Africa Express, Hotel de Ville, Paris
Journey to the heart of Africa
Monday 10 August 2009
It wasn't so much Dimanche à Bamako as Mercredi à Paris. After Britain, Congo, and Nigeria, the Africa Express pulled into the French capital this week in all its freewheeling, chaotic glory.
Against the splendid backdrop of the Hotel de Ville, more than 100 musicians including Amadou and Mariam, The Magic Numbers, Tony Allen, The Kooks, and Rachid Taha jammed their way through an enthralling seven-hour set.
Africa Express burst into life in 2005, a riposte to the Live 8 concerts that had a distinctly un-African line-up, despite their goal of focusing attention on the continent. On its French debut, the collaboration between African and Western musicians threw up the same thrilling combinations that devotees have come to expect.
Speech Debelle, the south London hip-hop artist recently shortlisted for the Mercury prize, teamed up with flamboyant Senegalese rapper Sister Fa, with the pair's rapid-fire lyrics switching seamlessly between French, English and Wolof, Fa's local dialect.
Amid the riotous explosion of carnivalesque showmanship that was Ebony Bones, the barely swaying Malian musician Bassekou Kouyate was an oasis of calm. Like many of the artistic hook-ups, he had only the briefest of rehearsals with the British band inside the vaulted hallways of the Paris town hall beforehand, yet the haunting strings of his ngoni offered a natural counterpoint to the group's raucous electro-punk.
The crowd was as ethnically and linguistically diverse as the star-studded line-up. The Malians and Senegalese diaspora were out in force, gyrating with pride to their countrymen's tunes; German and American tourists strolling along the Seine ventured over to see what all the fuss was about.
Vieux Farka Toure brought his guitar and the spirit of his deceased father, the legendary Africa blues star, Ali; Malian diva Oumou Sangare brought her piercing vocals. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, the nine-piece from Chicago bounced around the stage as if their lives depended on it; and there was an appearance from Corinne Bailey Rae, her first gig since the death of her husband last year.
The revolving door of performers was bewildering for the 18,000-strong crowd, but eventually they stopped trying to work out who was who, and surrendered to the music. Midnight approached, and Mariam delivered a spine-tingling rendition of "Sabali", accompanied by Damon Albarn on the keyboard. The gathered masses swayed as one under the full moon. Amadou and his gold guitar swiftly joined his wife on stage and the blind Malian duo added their delicate blend of harmonies to the vocals of Magic Numbers frontman, Romeo Stodart.
Paris demanded an encore, and Albarn and Taha belted out "Rock the Casbah". There was something of a karaoke flavour to their rendition of The Clash's classic as they tossed the microphone between them, the Algerian rocker singing the verses, the Britpop legend the refrain, and others piling in with backing vocals.
Then, suddenly, the musical marathon was over and the Hotel de Ville crowd evaporated into the night.
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