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I really got into Malian music through visiting Honest Jon’s Records on Portobello Road, which became my library for years. I got particularly into west African music. Then, there was this bizarre moment where I got a phone call from Oxfam and they said, ‘Would you like to come and be one of our – I don’t know exactly what they call them – Goodwill Ambassadors?’ I really didn’t want to do that, I thought that was a terrible idea. 

Ever since Live Aid, I’d always had a real abhorrence of that sort of helicoptered-in, white suit kind of thing. You know, it felt really uncomfortable to me, but I said, ‘Well, that’d be a lovely opportunity for me to go to Mali.’ And I said, ‘Could you arrange for me to meet some of my musical heroes like Toumani Diabaté, Ali Farka Touré, Afel Bocoum, and then I’ll see what happens? I’ll travel around Mali and maybe record everything I do and come back to London and try and make music.’ Then, if I do, it can be an Oxfam record, and for the rest of my life, it can provide money for specific things in Mali. So that’s kind of what happened. 

It was the first time I’d been to Africa. The first night I got there, I went to see Toumani Diabaté, who’s the head of the Diabaté clan, and one of the greatest kora players ever. Immediately, it was like, ‘Oh my god.’ To make it worse, he invited me over and I sat in his living room. He came in about two in the morning. But, the problem is, I took my melodica and you can’t tune a melodica, and he wasn’t going to tune his kora, so not only was I struggling to keep up with the musical language, but I was out of tune as well. And it was two o’clock in the morning, and my first night in Mali. That was a real baptism of fire.

It was such a revelation – I just loved everything about it. There was nothing I didn’t fall in love with and just want to explore, learn about or immerse myself in: food, people, language, fashion, history, culture. As people go, I suppose it would be Tony Allen who I met around a similar time – it all happened within six months of me going to Mali. I met Tony, we became lifelong friends, and if Mali was the country that helped transform me, then Tony was the person that embodied that transformation.

Me, as a musician, pre-Mali and post-Mali – you can’t compare the two. They’re different people. It gave me a sense of rhythm, which was definitely not innate in my upbringing. It improved my ear. It was an epiphany. All those clichés, it was all of those. It was that ‘click’ moment.

Damon Albarn co-curates Tony Allen: A Retrospective on 13 November at EFG London Jazz Festival.

His new album, The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows, is out on 12 November via Transgressive Records.