Africa Express

Granary Square, London on Saturday 8 September 2012

Deemed "A ridiculous idea... it's completely mad" and "a nightmare" by its organisers ahead of the tour, Africa Express came to a frenzied finale in London, seemingly having gone without a hitch. The reams of critical acclaim that surrounded the tour are a testament to its astounding success. Though for co-founder and Blur frontman, Damon Albarn, the main priority was to "spread the joy" of Africa.

Packing 80 musicians and their assorted instruments on a train for a series of pop up performances and ticketed concerts across the UK was always ambitious. Not least placing trust in the British transport system for connections and scheduling. Perhaps this was the reason behind the fluidity of line up and impromptu nature of many of the gigs?

To say Africa Express involves a melting pot of artists would be an understatement. Africa alone is host to more countries than any other continent. Mix with this the plethora of Western artists, from teenage US brothers The Bots to OAP Paul McCartney, and the event seems to be redefining diversity. While the Paralympics stormed home to a triumphant finish just a few miles east, Africa Express had its own objectives to challenge stereotypes and promote inclusivity.

On the night, the stage was an equal platform. There was no individual given prominence over another. A true collective, it was a musical collaboration of differing talents, culture and styles creating a parade of vibrant sound. When Sir Paul McCartney took to the stage alongside Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, they took a backseat behind award-winning singer Rokia Traoré who shone in centre stage. I bet there are not many people that can look behind on stage to see two of rock's biggest stars waiting for the nod to start. Her song 'Dounia' with its dark basslines and looming whispers demonstrated her much celebrated ability to innovate around traditional Malian music forms and push the boundaries of the world music concept.

As the sun set over The Granary, the event had more than a hint of festival about it. Sun burnt faces were sloshed with drinks spilled by boisterous revellers, while groups snaked through the crowds in chains grasping an assortment of overpriced foods in cardboard trays. It even came complete with festi-thentic portaloo queues. Though the presence of 'cidre' rather than real Somerset scrumpy starkly brought home its central London location.

Meanwhile on stage, Dead Prez rapper M-1 began the mantra of his famous hit, 'Hip Hop' and a unified crowd screamed it back in retort. While his lyricism was instantly recognisable and underpinned by an almost iconic synth chord progression, Mehdi Haddab on oud gave the song an Algerian twist. The injection of electricity into the 5000-year-old Arabic instrument and Mehdi's tendency towards experimentalism sees him known as 'the Hendrix of the oud'. On the big screen above him, the heart of Africa throbbed, interspersed with images of train tracks speeding past that were enough to give you vertigo.

Aiming to counter the obsolete yet popular understanding of Africa and its music, the event brought eager audiences to the volumes of talent and diversity of performance that are being exported from all across the continent. Years of colonialism, war, corruption and drought left many African countries in crisis and so often on receipt of aid. It is this image of Africa that is ubiquitous. Today there is a new Africa, a 'dynamic Africa', that is being thrust into the spotlight, not least by The Guardian newspaper, media partner for the tour.

Paradoxically, it was the mainstream Western acts that provided the pull. A point drilled home by a particularly cringe-worthy Daily Express review of the event that failed to recognize the presence of a single African artist. But with names such as Jarvis Cocker, Eliza Doolittle, Peter Hook, Gruff Rhys and Carl Barat to pull out the bag, it's easy to see why.

However, aside from the initial gasp and cheer when a famous face first wandered onto the stage, it was the songs led by performers from Africa that instigated the best crowd reaction. A version of Joy Division's 'Control' led by Spoek Mathambo (in London without the presence of Hook who had graced the stage in Manchester) was a standout highlight. While the astounding technical expertise of Diabel Cissokho during songs such as 'Senegal Kora' whipped the crowd into frenzy with its fast pace, tribal vocals and dizzyingly driving layered melodies.

The gig was the first major music event at the Kings Cross venue, which opened in June, having been transformed from a Victorian grain depository to a cultural and social hub. The combination of diverse sounds, warm weather and an open-minded crowd made for an infectious atmosphere. Fuelled further by the spinning coloured beads upon the head of Fatoumata Diawara, a bouncing bleached afro, a salmon two-piece suit, a traditional gold boubouÂ…

It had the feel of a party filled with guests of incredible talent, with the tunes an improvisation, a sudden spark of musical finesse from whoever happened to wander past at the time. An iPhone video of Sir Paul McCartney jamming backstage with Noisette's Shingai Shoniwa and the truly special Marques Toliver is proof that this party continued behind the scenes. It seems the stage was just one small peek into their world.

For Mehdi, his music is a means of expressing his "rage against injustice, inequality". Others, such as Congolese performer Jupiter Bokondji, pride their music as an example of their country's "cultural riches". Africa Express gave these musicians, both established and emerging talent, a unique opportunity. Its big, commercial names drew new audiences to their sound and put their names on the lips of the general public. The Africa Express project is a journey, of which this tour by train is just one manifestation. But, as Jupiter points out, "things are beginning to move in the right direction."

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article by: Kathleen Prior

published: 13/09/2012 15:43

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