Africa Express, Olympia, Liverpool

A vibrant celebration of African music on the Mersey

The Olympia, a one-time dance and variety hall, can rarely have seen the array of talent Damon Albarn and friends brought to it tonight. Ever since Live 8's organisers decided to stage a concert to "end poverty" in Africa without inviting the continent's musicians, Albarn has been countering the idea that it is a pitiful charity case with a series of direct musical actions.

Africa Express is an initiative that has taken mostly British rock musicians to Mali and the Congo, and African musicians to Glastonbury, Brixton and, now, Liverpool. The spirit has been one of open, intimate collaboration. Last night's staggering all-star, intercontinental line-up may be planting seeds more vibrant and profound than anything Albarn has done before.

The crowd is a mix of the committed and curious, who see massed drums followed by Amadou and Mariam. Amadou's silver guitar is soon streaming Africa-inflected blues riffs, but the couple from Mali look lost as The Magic Numbers jerkily intercede. For a moment, the Africa Express seems set to crash. But then the Afrobeat originator Tony Allen's drums gently roll everyone back into their groove, Mariam's pragmatic, soulful voice rides the brass section, and we're away.

Hard-Fi define tonight's possibilities. The west London ska of "We Need Love" is given an added blues riff by Amadou, barely noticed at the back of the stage. Then Rachid Taha, the Algerian-French king of rebel rai, dressed and moving like a Forties Casbah gangster, struts on. Taha's band help Hard-Fi turn "Suburban Knights" into north African trance. Richard Archer, usually the star, defers almost entirely to Taha's unruly energy, as he sings The Cure's "Killing an Arab" in Arabic, its meaning made hopelessly unstable.

Archer humbly confesses to me later that Hard-Fi's collaborators were "lowering themselves to be on the same stage as us". But his band have bravely opened themselves up to the most exacting, exciting music they've played; suddenly, you can hear new spaces and possibilities. Albarn and Africa have freed them. The sharp-suited Senegalese guitarist Wasis Diop, minus any Western stars, is treated as intermission music at first. But his light, long-rolling, effortlessly even rhythms become mesmeric. A second guitarist blurs styles from African palm-wine to the glistening lap-steel of a Southern bar band between dances, as Diop huskily sketches songs over the top: Senegalese sounds by way of Memphis.

You can't take the ego out of Reverend and the Makers' scattergun Northern rebel groove. But the stage soon fills, with a white-bearded percussionist in what looks like a medieval Mongol helmet and, most notably, Malian stars Bassekou Kouyate and his wife Amy Sacko. Kouyate at first struggles to find a spot for his ngoni (a lute-like instrument). But he eventually takes the unlikely lead on a crunching electric Chicago blues, sprinkling high, oriental-sounding notes. Sacko lifts her eyes to the roof with worldly wryness as she starts to sing. Soon, Baaba Maal, perhaps Africa's biggest star, is beside her, scaling notes and declaiming; she shoots a tough, take-no-prisoners ululation back. Amadou has returned, too, with virtuoso noir riffs. Solos are passed smiling down the line, as the reality of these disparate African peers uniting sets in. Kouyate, dressed in princely white robes on-stage, stands in a green parka in the crowd, watching. With the backstage drinks rider exhausted in seconds, "stars" have been mingling at the public bars all night. Celebrity has been cancelled.

Turin Brakes provide well-meaning, mediocre histrionics. Then Franz Ferdinand and Maal combine on "Take Me Out", the Afrobeat roots of Glasgow pop, so evident with Orange Juice, at last made utterly explicit. Kouyate and the London rapper Kano pile in, making Franz rougher and rawer. Like Hard-Fi, they are forgetting the Western pop industry's rules, and being reborn as musicians. And who knows what Maal is learning?

There are some middling soul-jazz jams, a nervous Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly, and Elmore Judd, enlivened by Sacko's singing. Maal and Albarn each finally take centre-stage, the latter's frail cockney voice colliding with Kano's smart London raps. But it's Taha who waltzes on at 3am to steal the show. "Rock The Kasbah", with Albarn and Maal on board, is a pure riot.

Over accelerating, percussive brass, Taha grinds, dances and invites us towards him; finally, he just growls, as the rhythm, and the crowd's dancing, spins harder. I leave at 4am, and they may still be going. This Express is picking up speed.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all