The warmth and camaraderie between all the performers is what makes this so extraordinary.
All photos © John Sturrock
For the last week a train has been carrying 80 African and western musicians around the UK. The Africa Express has stopped at Middlesbrough, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol with acts playing a flurry of impromptu gigs and entertainingly off-kilter and colourful shows. Now it’s time for the thrilling finale in London’s Granary Square.
The plan, according to leader Damon Albarn, was to build towards a pinnacle for this show tonight in London, the show when all the experimentation and collaborations coalesced perfectly together. And as the sun beats down on the square who could deny that this wasn’t it? Five and a half hours of joyful exuberance, a celebration of artists coming together, trying new things and coming out the other end with something wonderful.
The gig feels like a three-day festival squashed into five hours, like all the stages of Glastonbury coming together to jam. Acts you could never have imagined on the same stage playing effortlessly together as if they practiced it for months. Given that it could have been totally shambolic, the freewheeling makes complete sense.
The show starts at 6pm and only finishes at 11.30, with everyone on stage to play Amadou’s ‘Masitéladi’. That the list of people on the stage includes Paul McCartney, Albarn, John Paul Jones, Gruff Rhys together with African stars such as Amadou, Fatoumata Diawara, Tony Allen, Rokia Traoré and more makes this feel like a really special occasion.
The warmth and camaraderie between all the performers is what makes this so extraordinary. There are no stars and the lack of egos is startlingly refreshing. It’s epitomised by Paul McCartney who enters, quietly at first, joining Rokia Traoré as she plays Dounia. He later plays ‘Coming Up’ and ‘Goodnight Tonight’. Both make sense, their funk rhythms fitting in with the rest of the night and allowing the array of musicians on stage tom add their flourishes, including a verse from Albarn.
Earlier in the evening the set had been dominated by cover versions (if there’s one criticism it’s that there’s more focus on the western songs than African music but it’s a minor quibble). We get a cover of The xx’s ‘Crystalised’ by Martina Topley Bird and Jupiter Bokondji and a version of Bombay Bicycle Club’s ‘Shuffle’, complete with African influenced rhythms, works well. Even ‘Don’t Look Back into the Sun’, with Carl Barat prancing around the stage, is passable.
But there are two covers that stand out: ‘Hip Hop’ by Dead Prez is a riotous, rousing anthem, the stage seems to shake as M1, supported by Karim ‘Rush’, Mensah , M.anifest, Afrikan Boy, and Spoek Mathambo, take turns to MC. It has the whole crowd jumping. Then Damon takes to his piano for a delicate and warming version of ‘Melancholy Hill’ joined by Rokia Traoré.
There are also covers of ‘Control’ (who knew that all that was missing from Joy Division’s material was a djembe?) and a massive John Paul Jones led ‘Kashmir'; a song I’ve never been a huge fan of but tonight, as Kano raps over the top of it, it sounds huge.
The Krar Collective’s ‘Hagerea Ethiopia’, accompanied by blissful horns, is a perfect soundtrack for the clear blue skies while ‘Lourdes’ by Jupiter and Okwess International is another highlight. A spellbinding and triumphant ‘African Woman’ by Baaba Maal with Diabel Cissokho on the Kora also has the crowd in hushed awe.
It’s a song called ‘Suffer’ – which see the Bots joined by Reeps One (whose amazing larynx adds spectacular beatboxing to other tracks), M.anifest, Karim ‘Rush’ and Mensah and a host of other musicians – which sticks in the mind. It ends with the communal chant “You never know joy if you’ve never had to suffer” – it’s a reminder of the pure delight of this collaboration and celebratory carnival-like atmosphere. It’s what made tonight – and this week – such a triumph.