M.anifest – “A whole lifetime in a week” aboard the Africa Express

M.anifest and M3nsa on the mic at Africa Express, Creative Commons, Bristol. Photo by Brian Okello

Mid-Morning on Sunday 2 September, I sauntered towards Euston in London with Jupiter Bokondji from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and about 15 other musicians from Mali and Senegal. Most of us had only just met. It was a colourful group that drew curious stares. Among us I would guess at least eight languages were spoken. We all had only just a vague idea of where the station was, yet if we were anxious about finding it or getting there on time none of us wore that anxiety visibly. As we walked, other musicians on the tour joined us and we all got to Euston without making a wrong turn and without any one to shepherd us there.

It works as a loose metaphor for the Africa Express experience: making music with 80-plus musicians who you know to be brilliant, yet having to take a leap of faith to step into the unknown and trusting that playing together will lead somewhere.

We set off to Leeds on our own chartered train – The Africa Express– and jamming sessions in the rehearsal carriage began immediately. Being able to wander casually into that carriage to play with Tony Allen, Amadou Bagayoko, Baaba Maal and Damon Albarn for me was really something else. But folks weren’t idling around waiting for their turn. Instead, smaller groups would gather in different carriages making music on the spot and sharing conversations. I saw Diabel Cissohko with his kora playing with Baaba Maal and Rokia Traore’s singers, Australian group the Temper Trap with the Very Best, punk group the Bots and the guitarist Seye, while Marques Toliver was with Martina Topley Bird.

By the time the train reached Leeds for rehearsals on that first day it became clear there would be no formula for the gigs. The only constants were that there would be lots of new collaborations and none of us musicians would have a clue what the set list would comprise each night. It felt as if we were entering into Middlesbrough on Monday with hours of jamming behind us but with very little actually rehearsal.But no one was particular perturbed by that – as if the universe had clued in our spirits to the magic that was about to happen. At the end of the gig that evening, the crowd chanted “we want more” and I knew the week ahead of us would be special.

It is no exaggeration when I say that each show was remarkably different. In Glasgow on the third night a second room at the venue had to be opened at the last minute to contain the growing crowd.Jupiter & Okwess International turned the second space into one long party. In Manchester and then in Cardiff, Spoek Mathambo’s collaborations with Jack Steadman from Bombay Bicycle Club and the Very Best had everyone raving.

I was amazed by the openness of the musicians on the train. M1 of Dead Prez welcomed all the MCs on board for the live version of his classi Hip-Hop, whiles a head-banging version of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir had John Paul Jones playing mandolin as part of a line-up that included Amadou and Rokia as well as the rappers Bashy and Kano. In Bristol on the Friday night, the setlist was different again, as more and more acts had started collaborating, but the crazy reaction from the audience showed everything was working. So when Paul McCartney joined us at Granary Square in London for Saturday’s grand finale it was fitting his performance was done the Africa Express way: with over a dozen collaborators, each at different stage of their career..

It will take me a while to unpack what just happened on this tour. I feel like I lived a whole lifetime in a week. Experiencing this community of musicians has shaken my world. In a week we played music on train platforms, in hotel lobbies, with community groups, in other intimate spaces and on big stages. I smile every time I remember performing my song Suffer and seeing UK crowds who hadn’t heard it before The Africa Express reached them singing along loudly to the refrain “You’ve never known joy if you’ve never had to suffer!” It makes me smile more remembering that I performed it in a wildly collaborative fashion with people most of whom I had only just met: the Bots, the Temper Trap, the beatboxer Reeps 1 (from north London), the rappers M3nsa (from Ghana) and Kareem Rush (from Egypt), Romeo Stodart from the Magic Numbers and the South African singer Thandiswa Mazwai. On the Africa Express train African music was put in the forefront and flourished so beautifully in collaboration. Reggae musician Richie Spice once sang “music is a mission not a competition;” that week I learned it is also a contribution.

M.anifest (c) 2012.

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