In a Covent Garden bar three years ago, the mood was one of simmering rage. The Live8 concert had just been staged with the declared purpose of saving Africa from debt and poverty. Bob Geldof had managed to get Pink Floyd to reunite, but could find room for only one African, Youssou N'Dour, on the bill. A tacked-on African event in Cornwall only added to the sense of the continent as an object of charity and pity. Damon Albarn, who had led the initial outcry, now plotted a counter-movement: Africa Express.
That initial Covent Garden meeting between Albarn and a small group of fellow conspirators briefly considered a grand concert of their own. This was quickly replaced by the idea of a cultural movement, which would bring Western and African musicians together to travel and play in each other's countries. An October 2006 trip to Mali was followed by sprawling, free-form gigs in a Brixton pub, the Glastonbury Festival, Kinshasa, Congo, and a Liverpool music hall. Most happened almost in secret. The Liverpool gig was announced only on the afternoon of the show; at Glastonbury, it was something you stumbled upon. On Wednesday, it helped to open the BBC Electric Proms at Camden's Koko, taking African music on to Radio 1. It was the coming-out party for a remarkable organisation.
Many of the 130 musicians at Koko, who ranged from Hard-Fi to Mali's feminist icon Oumou Sangare, had spent the previous week in Lagos, Nigeria, guests of Femi Kuti on the stage of his father Fela's legendary Shrine club. Instead being part of the quick fix of an ignorant charity concert, these individuals had been brought into the exhilarating heart of African culture. As Massive Attack's Robert Del Naja told The Independent in Congo last year: "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." What happens as a result Albarn is typically leaving to chance. His only mission has been roughly to throw together diverse musicians, and watch the sparks fly.
The crowd was still snaking around Mornington Crescent on Wednesday when Senegal superstar Baaba Maal, part of the Express from the beginning, began with a plea for a generation born into potential new African suffering. Then he ushered in a seven-hour celebration of the continent's strength on an acoustic guitar. Mali's Amadou and Mariam, Senegalese rappers Daara J, Red Hot Chili Pepper Flea and the Magic Numbers' Romeo Stoddart gradually filled the stage around him, to make a restless, seething, ceaseless noise. Maal's vocal ability to whisper or resonate with the rafters tethered this ad hoc ensemble, and its first guest, Sangare. In black harlequin garb and a pirate's hat, she took his hand to dance and imploringly sing.
"Unfortunately, we're from America" is how George Bush had forced the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble to say "hi", but their blistering jazz blast needed no apology. Young UK rapper Ed Skrein also eloquently commented on Iraq, and how Britain's complicity has stopped his disillusioned generation's vote. On the two-way cultural street Africa Express is building, it was this idea, not seven hours of African sounds, which caused shuffling audience discomfort.
Hard-Fi demonstrated how the movement has cracked musical shells. They sang the Cure's "Killing an Arab" with North African oud and mandol players, who gave their satellite town anthem "Suburban Knights" casbah hues. When Amadou and speed-rapping Londoner Kano joined them in the Chemical Brothers' explosive Arabesque dance tune "Galvanise", another Africa Express theme was driven home. World music is no longer a condescending nod to non-Western forms. It is a way of returning chart stars such as Hard-Fi and Flea to their proper place in a bigger, better world. This week, they sounded musically freed. Reverend and the Makers' Jon McClure was inspired by his involvement to work with Bassekou Kouyate, while Franz Ferdinand were energised by sharing a stage with Baaba Maal. The continent of starving children Africa appears as on TV becomes a powerhouse in this context, gifting inspiration to Britain's in-bred music scene. Rachid Taha, meanwhile, plays the Clash's "Rock the Casbah" as if it's his own. The miscegenating wonder rock'n'roll began as begins to breathe again in this air, reacquainted with its African roots.
"It's Damon from Blur!" The Aliens' Gordon Anderson blurted more prosaically on Wednesday, as the internally cringing Albarn added keyboard oscillations to their heavy, hyperactive psychedelia. As Wasis Diop always claims, such ritual, pulsing music has an African heart, which ngoni virtuoso Bassekou Kouyate and echoing hand-drums helped to find. Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly's Sam Duckworth, still buzzing from his Lagos adventure, introduced Fela Kuti's "Water No Get Enemy". Productively broken into by Daara J and Kano, this music brewed in Fela's legendary Shrine became an unclassifiable, reggae-rap beast in Camden.
As midnight passed, ex-Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr played with Amadou and Mariam. Albarn took the stage himself with a band including Flea and legendary Nigerian drummer and Afrobeat originator Tony Allen, his right-hand man from Africa Express's start. Flea, part of the Lagos trip too, looked studious and committed. The next Chili Peppers global smash will no doubt carry seeds from this week. Mali kora maestro Toumani Diabaté led a West African super-group. A little before 3am, Rachid's "Rock the Casbah" brought the house down, and another unpredictable stop on the Africa Express was complete.
The Independent's Ian Birrell, co-founder of Africa Express, tells me: "There's no fixed idea where it's going. It did make a difference, having the Electric Proms involved. The BBC made a big leap of faith, not knowing who was going to turn up and giving over so many hours of Radio 1 to it."
Wherever this strange trip ends, it is breaking down barriers, person by person. The next time Africa needs help, more people will hear it as an equal. And Bono, perhaps, can stay at home.Reuse content