Africa Express: Music from the heart of the Congo

When Africa Express took a party of leading musicians to a war-torn nation to meet local artists, it was an intense and life-changing encounter. Ian Birrell reports from Kinshasa

The tiny stage was packed as a heavy, dancehall rhythm rumbled out into the Kinshasa night. There was Damon Albarn on bass guitar, wearing an England football shirt and a huge grin. Beside him was Tony Allen, his colleague from The Good, The Bad & The Queen, perched behind a tiny drum kit and effortlessly controlling the beat. Beanie hat pulled down, he too was smiling as he surveyed the chaos.

In front was one of Africa's most famous musicians, the blind Malian guitarist Amadou Bagayoko in his trademark Philippe Stark sunglasses, picking out gorgeous riffs on his golden Fender. There were flicks of Greek music from a baglama played by the young Londoner Jesse Hackett, the wheezy sounds of a melodica blown by John Maclean of Scottish band The Aliens, bursts of beatboxing by Scratch, one-time member of US hip-hop heroes The Roots, and slices of toasting from several local DJs. The sound was dark and intense, distorted by an overworked PA system.

Then a middle-aged man in a maroon suit was carried up on stage. He dragged himself with his hands to a white plastic chair, hauled himself up and was given a home-made guitar. As he plugged it in, another man, similarly disabled, with braids in his hair, a thickset body and legs made useless by polio, pulled himself on to the other side of the stage and grabbed a microphone. His voice was husky but surprisingly sweet. The musicians glanced at each other, the sound came together and a heady stew of Afro-beat, funk and rumba emerged.

It was a perfect moment, symbolising the purpose of the Africa Express trip to the Congo: some of the most celebrated musicians in Africa and the West playing with members of Staff Benda Bilili, a group formed of homeless and disabled polio victims living in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo. It was unrehearsed, teetering on the edge of disaster, yet inspirational. The buildings around the tiny club were riddled with bullet holes, the streets pock-marked with potholes, the people engulfed in terrible poverty after years of civil war, but for a brief moment there was a sense of unity as artists from Africa, Europe and America came together on stage.

Afterwards, Jupiter Bokondji, leader of the band Okwess International, came up. "Thank you," he said, shaking my hand. "I have spent 25 years trying to get people interested in the Kinshasa music scene and this is the best thing that has happened in all that time."

Africa Express was formed three years ago. A small group of us – artists, music industry insiders and enthusiasts – sought to promote a more positive engagement with Africa and its music alongside the idea of collaboration between artists from different cultures, genres and generations. Since then there has been a trip taking Western musicians to Mali, an experimental gig in a Brixton pub with about a dozen artists, no rehearsals and no running order, then an unannounced show at Glastonbury last year along the same lines. Next week there is another event, this time in Liverpool.

After the success of Glastonbury came the idea of a trip to the Congo, home of rumba, which has dominated African music for half a century. Despite the decades of kleptocratic rule, recent political violence and an ongoing war in the east of the country, we were advised that it was safe and we would be welcomed. An understatement, as it turned out.

We met at Heathrow in the small hours of a gloomy winter morning. There was black humour about the trip ahead as people introduced themselves. Eighteen hours later, having collected more members of the party in Paris, then others that had flown in from Mali, we were enduring the first of several two-hour waits for food in a restaurant.

Energy restored, we set off to a club that turned out to be little more than a covered yard with plastic tables, cobalt blue walls and painted beer advertisements. No one else was there, despite the late hour. Gradually a few more people wandered in – a group of local youths, a party of aid workers.

Two guitarists and two drummers struck up some soukous. Another man, quite elderly, joined in on percussion, tapping away on a bottle with a knife. The sound was loud and distorted. A crate of beers was shared out, then a woman with a serious expression, in a pink T-shirt, began dancing with a bottle on her head. She rolled over on the ground, keeping the bottle perfectly balanced, then came up to me, grinding her hips to the music. I plastered a note to her forehead in a gesture of thanks.

Some of our party quickly joined in. Amadou plugged in a guitar and started jamming, then a djembe was found for Allen. Albarn began playing his melodica on the side of the stage. K'naan, the Somali-born rapper, grabbed a mike as Scratch provided beats. The band played on contentedly.

Next morning, I woke late and missed breakfast. Four bedraggled eagles, their wings clipped, stood around the swimming pool as Gayle Paridjanian from Turin Brakes, Sam Duckworth (aka Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly), and K'naan quietly jammed in the shade. As we waited to change money – needing both hands, rather than wallets, to carry off our bundles of Congolese cash – Amadou told me it was his first time apart from Mariam Doumbia, his wife and musical partner, in nearly 30 years. "Congo is unstable, with military presence everywhere. I am more peaceful knowing she is at home in Bamako."

Another long wait, then we drove to our next destination. We were in a prosperous part of town, home to the elites and embassies, but many of the houses and flats we drove past were scarred by bullet holes, a legacy of civil unrest earlier in the year that left hundreds dead. Espace Maître Taureau was a smarter venue, with a mural of a village painted on one wall and a tiled dancing area in front of a covered stage. As we waited, I chatted to the children who had gathered outside and watched lorries packed with people negotiate the lakes in the road.

Then the show started. And what a show: fast, brutal dance music, sometimes trancelike, sometimes closer to punk, called tradi-moderne. The best known exponents in the West are Konono No 1 – discovered by Vincent Kenis, the Belgian producer who organised our trip – but here were five of their peers such as Sobanza Mimanisa and the stunning Kasai Allstars playing music that has evolved on the troubled streets of Africa's third-largest city. Each was different, bringing the traditions of their own tribes into bands formed in the ghettos.

The songs went on for 15, 20, 30 minutes at a time, played on instruments that were mostly handmade. The sound was dominated by likembe (thumb pianos), some handheld, one so big the musician sat on it as he played. Bass likembe pounded out simple syncopations, often just a couple of notes, while trebles produced runs over the top. Call-and-respond vocals came over a barrage of polyrhythmic drumming and harsh, jangling guitars, distorted and fed through crude pick-ups made of discarded car magnets and ancient speakers. One man played an electric harp in a frenzy as he lay on his back, whirling around in circles on the floor. Dancers in feathers and furs, raffia skirts and painted faces, added to the intensity of the spectacle.

Amadou joined in, quickly getting into his stride. "It was funny, because I was almost the only player who knew this music from the Congo so was always first to jam. The others took time to understand the music and to join us. But when they did, the results were fantastic," he said later.

Soon Albarn was there with his melodica, then Allen at a drumkit. Someone bought two paper bags of street food: chunks of delicious-smelling grilled goat and cassava. The goat was more gristle than meat. Gordon Anderson, singer with The Aliens, grabbed a mouthful on his way to the stage and was then forced to chew for several minutes as he played guitar, not wanting to cause offence by spitting it out.

After leaving the stage, Anderson went to the doorway where children had been watching, pushed back by an officious bouncer. He grabbed some hands and pulled them on to the dance area, and soon everyone was dancing: musicians, schoolkids, mothers with infants asleep on their shoulders. Even the doorman.

Tired and hungry, we eventually left and ended up at a smart restaurant, where wealthy diners – les grosses legumes, as the oligarchs are known in Kinshasa – ate curries, fou fou and cassava while a band played exquisite soukous in the background. Albarn delighted in pointing out that the crunchy black things on my plate were deep-fried caterpillars.

It was another leisurely start the next day. I spent time chatting to K'naan about growing up in war-torn Somalia before leaving at the age of 14 for North America. "Although there were times I was scared, it was a good childhood because of its intensity. The bad was really bad, but the good was very, very good."

As we arrived at our destination for the day, we were greeted by the warm and unexpected tones of pedal steel guitar. An elderly man with a sweet smile under his cap was playing as technicians set up the backline. Albarn sat on the side of the stage, entranced, while the rest of us ate river fish and chips.

Duckworth started playing acoustic guitar with some local kids; a girl with the most amazing, soulful voice started singing. Then the eight members of Staff Benda Bilili took to the stage. All disabled by polio, they cranked themselves to the stage in their hand-powered wheelchairs. Street children handed up instruments. A solemn-looking guitarist in dark glasses started playing a gentle rumba, then Ricky Likabu, the band's leader, started singing and the music turned funky. Over the top was a strange twangy sound, which turned out to be made by Roger Landu, a street urchin who had invented an instrument from one wire and a tin can, which he then attached to a radio mike and played as he wandered around. One of the band's singers flopped out of his chair and danced as he sang, arms waving above his head and lifeless legs beneath him. "That was astonishing," said Hackett at the end.

It was a mesmerising evening, with impromptu jams on and off stage between artists with no means of communication beyond music. Towards the end, a quartet of men in long black leather coats, dark suits, white shirts and pork pie hats turned up. "Who are they?" I asked. "The gangsters," my neighbour replied. I laughed, but it turned out to be true – these men controlled this patch of town. And inevitably, this being the Congo, one of them was soon on stage and belting out the most delicious ska song.

There was so much more. A trip to a riverside venue where we heard the sounds of Eastern Congo, more tribal and percussive. A visit to Papa Wembe's club to hear a special set from the country's biggest star. Watching De La Soul perform "Saturday" in a tiny club on a Saturday night with local DJs. A Sunday-night dance, with well-dressed couples enjoying the rippling rumba of Simaro, guitarist with the legendary Franco.

So what did the visiting artists make of the alleged heart of darkness? Amadou said he loved the feeling of togetherness: "What was amazing was the way there were no egos. We did everything together: we visited Kinshasa together, took our meals together, played together." Robert Del Naja, Massive Attack's 3D, said that he had never been to a place that was so misunderstood. "Everything about Africa is normally preceded by clichés of poverty and disease until you go there and realise the energy and beauty of the people." Duckworth went even further: "This was probably my favourite moment of my life, such a great experience that will live on for a long time."

Before we left, a handful of us accepted Likabu's invitation to visit Staff Benda Bilili at the zoo. The band were in a circle under a giant banyan tree. They greeted us with hugs, then played us one last song – "Na Lingi Yo" – on their hand-built instruments, a driving rumba with choppy guitar and close harmonies. The band swayed in time in their antiquated wheelchairs, while a couple of kids danced around. It was achingly lovely music, created out of the most terrible adversity. "That was beautiful," said Del Naja at the end, visibly moved. "It was worth coming all this way just to hear that one song."

Somehow, it seemed a fitting finale.

Africa Exprez, presented by Africa Express, is at the Liverpool Olympia on 6 March (africaexpress.co.uk). The 35 acts taking part include Amadou & Mariam; Damon Albarn; Baaba Maal; Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly; The Aliens; Rachid Taha; Hard-Fi; Souad Massi; and Reverend & The Makers

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