28 May 2002, Afel Bocoum, Damon Albarn & Friends,
Tower Records, London, UK

I arrived in London on Tuesday, May 28th at 11:40 a.m. in a great mood and with time to spare. From Waterloo Station I went directly to my hotel, where I stayed just long enough to meet the girl I'd be sharing a room with. By 2:30 I'd made it to the record store, where I bought a few magazines and scoped out the proper place to queue up for the event. I spotted a sign announcing the "short acoustic set" and advising "Arrive early - Space is limited," which made me feel glad that I'd gotten there early.

The show was scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m., with the line to form outside. I took my place at the designated spot. At this point the line consisted of myself and an English guy who'd just arrived and happened, I quickly discovered, to be a BFC member, too. Being two Blur Freaks with much to talk about, the wait turned out to be a pleasant experience in itself. [Hi Steve, a.k.a. Member 992!! ;-)] By 6:20 a long line had formed, and three hundred of us were allowed into the basement of the store. There a wooden stage had been prepared, with an acoustic guitar, a njurka (Malian traditional violin) and a njurkel (an exotic string instrument), as well as a large wooden bowl (a calabash) to be used for percussion. Shortly after we settled in, desert singer and guitarist Afel Bocoum took the stage along with his "Alkibar" bandmates. They were clad in traditional light-colored robes and accompanied by a dishevelled Damon Albarn. The Malian musicians took their places as Bocoum did the sound-check. Damon's appearance on stage was brief; he was there only to present his Malian friends. "These are some of the great musicians whom I met in Mali." he announced. "Well, just listen to them and enjoy what they do. They are all great men." Then he retreated to the side of the stage, where he remained invisible nearly the whole time.

Lead singer Afel Bocoum and his three companions played only three songs, none of which were from the Mali Music album. Instead they performed selections from their own Alkibar body of work. Both traditional and accessible, the simple melodies and African rhythms, thanks to the bridge spanned by Damon between Western and Malian music, sounded almost familiar and definitely funky. Between songs Afel, a man with both a powerful voice and an engaging personality, was quite talkative. He spoke of the instruments, alternating between English and French. The njurka, he explained, is a very popular instrument in Mali, traditionally played by women to keep their husbands content at home. The njurkel used to have silver strings instead of iron, and tradition says it's dangerous to play before 11 o'clock. He also commented on Mali and its cultural differences with Europe, dedicating the second song to his uncle and mentor Ali Farka Touré. 21 minutes after the show began, it was over. Bocoum introduced his musicians (Hassey Saré, Yoro Cissé, Hamma Sankaré) and thanked those who make the effort to visit and learn about Mali, expressing special gratitude to Damon for his collaboration on Mali Music.

"Already?" I thought. "Damon hasn't even played nor sung anything!" I sighed. Oh, well! Never mind.... I'd enjoyed what I'd heard, and since I'd recorded the show I had plenty of enjoyable memories to look forward to. The signing session was next, and we all lined up to walk past Damon, Afel and his "Alkibar" mates to exchange a few words and have our Mali Music-related stuff signed. Although Damon seemed bored during this part of the evening, he graciously allowed himself to be photographed with any fan who asked. After having my items signed, I left my new friend Steve to meet with my BFC cyberpals Sarah, Simon, Adam and Jennifer. Simon, Adam, Sarah and I topped off this memorable evening at the Good Mixer. How nice it is to meet with BFC e-mail pals in the real world every now and then!

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