Thurs 6 Sept
words MAB JONES & STEVEN GLYN PREECE photos EMMA LEWIS
Leeds, Manchester, Cardiff, Crewe. The Africa Express is pulling into all of the usual train stations – but this time, it isn’t tired-looking businessmen, bored shop workers, or cardboard-featured commuters who are emerging from it, but a lively load of musicians from this little island of Britain and the much larger continent of Africa.
The brainchild of Damon Albarn, Africa Express is a unique collaborative conjunction of artists. The morning before I went along, it was described by Mark Radcliffe on BBC Radio as being “like a huge party”. And, so it is – a party featuring roughly 80 acts, of all shapes, sizes, shades, and styles of music, from beatboxing to blues, pop to rap, and everything else you can imagine. Musicians enter the stage, show us what they’re made of, then make space for the next lot – and they really, really show us what they’re made of.
Electric guitars blend seamlessly with the West African kora, a magnificent-looking instrument made of calabash vine and cowskin that is passed down from generation to generation; its sound is something akin to a waterfall cascading onto a harp – lute-like, but more other-sounding. Djembe and ngoni are magically melded with pianos and drums. And we are also treated to a few collaborations between artists, most notably Damon Albarn on piano accompanied by the strong, soulful voice of Rokia Traore; Gruff Rhys singing and holding up mad placards that asked the audience for ‘APPLAUSE’ and a few moments later to ‘TAX THE RICH’; and a fantastic feast of musicians belting out The Clash’s Train In Vain in a suitably upbeat and effusive finale.
The Welsh audience were particularly appreciative of a song, Applecarts, sung by Albarn, which contained Welsh links; but, for me, there were so many stand-out moments that this was just one of several high points. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the whole night was a high point – the joyful jubilance of every single act; the refreshing intergenerational alliances, with enthusiastic teenagers and experienced older artists sharing the stage; the polyrhythmic sounds of the kora mixing with skilful synths and sonorous song. A rhapsody of rhythms kept us entranced from beginning to much-maligned end (no-one wanted it to finish!).
In all, this was a much-needed shot of colour and vibrancy at a time, for us, of overbearing austerity and, for some of the African participants, serious civil war. Despite our differences, in both culture and circumstance, the Africa Express managed to get us all to that most important destination – joyfulness! A wonderful night, and a wonderful time for everyone (musician, audience member) who made it along.