On tour with the African Soul Rebels

Maghrebian folk rock, Sudanese rap and Malian blues and soul: Tim Cumming joins the world-music stars Amadou and Mariam, Souad Massi and Emmanuel Jal on the road in Britain
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The Independent Culture

We're pulling in to a pit stop along the M40 some three hours out of Manchester, where the first night of the African Soul Rebels tour has come off successfully. Everyone is relieved, if drained by the nerves of opening night. In the back of the van is Emmanuel Jal, the 25-year-old Sudanese rapper and former child soldier whose debut album Ceasefire was nominated for a Radio 3 award for World Music, touring with award-winners Souad Massi, and Amadou and Mariam.

Accompanying Jal is a small band put together for the tour; Chris the guitarist, DJ and keyboardist Davidson, and Ayak, a powerful-voiced London-born Sudanese soul singer with whom Emmanuel has worked on a half-dozen new tracks. A world away from his style of choice, the in-car playlist includes The Fall's latest album. Jal's attention is caught by the jagged slur of "Clasp Hands". "This is the first one that interests me," he says to nobody in particular. Something about the drums. He leans forward and asks us to play the track again.

The concert had seen powerful and contrasting performances ranging from Massi's exquisite Maghrebian folk rock to the powerful message of Jal's Sudanese-English rap, and the Malian blues and soul of blind duo Amadou and Mariam.

Massi opened proceedings, the crack, five-piece road band providing shimmering textures behind her distinctive, haunting vocals that ache with nostalgia and loss. Jal was up next, drawing the audience in with his gentle vocal delivery and loose-limbed stage presence, and delivering raw and rousing songs of deliverance and hope in English and snatches of Arabic. Meanwhile his guitarist was chopping out crunchy rock chords in front of the speakers, while the Amazonian Ayak switched between soaring lead and harmony vocals. Then husband and wife Amadou and Mariam showed why they are the tour headliners, Amadou's scintillating lead guitar and whiplash riffs the perfect companion for Mariam's honeyed vocals. The duo closed their set with the "soul fire" chant of "La Realité", from their breakthrough Dimanche a Bamako album, bringing the audience to its feet for a standing ovation.

The next day, between sound checks and show time at Poole's Lighthouse venue, most of the Soul Rebels entourage are holed up in a hotel across from the venue. In the quiet of the afternoon, Massi sits in a café with an espresso. This, you guess, is the view most working musicians have of the world - brief tableaux between venue and hotel, repeated in town after town. Massi smiles, but wryly. It's been years since she's returned to her home town in Algeria. "But I'm going back in April," she suddenly beams. She will play her first concerts there since she left in 1999 for France.

As for the Soul Rebels tour, she explains: "Each night's set list is going to be different. It's very important. It's about what you do to improve the music, to change each night, to make new arrangements, and to keep the spirit fresh. It's not so easy in big venues."

After the second night in Poole, everyone feels great. The audience may have been smaller than in Manchester, but responded with greater abandon and the kind of visceral joy that musicians feast on. One highlight came in Amadou and Mariam's set. Amadou has a technique of turning one simple but irresistible lead guitar phrase over and over mid-song, to create a tension that's released at just the right moment. It had been too much for two African women, who climbed onto the stage and began dancing. No one seemed to mind and they stayed there to the song's end.

"It's really great to have people really getting into the music," says Amadou, relaxing after the show in one of the venue's spacious dressing rooms. "That's why they dance like that. It's the same thing in Africa."

Amadou and Mariam sit close together in their stage clothes and designer sunglasses, as intimate a unit off stage as on. On stage, it had been striking how Mariam's stillness and poise had centred the music; now she exhibits the same commanding elegance. It's been 30 years since the pair met at the Institute for Young Blind People in Bamako, Mali. "I was a singer there," says Mariam. "Amadou came to learn Braille."

"That's how we met, and whenever we got together we'd talk about music and make music, right from the very beginning," says Amadou. Since the success of Dimanche a Bamako, they have barely stopped touring. "We've met so many people because of that record. We've been on the road constantly, doing TV, signing autographs. It's been incredible. It's been worldwide."

The first night had seen most of the musicians retire to their quarters after finishing their set, but on the second, they were in the audience. "We all decided to go and listen to the other bands," says Massi, as impressed as anyone by the bill's contrasting mix of styles. Amadou, too, "felt it fitted together really well". His drummer Ivo had stood by the side of the stage through the whole of Jal's set, enthusiastically beating out rhythms with his drum sticks over an upturned speaker cabinet.

Jal captures his audience with a stage-craft that must be second nature - it's not something he learned as a youngster. After losing his father and mother in the Sudanese war, he was a child soldier at eight and spent years in the bush. Eventually, an aid worker, Emma McCune, adopted him before she was killed in a car crash. He was shipped out to Kenya, and now lives in London, where his music is feted by the likes of Peter Gabriel.

Jal opens his segment of the Soul Rebels show with "War Child", a powerful new rap that gives voice to his history and survivor's convictions. When this rapper talks about guns and violence, it's no make-believe gangsta's paradise. When he sings about peace and love, they're not corny company mission statements. "I've been deep down there, you know, but I just want to make beautiful music and inspire people," he says.

Judging by the audience, and even his fellow Soul Rebels, he is doing just that. They all are.

The African Soul Rebels play Colston Hall, Bristol (0117-922 3686; www.colstonhall.org), 3 March; Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool (0151-709 3789; www.liverpoolphil.com), 4 March