TAKEN FROM: The MOBO Blog. http://www.mobo.com/news-blogs/depth-africa-express-2012-london-finale
The Africa Express project was created in 2005 by Damon Albarn, Stephen Budd and Ian Birell to widen the appreciation of African culture through music and exemplify its rich heritage. Since 2005 the music initiative has been involved in a number of events across Europe and the African continent. From Brixton Jamm in 2006 to trips to Mali in 2006, DRC in 2007 and Nigeria in 2008; the project has endeavoured to promote artistic collaboration between African and western musicians and facilitate an enriching cultural exchange.
The project recently took to the road, literally, in a most innovative way- by rail. The chartered Africa Express train carried eighty musicians from Africa, Europe and other parts of the globe around Britain as the collective embarked on a musical journey through Middlesbrough, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff, Bristol and London. Produced in association with the Barbican as part of the London 2012 Festival, the tour saw exquisite jam sessions on the train, scheduled concerts at each destination accompanied by pop-up concerts in improvised venues ranging from schools to parks. The Africa Express train arrived at King’s Cross after a week on the road and the tour culminated in a breath-taking five hour concert at London’s Granary Square which saw music legends and modern pioneers collaborate at their very best.
As the sun shone brightly on the square, Damon Albarn addressed the diverse audience and our own musical journey began. Malian musician Afel Boucom took the stage with Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones and performed “Bamako”. A second track followed “Gomni” that saw Dead Prez’ s M1 join the musicians on stage. “I’m an African,” chanted M1 with support from the receptive crowd.
UK singer Martina Topley-Bird collaborated with Congolese musician Jupiter Bokondji to perform the soulful “Crystalized”. There were no less than eight musicians at any given time on stage jamming together, from noted balafon player Fode Lassana to accomplished Alberto Makoto on drums.
Bombay Bicycle Club’s Jack Steadman performed alongside Lucy Rose and Senegalese djembe player Mamadou Sarr to deliver a brilliant rendition of his band’s 2011 track “Shuffle”. A personal favourite of mine, the beautiful track matched the unusually warm climate. Shortly after beatbox extraordinaire Reeps One burst on stage and performed his jaw dropping one-man, multiple sample, up tempo number that saw high hats court a heavy bassline to the amazement of all at the square.
Ethiopia’s Krar Collective graced the stage performing two songs, joined by the Express Horns trio and Lucy Rose. Grime MC Afrikan Boy and American rapper Rye Rye joined the collective for the infectious “Ya Hulu Chewata” as the enigmatic concert line-up continued to constantly enthral us with its sonic twists and turns. Having first heard Rye Rye on Soulico Crew’s “Exotic on the Speaker” back in 2009, I was intrigued to finally see the artist perform live.
The trend of superb collaborations continued with Carl Barat performing “Don’t Look Back” accompanied by a host of artists including Terri Walker, Charlie XCX and Seye. Damon Albarn performed “Melancholy Hill” with the mood being anything but melancholic and gig compere for the eve M3NSA joined BOTS and a host of MCs to perform “Suffer”.
As the sun set, the extravaganza continued with its array of retina scorching performances. M1 and Reeps One were joined by Karim, M.anifest and Afrikan Boy one by one, as the consortium performed an energetic Rock infused, swag laden version of Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop”. The crowd sang along with arms raised high and some of us effortlessly compelled to bust some dance moves. The electric atmosphere was further uplifted by the arrival of Kano and Bashy and those that were not bouncing their shoulders proceeded to do so! The buoyancy continued with a musical interlude from gregarious Gruff Rhys who wielded witty placards at the end of his number.
Night was upon us and a group of musicians took their place on stage. John Paul Jones was on mandolin, Maman Diabate on ngoni, long time Africa Express collaborator Jesse Hackett on keyboard and then- an announcement. A special guest was to partake in the festivities. The audience gave a quizzical look until the epiphany and what an epiphany we had. If having a member of legendary Led Zeppelin was not already exhilarating enough, the addition of a member of prodigious band The Beatles induced palpitations. Paul McCartney graced the stage and picked up his bass guitar; we were in a state of shock. Other musicians took their places and lead performer Rokia Traoré stood before us with her guitar. The pioneering Malian artist performed the opening track from her album Tchamantche- “Dounia”. The griot inspired philosophical track about life’s journey, was powerfully delivered by Traoré in Bambara. Her stunning vocals pierced the night air sending shivers down our spines. The large ensemble on stage added a contemporary Rock infusion. The result? An absolutely phenomenal performance that left us exhilarated. The crescendo was one of the most magnificent I have ever seen in music. A fellow journalist still in disbelief turned to me, “That was epic…” Awestruck, I had personally exhausted all superlatives of my own.
The concert continued with exquisite performance after performance. Noisettes performed their smash hit “Don’t Upset the Rhythm (Go Baby Go)” joined by a host of musicians including the fantastic Nick Zinner from Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Popular songs continued with Eliza Doolittle performing a cover of Tina Turner’s “Loving You Forever”. Ground-breaking South African artist Spoek Mathambo performed Joy Division’s “Control” in his Afro Futuristic way accompanied by Thandiswa. The atmosphere was electric as we were treated to experimental music that was innovative, technically superb with such a high level of musicianship, we were humbled.
The montage of familiar faces continued. The Magic Numbers’ Romeo Stodart performed “People Get Ready”. African megastar Baaba Maal was present. Having last seen the luminary perform at a gig at the BBC in 2009, it was wonderful to see the artist perform with a host of musicians. “Senegal Mali” saw Maal accompanied by sixteen artists including kora player Diabel Cissoko. Maal delivered a beautiful “Sidiki” accompanied by the likes of Massamba Diop on the talking drum and Will Epstein on saxophone. “African Woman” got feet tapping. Performances from Thandiswa with “Nedkha”, Paul McCartney singing “Goodnight Tonight”; track after track we were spoiled rotten by the vast selection of talented artists.
A rendition of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir” was another once-in-a-lifetime moment, of which Africa Express seemed to be gifting us quite graciously. Led Zep’s John Paul Jones was back on keyboard, Amadou Bagayoko on guitar, Kano and Bashy on vocals and a swirl of fellow Africa Express artists accompanied, including Noisette’s Shingai Shoniwa who performed an explosive freestyle. Visuals of the map of Africa pulsated in the back drop as the performers hypnotised us beat by beat and we head banged as if at a Death Metal gig. I surveyed the square from the foot of the stage, and noted that there was not a single soul at the gig that was not connecting with the music on an almost spiritual level. Revellers were screaming in joy. I stood at the foot of the stage thinking, “Could tonight get any better?”
After the night’s final performance “Masite Ladi”, all artists gathered on stage to a rapturous applause. Those crazy placards were held up again emblazoned with “WHOA”, “LOUDER” and “APE SH*T”. There was an outpour of emotion from both the crowd and artists after the mammoth thirty-two performances, with a real feeling of togetherness. A gentleman had earlier said on stage, “Africa is on the move!” Africa’s dynamism through its Arts was displayed in all its glory. Music triumphantly transcended geographical and cultural boundaries with courage, passion and finesse. How else could one describe respected African music pioneers collaborating with US Hip Hop artists, members of Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, coalescing electric guitars with djembe and oud? Epic, seminal- in an exalted league of its very own; other concerts in the future will seem ever so pale in comparison to Africa Express. The spirit of Africa shone every so brightly and the level of artistry was so ridiculously high, it was almost like a figment of one’s vivid imagination. It took a good few hours post-concert to absorb what we had been privy to- a powerful chapter in music history that will stay with many of us for years to come.