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
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Arts and Entertainment
U2's Songs of Innocence album sleeve

tvU2’s latest record has been accused of promoting sex between men

Arts and Entertainment
Alison Steadman in Inside No.9
tvReview: Alison Steadman stars in Inside No.9's brilliant series finale Spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
    'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

    'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

    British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
    Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

    Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

    Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
    14 best kids' hoodies

    14 best kids' hoodies

    Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

    The acceptable face of the Emirates

    Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk