Since materializing triumphantly with an epic 5-hour surprise show, which was held by common consensus to be the undisputed highlight of the debut year of Emily Eavis’ Park stage at Glastonbury 2007, the cerebral and celebratory musical collective known as Africa Express has reverberated mysteriously in the ether, periodically fluttering into and out of sight, yet always seeming to whisper that something joyously soulful was afoot. The wait is over.
Comprising a kaleidoscopic assortment of over 80 musicians, Africa Express is guided by benevolent Pied Piper, erstwhile Blur and Gorillaz front-man and present-day conceptualist doyen, Damon Albarn. Among its number are countless legendary African artists like sightless Malian guitar-hero Amadou Bagayogo and prodigious Senegalese Yela star Baaba Maal, as well as a more familiar, yet still wholly eclectic, melange of artists from the UK, Europe and the US including the Magic Numbers, Carl Barat and, of course, Albarn himself. The mission statement is simple: African Express ‘happenings’ are unrehearsed and unapologetic experiments in spontaneous musical multiculturalism.
Entering London in procession aboard a specially chartered train (replete with what one can only presume is an exceptionally funky jam-carriage), Africa Express pulled into King’s Cross for the final leg of their six-night UK tour. Positive noises had been emanating all week from gigs in Middlesbrough, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol, and the sell-out crowd at a blissfully sunbathed and impressive Granary Square were not to be disappointed.
Later on, the sunset was memorably accompanied by ‘Melancholy Hill’, an unembellished and atmospheric duet featuring Albarn on the piano and the haunting voice of Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traore. Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals emerged for the eponymous (and surreal) ‘Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru’, accompanying himself on his now-trademark Crazy Placards, successfully commanding ‘applause’ and demanding that the crowd go ‘ape shit!’
All week there had been murmurings and mutterings of an A-list special guest due to appear at the London gig, and indeed it was he that stole the show. Sir Paul McCartney popped up strumming his bass to great fanfare early on, before returning at the fag-end to lead Albarn, Traore, Gruff Rhys and others for two Wings-era classics, ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Don’t Say It'; needless to say these were lapped-up by an increasingly raucous audience. While McCartney’s presence added an element of celebrity razzmatazz to the set, refreshingly (and surprisingly) it didn’t detract from the unique energy and endearing chaos of Africa Express.
More please. Miaow!
Words by Hijo de Bagpuss
Photo Credit: James Williamson