With 80 musicians hailing from locations ranging from Bamakoand Brighton to Cape Town and Crouch End, all travelling around the UKin a specially chartered train to perform a series of freeform pop upgigs, Africa Express is not the kind of tour that happens every week.Perhaps almost inevitably the brainchild of that perennial polymathand Africa aficionado Damon Albarn, the objective of theproject was for likeminded performers to spread the joy integral tothe continent’s music to communities across Britain, ranging fromlocal schools and factories to large concert arenas.
After a rollercoaster week on the rails, the party came to aclose at London’s recently opened Granary Square. With nofixed line up or running order and very limited rehearsal time, italways ran the risk of being something of a hit and miss affair, andso it proved to be. Lasting five hours and with musicians coming andgoing with bewildering frequency, Africa Express’s biggest problem wasa sprawling lack of focus, but what worked did so rather magically.
Take for example a simple, stripped back performance of Melancholy Hill by Gorillaz featuring justAlbarn on piano and the wonderfully soulful vocals of Maliansinger-songwriter Rokia Traoré, which reduced the audience tohushed awe, or the exuberant balafon (an African glockenspiel) solosthat accompanied some infectious early tracks led by celebrated ngoniplayer Bassekou Kouyate. Senegalese legend Baaba Maalappeared late with his usual charismatic presence and of the lesserknown cast, London-based Ethiopians Krar Collective, virtuososof the unique lyre-like instrument of their home nation, provided anintriguing contrast to the rappers and horn sections performingalongside them.
By and large, the African musicians fared considerably betterthan their British counterparts and it was unfortunate the latter wereallowed an equal share of the billing. Jack Steadman of BombayBicycle Club was hopelessly out of place, Martina TopleyBird singularly failed to dazzle when compared to the likes ofTraoré and her fellow Malian diva Fatoumata Diawara, and theguttural utterances of ‘human beatbox’ Reeps One were bemusingand irritating in equal measure.
The biggest surprise of the evening was the unexpectedappearance of the admittedly now ubiquitous Paul McCartney,who decided to jump straight on the Eurostar fresh from receiving theFrench Legion of Honour in Paris to join in the fun. Thankfully, theaudience were spared the ex-Beatle’s customary Hey Jude knees up fareand were instead treated to a couple of lesser known songs from his back catalogue -Coming Up and Goodnight Tonight, with McCartney in noticeably bettervoice than in the Olympic stadium a few weeks ago.
Sir Paul’s crowd pleasers ushered in a more familiar feel tothe last hour of the show, with tour participant John PaulJones acknowledged in a spirited, Kano-led rendition ofLed Zeppelin‘s Kashmir before the whole vast ensemble convergedon stage to join in with Amadou & Mariam‘s Masiteladi. Seeingmusicians waving placards bearing the words ‘tax the rich’ feltslightly incongruous with the multi-millionaire McCartney among theirnumber, but like everything else with Africa Express, it’s all sosincere, well-intentioned and energetically delivered, it would bechurlish to be too critical. It may have ultimately ended up beingslightly less than the sum of its parts, but the fact this kind ofadventure in cross-cultural collaboration has happened at all is atribute to the commitment and open-mindedness of everyone involved.