television production company and were approached to make a documentary of the latest adventure in Africa Express’ ongoing quest to unearth local talent. For various reasons, chiefly short notice, the documentary didn’t go ahead, although an obvious question loomed our side:
“Do you have a plan for the release of the album?”
The team hadn’t quite got that far. From what I’ve now learnt about Africa Express – a non-profit organization fuelled with passion, good intent and – fortuitously – an endless network of contacts – things are rather spur-of-the-moment, and things happen quickly. An idea is hatched, and if there’s a spare week to do something, it’s likely it will happen.
It was in this vein that, barely a few days from asking the aforementioned, we found ourselves in a room with Damon Albarn and the fellow founders of Africa Express.
“You see, you have to get what this is all about”, Albarn stares into our eyes, interrogating both our souls and intent, testing us as the prospective release partner.
As his output continues to attest, Damon’s a man never resting on his laurels, in turn reaching new ethical and creative heights. He needs to know we’re going on this journey with him.
Of course, we sign up – and in the spirit of the performers and everyone else, propose a release where any and all profits are rewarded to the Malian musicians that partake.
Only ten days later, it’s all been and gone – with rough mixes of 26 completely new tracks landing in Studio 13, Albarn’s West London studio.
We’re invited to the first playback, which also serves as the sequencing session, where we will choose, as a group, the final tracklist for the album.
It’s at this point that Damon, now cold-y and still recovering from the trip, delivers us the ‘no ego’ speech, requesting that the final album would be best served as ‘short and essential’, and the added bombshell that we have to blindly choose the best songs for the record without knowing who wrote, produced or played on the recordings.
It’s potentially a minefield, not least aided by the presence of one of the album’s other producers, Brian Eno, who arrives shortly afterwards, politely introducing himself and perching down, equally exhilarated to hear the results of the week’s adventures.
Also present is the album’s engineer Stephen Sedgwick, Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell, and electronic wizard Two Inch Punch.
Cards and pens are dished out, the sole instruction for us to listen to all the tracks and make notes on our favourites. Simply, the most popular votes will make the final tracklist.
So ensues a magical, marvelous, beguiling two hours – comprised of sublime kora, warm, rumbling beats, acoustic field recordings, spine-chilling vocals, rollicking jams, and pristine production. For something recorded so quickly, so on the fly, it was clearly a feat. The overall impression is one of both relief and astonishment. Eno and Albarn frequently make knowing gestures as each track opens; privileged to know which songs truly deserve the cut long before the rest of us.
After the playback, there is a quick compilation of our notes, and Eno decides to count the results.
We part company and live with the final choices over the coming days, before settling on a final tracklisting. However, aware that our collective 11 selections were just the start of the story, we all concurred that there deserved to be an inevitable, expanded edition down the line.
Initially, the 11-track version of Maison des Jeunes was rush-released as a digital album pre-Christmas, amidst the spirit of spontaneity that spawned it, barely six weeks old. It was fortunate to receive joyous, unanimous acclaim across the board. We were delighted that everyone else got it, introducing the world to magical new artists such as Songhoy Blues, Adama Koita, Kankou Kouyate, Bijou, and beyond. An album launch at the Oval Space in London was a sell-out featuring several of the appearing musicians plus a few guest appearances, and it just all worked. Maison des Jeunes is a treasure trove of every genre, and it still blows my mind every time I listen to it.
Which brings us to the present day. For Record Store Day, we finally get to present the expanded edition, across two luscious blue vinyls in a gatefold package. It includes an additional five songs that didn’t get featured first time around. When I listen to them, I struggle to figure how: “Kokanko Sata” is a hypnotic, rhythmic utopia, “Wade in the Water” is a thrilling reinterpretation of a traditional song, and blind kora player Tiemoko Sogodogo’s “Man Nyale Totebereye”, produced by Eno, is transfixing.
We are truly proud of this record, and know that time will treat it well. We hope you will, too.
Toby, Transgressive Records