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When Damon Albarn journeyed to Mali a couple of years back as part of an Oxfam charity endeavor, the Blur frontman and primary prankster behind the beat-mad Gorillaz figured it’d be best to pack light. So the quirky Brit-popper wisely left his sizable ego in London and whisked away to the West African nation with only his beat-up melodica, a DAT recorder, and lots and lots of cigarettes. Culled from more than 40 hours of inspired interplay between a reverent Albarn and many of the impoverished country’s finest musicians, the resultant Mali Music is a soulful, sweeping achievement that incorporates such world-beaten influences as rock, reggae, blues, griot storytelling, and the sweet sounds of the ngoni. Albarn, who jammed in bars and on boats, in shacks and on street corners, is credited with writing most of the songs, and his trippy influence is hard to overlook, especially when he buzzes about untethered on his trusty melodica—not exactly an indigenous Malian instrument. And despite the impromptu partnerings and makeshift venues, a few of the album’s 16 tracks have been so post-recording spit-polished with spacey effects and sonic hoo-ha that Mali Music often sounds like a studio-whipped Gorillaz disc (which is not necessarily a bad thing, mind you, just not something you’d have to trek halfway around the globe to achieve). Still, Albarn mostly acts like a fan first, and he allows his chief collaborator, Malian vocalist-guitarist Afel Bocoum, to supply a good deal of the album’s relentless energy, via his compatriots’ homegrown acoustic melodies and percussion. On “4AM at Toumani’s,” Toumani Diabate’s kora-playing sounds damn close to classical guitar—that is, until the tempo quickens and it sounds damn closer to bluegrass banjo. The adrenalized “Makelekele” is the most raucous blend of the album’s disparate worlds, with Lobi Traore providing a Duane Eddy-esque guitar line, Albarn getting technotic on the keyboard, Hassey Sare fast-fingering the violin-like njurka, and Bocoum and fellow vocalist Alkibar chanting in their native tongue high above the joyous frenzy. And album highlight “Niger” features the work of Ko Kan Ko Sata Doumbia, the only female ngoni player in the patriarchal country. There’s sheer joy in her playing of the instrument, which sounds like a lute and looks like a canoe with strings. And there’s a brief moment of sheer liberation, too, as Albarn and his male counterparts all but bow out of the tune halfway through and simply listen as Doumbia lights up the room. —Sean Daly