A week in Mali with Africa Express – Olugbenga Adelekan's diary

The Africa Express collective visited Bamako, Mali, to make an album from scratch with local musicians. Joining the likes of Damon Albarn and Brian Eno was producer and Metronomy bassist Olugbenga Adelekan, who kept this diary

Read more about Africa Express in Mali


Surreal … Out of body … These are words and phrases I'll be uttering and thinking over the next week. It began at the Air France check-in desk at Heathrow Terminal 4. I was already bleary-eyed after arriving on an overnight flight from New Orleans, where I'd been songwriting. The idea of queueing up with my luggage ahead of Brian Eno and Damon Albarn at 7.30am on a Wednesday seems like a dream. My guitar-wielding brother, Seye, is also on board, which is great as we rarely have the opportunity to work together.

The airport in Bamako is a mixture of chaos and bureaucracy familiar to me from my years growing up in Lagos. A wave of tiredness hits me as we step out into the warm air of the city. It's been a long trip, but there's no rest at the hotel – Damon and the Africa Express team have arranged for us to go to Maquis le Diplomate, a club and restaurant owned by the legendary Malian musician Toumani Diabaté. It's an inspired move; this is when I snap awake and Mali becomes real for myself and others in our party who are visiting for the first time.

We walk in and Manou Diabaté, Toumani's nephew, is playing kora, a 21-string harp lute, in a killer band made up of a guitarist, drummer and bassist, along with a keyboard player who is working miracles on an old Yamaha. Different singers and musicians sit in with the band as people warm and begin to dance.

A special moment comes as the band gets near to the end of their set: Toumani slips into the club and I get to meet him. This unassuming man welcomes me to his country and carries himself with a humility that belies his status as a musical giant. Then he gets up and plays, inviting members of our group to join him.

I've only been in Mali a few hours, and already I have a memory I will carry with me for the rest of my life.


Brian Eno
Brian Eno recording in Bamako. Photograph: Olugbenga Adelekan Photograph: Olugbenga

This picture captures what is so special about Africa Express. You could say we came here to make an album, but we're also here to document this moment in Malian music. Much of what we do is collaborative, but often the songs and performances are so incredible that you just need to set up some good microphones, and put the musicians at ease to capture a special few minutes. I am very fortunate to watch Brian Eno create a number of these moments.

Reading on mobile? Watch the session here

Brian speaks some French, but the duo he plays with speak a regional Malian dialect, so it is doubly difficult for him to communicate. The special thing about this session is that I see Brian edit this performance without ever sitting in front of a computer. He listens to the musicians play their song once and then makes an assessment about sections that could be shorter or longer. Then he uses a system of signals to communicate his directions. The second time they play the piece, it is recognisably the same, just clearer. It is a privilege to see this happen.

For those of us who were not already aware, it quickly becomes obvious that there's a mind-boggling level of musicianship here. In our collaborations with singers, drummers and other musicians of all stripes, we watch again and again as they pick up the grooves in minutes and then improvise performances that couldn't have been better if they'd spent days writing something. They usually only need one or two takes. This level of musicianship is an inspiration and a challenge. It's fitting that I've come to Mali from New Orleans, because Bamako is a city that also has music in its DNA.


The real magic of this experience comes in the moments of spontaneity. Early on Saturday night, I sit in the back of the main studio watching Damon produce a session for singer Kankou Kouyaté and her band. When there is a moment's lull, I ask if I can try some stuff with the band when Damon is done. Then I get my laptop out and work on a few beat ideas while they finish the session.

When my turn comes, it takes a minute for the engineers to set up a channel for my laptop. Meanwhile, Kankou's n'goni player asks: "What do you do? Do you sing or do you play?" I try to explain that, yes, I sing but this was gonna be a cool electronic-producer thing. All he understands – or maybe all he choses to understand! – is "Yes, I sing."

Olugbenga with Diamantou Sacko and band
Olugbenga with Diamantou Sacko and band. Photograph: Africa Express Photograph: Africa Express

Immediately the band starts playing around with a riff and he insists I sing something with them. The first thing that pops into my head is the negro spiritual Wade in The Water. A few minutes later, Brian and Damon (both lovers of gospel music) join in. I quickly abandon my original idea; this is way cooler, and something about doing this in West Africa makes it feel like we're going to the heart of gospel music's roots. And it wouldn't have happened without Kankou and her band.

Even with the wealth of material that we generate, we record until the last possible minute. Early on Wednesday, we discover that our flight back the UK will be delayed a few hours. Most of the musicians take this as an invitation to work on the music a little longer. It helps that we've tracked down as many of the musicians in the collective as possible for a group shot, and their enthusiasm for trying new ideas hasn't waned. I watch Ghostpoet lay down a vocal for a song in the afternoon and then Damon lay down some backing vocals a few hours later. A nearly complete track comes together just a few hours before our amazing engineers Steve Sedgwick and Kaktus Einarsson have to pack up the studio. Upstairs, conductor André de Ridder corrals any and all musicians, including me, to record parts for an interpretation of Terry Riley's classic In C.

It's a suitably whirlwind end to what has been a whirlwind week. Finishing this diary in the airport as I wend my way home, I realise the significance of what we experienced will take time to sink in. Is an album like this going to change the world? No one here is naive enough to think that it will. But Africa Express has grown out of the deep relationship that Damon and Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell have with Mali, one that is well into its second decade and shared by other key people involved, such as Marc-Antoine Moreau (who manages the Malian duo Amadou and Mariam). And to say what happened in and around Maison des Jeunes is just an album is really to miss the point. In a society where music so permeates every facet, promoting Malian music is promoting Mali itself.

Africa Express headline the Fiesta des Suds in Marseilles on Saturday 19 October.

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