Justin Adams: the world music guitarist who says yes to everything

Justin Adams's collaborations span the globe from the ritti virtuosos of Africa to Robert Plant. The important thing, he says, is to keep getting caught off guard

Justin Adams agrees that his life has been getting a little complicated. "I do have a bit of a policy of saying yes to everything. So there's diary stress, but it's incredibly stimulating." After all, he's a guitarist, a producer who has worked with Tinariwen and Lo'Jo, and a serial collaborator who plays with a whole variety of other musicians. Right now, he's best known for his exhilarating and award-winning collaborations with Juldeh Camara, the virtuoso of the Gambian ritti (west Africa's one-stringed fiddle). But Adams is also a member of Robert Plant's band, and has just released an album with Les Triaboliques, in which he is joined by Lu Edmonds and Ben Mandelson, two other musicians with rock and punk roots, who have also played a key role in the British world music scene. When I meet him, he's in a studio producing an album by the Moroccan rock band Hoba Hoba Spirit, "who are close to me because they love the Clash – and have gnawa influences". But he is already planning his next collaboration, with the great Malian griot and n'goni player, Bassekou Kouyate.

They will get together on Monday at the Barbican Centre in London, at a concert celebrating the 75th anniversary of the British Council. Adams and the Council have their own history of working together. The Council arranged a whole series of earlier Adams collaborations, which involved him travelling to Syria and Tunis to work with a variety of different musicians, and two years ago helped to organise the Music Matbakh project, for which he acted as musical director. This was an ambitious plan to create a new touring band from British musicians along with rappers, electronic artists or classical players from across the Arab world.

Adams's interest in other cultures, and particularly Arab and African cultures, began in Jordan and Egypt, where he grew up, and where his father was British ambassador. In those days, he says, the British Council "was where we went to get our fix of British culture and watch films like The Great Escape. It was the representation of Britain abroad." But his parents had records by the great Lebanese singer Fairuz, and he listened to local music "and bought Egyptian drums and played belly dance rhythms with my brother". Adams went to Eton, but then started "running away from the public school system. I didn't hurl bricks at it, but it was not for me." He hassled his parents for a guitar, went off to study art history, and ended up "squatting with hippies off Ladbroke Grove, who were doing free festivals and organising little gigs". Then he met up with Jah Wobble, who invited him to join his band, Invaders of the Heart. His time with the Invaders, he says, was "perfect because it opened up a world that had been closed to me. But it was quite wild, and eight years was a long time to be in a band."

Today, Adams is interested in "rhythms, tones, sounds, and music that comes out of speakers that really excites me" – and with new ways of keeping going in a changing industry. "The idea of having a record deal that means you have a wage for three or four years has all finished. I'm not selling huge amounts of CDs, so I've got to think how to survive, how to spread out and get the gigs where they are possible. People can see that I do collaborations and I'm up for it. I get bored seeing bands playing a set that they have really rehearsed, and they just do their show. My favourite experiences have been going to Morocco and hearing 60 bendir drummers playing in a town square, or walking from one sound system to the next at Notting Hill carnival, or hearing the Clash play live. I like an event, so maybe unusual collaborations, where you see people acting as musicians, reacting to what other people are doing, and sometimes being caught off guard …"

These days, he says, "I've lost my fear of playing. When I was younger, I was less confident. I would hate to do things where I might fall on my face, but I know I can fall on my face or a little moment and it doesn't really matter. I'll come back again and try to do something good". So the aim is to keep the excitement going while playing with different musicians. With Juldeh Camara,"we don't get any slicker because we never rehearse and it changes every night. I never know when he is going to come in or stop singing, so that keeps it pretty raw."

As for his latest band, Les Triaboliques, this was a chance to play something "spooky and dark, very different to the last record with Juldeh", and to work with two musicians who are "like my big brothers. I've followed their path. They both come from English, slightly punky backgrounds and have gone off to travel slightly weird places and come with different influences." Mandelson, once with Magazine, has just been recording extensively across Africa, while Edmonds "does incredible trips to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan researching music" and is about to rejoin Public Image Ltd for their upcoming tour.

And then, of course, there's his "very different" work with Robert Plant. Adams says he gets on well with the Zeppelin star, because he's got over all the initial shyness one might have of working with a legend: "Plus, we've got passions in common – the blues, and Moroccan music and Egyptian classical music. So we have Little Richard and Bukka White, and then berber and gnawa music as reference points." When they last performed together the line-up consisted of "two Algerian bendir players, Juldeh on his fiddle, drums, bass, me on guitar, and Robert – and we played a spooked-out version of Led Zep's Black Dog that was almost unrecognisable. I hope we record that stuff".

As Adams heads back to continue recording with Hoba Hoba Spirit, their singer and guitarist Reda Allali asks if he could have a quick word. "This is the opposite of globalisation," he says. "Justin really understands our local culture and what we are trying to do".

• Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara are at Arts Centre, Pontardwe, tonight. Adams, Bassekou Kouyate and others play at the British Council 75th Anniversary Concert at the Barbican, London on Monday


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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