My week on the Africa Express

Bombay Bicycle Club's Jack Steadman gives the inside track on what it was like to be one of the performers on Damon Albarn's magical mystery tour of the UK

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The Independent Culture

“You're on next Jack,” I was told. I had arrived in Glasgow just hours before, joining up with this mad circus they called Africa Express. With five minutes to go I quickly approached two Congolese percussionists and, in broken French, asked if they could join me.

Above the noise of Carl Barât's Afro-tinged “Don't Look Back into the Sun” on stage, I sang the melody to them as they worked out their parts. With the very talented Seye on bass, who was fortunately already familiar with my song, we took to the stage. This is it, I thought, the moment I have been anticipating all day, nervously knocking back beers on the train from London.

I have never played shuffle so fast. I couldn't hear my voice or guitar, just the pounding African drums. Several others had joined me on stage with shakers and cowbells. The power suddenly cut throughout the whole venue and I picked up a tambourine and kept going. The crowd was dancing, indifferent to the lack of electricity. This was primal music. As it was building up into a frenzy, the power came on and we finished the song with one last drum hit and chord on the guitar.

“I have no idea what just happened,” I told the organisers side-stage. “Welcome to Africa Express”, one said back.

The train we were travelling on was an old locomotive from the 1970s (a very rare one judging by the trainspotters we passed at every bridge), and had been fitted with a rehearsal carriage, chill-out room and a bar. It was in the rehearsal room the next day that I was asked to play guitar on a cover of Joy Division's “She's Lost Control” by the South African producer Spoek Mathambo. I had asked if I could play bass but unfortunately that role had already been taken: Peter Hook was turning up later. In Bristol we were joined by John Paul Jones, in London by Paul McCartney. At any other show these cameos would make my jaw drop. But it was testament to the quality of musicians on board the train that they didn't. I was surrounded by talent, and it came from Africa.

Looking back, the power cut was the perfect introduction to the week. The most special moments were always unrehearsed. For me, and I think many other of the Western musicians, this was unfamiliar. We spent weeks rehearsing for our tours, and indeed would always have at least one practice on the train before each show. Once on stage, the African musicians would take what we rehearsed, grab hold of it and hurl it into places we never imagined. I found it exhilarating. As we said “goodbye” with exchanges of email addresses and promises of future projects, I felt inspired like never before. An unlocking had occurred. To be watching was a privilege, let alone to be involved. I am forever thankful.

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