In a downtown Toronto park, Damon Albarn is discussing the finer points of composing a Chinese opera when a black squirrel snares his attention.
“Do you know we’re eating squirrels in England?” he asks, watching the animal forage among the leaves. “It’s become a new lean-meat sensation."
He quickly turns the discussion back toward Monkey: Journey to the West,
the score (and subsequent album) he wrote for the Chinese opera of the
same name. Before composing it, Albarn did some foraging of his own on
a cultural-reconnaissance trip to China. “We heard a lot of tribal
music as well. Up in the mountains. Where these people get out their
blades of grass and start playing these kind of strange and ancient
grass-generated tunes,” he says. “It felt very organic.”
Albarn recorded in London and Beijing with a team of European and
Chinese musicians. He decided to keep the lyrics in Mandarin and
using the traditional Chinese scale. “I was looking at a
five-point star," he says. "I put the notes of the pentatonic to each
point on the star. And I had this great image of stars rotating, and I
used that to rotate numbers. It was a very simple music system that
could alleviate some of the anxiety of pastiching it.”
If you’ve not been keeping up with Albarn, Mandarin opera may seem like
an odd diversion. But China is merely the latest stop on Albarn’s
post-Blur world tour. Casting aside Britpop after 2003’s Think Tank, Albarn’s universe expanded: He moved from trippy hip-hop (Gorillaz) to slinky Malian guitar (Mali Music) to the international supergroup that recorded The Good, The Bad and The Queen,
and that featured legendary Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, a veteran of
Fela Kuti’s band. The two will soon re-team to record in Lagos.
Of course, this musical globetrotting doesn’t come cheap, but there is
the odd payoff: “Sometimes you hit the ball true,” Albarn says, “and
you do really well. It’s like, what do you do at that point? What do
you do when you make money? It’s all compost. Money should be compost.”
Albarn has recently finished producing the new album for acclaimed
Malian pop duo Amadou and Mariam. There’s also been talk of Iraqi
music. And then there’s the business of a third Gorillaz album, which
will include a trip to Syria to record a string ensemble.
Albarn says he’s accumulated plenty of recordings during his travels.
And if the demos ever surface, don’t expect to find them in the
world-music section. “‘World music.’ I don’t subscribe to that. It’s
all music,” he says. “It’s a very bad tagline because it does suggest
that we’re somehow living on a different planet.” And he’s got his
hands full on this one.