Africa Express began in a Covent Garden bar, in a mood of fury at the 2005 Live8 concert, which proposed to end African debt and poverty while finding room for only one African artist, Youssou N'Dour, on its bill. The condescension, the feeling that even musically Africa should sit still for hand-outs, rankled with music industry friends, led by Damon Albarn, who were gathered.
Their response was an open-ended project of border-blasting musical exploration, based around a series of often spontaneous, night-long gigs in venues ranging from a Brixton pub and Glastonbury, to the late Fela Kuti's legendary Lagos club, The Shrine. In the last six years, Africa Express has seen artists including Franz Ferdinand, Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea, and Baaba Maal visiting each others' countries, playing and exchanging ideas.
Now, the latest chapter will see a literal Africa Express taking to Britain's railways for a week, as part of the Cultural Olympiad. Passengers will include Albarn, Amadou & Mariam, Baaba Maal, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, Bombay Bicycle Club's Jack Steadman, Tony Allen, Toumani Diabaté, Carl Barat and Rizzle Kicks. Many will be living together on the train, which will have a special carriage for music-making. "The hope," says journalist and Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell, "is as it travels around the artists can get to know each other, rehearse and work things out."
In the spirit of the early Africa Express shows, which would turn up with little or no announcement, there will also be a series of pop-up performances. "We're open to suggestion," says Birrell. "We'll play anywhere from houses to workplaces, through to prisons, shopping centres, units for homeless people. The idea is really to flood places with music, to take it to people."
The achievements of a project based on informal musical dialogue are hard to quantify. But Birrell points to concrete success. "There are hard achievements, such as the new Red Hot Chili Peppers album having a track called "Ethiopia" based on their experiences on Africa Express, and when you see Nick Zinner working with Amadou & Mariam on their latest album, and Bassekou Kouyate working with young British rappers... Equally it's just getting people to open up and collaborate more, and getting more African music in clubs, and opening people's eyes and ears to learning from Africa."
The Africa Express tour begins on 3 September at Middlesbrough Town Hall (www.africaexpress.co.uk)