First published on Musika.uk.com in September 2012.
Granary Square, London
8th September 2012
How does one even begin to attempt to review such a happening as Africa Express? A rolling, near-constant performance comprising of 6 ‘official’ gigs, tens of pop-up performances and countless hours of jamming and rehearsals in between. All featuring more than 80 musicians. On a train.
This reviewer’s experience of the tour extends only to the London date of the tour, what had been billed as the grand finale. The 5-hour performance was held at the newly-opened Granary Square behind King’s Cross Station. This was the only open-air venue for a paid-entry gig in the whole tour and, as such, there was a real festival feel to the proceedings, one not hindered by the blasting sunshine during the daylight hours of the show.
The concert opened with a (very) short welcome from the project’s co-founder Damon Albarn and then a speech from a Malian friend, regarding the crisis in northern Mali, corruption in Africa and the need to come together as a people to stop these (and all) atrocities, highlighting the significance of cross-cultural collaboration and empathy such as that we were about to witness. After a hearty round of applause, the first piece gets under way, and it’s already an exercise in ‘spot the famous musician’ with a piece lead by desert blues guitarist Afel Bocoum and featuring an ensemble including Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon, John Paul Jones on bass and Albarn himself on acoustic guitar. And so it continued throughout the evening, my friends and I exchanging whispers of “here comes Amadou on guitar!”, “Fatoumata Diawara is singing with the Noisettes and Eliza Doolittle, wow!” and “hang on, is that Paul McCartney on bass?”.
Musically, highlights included Nicolas Jaar ‘and friends’ (who happened to include Baaba Maal, Bassekou Kouyaté, Lassana Diabaté and Fatoumata Diawara) presenting an extended West African journey, mixing traditional music from the Mandé world with a subtle electronic background; a version of Led Zeppelin’s 'Kashmir', led by rappers Kano and Bashy and featuring Mehdi Haddab on electric oud, Rokia Traoré on typically scintillating vocals, the horn section of the Fela! musical and Led Zep’s own John Paul Jones on synth; Amadou Bagayoko leading Okwess International with Baloji on the mic; Rokia Traoré singing a hauntingly beautiful track ‘Dounia’ accompanied by, yes, the ex-Beatle, taking the bassline behind the rest of the band, unannounced…and I could go on and on and on. The stand out performer, however, was Fatoumata Diawara. She was never far from the stage, and for good reason: every time she opened her mouth, fantastic colours flew out – even when she wasn't singing, her dancing lit up the stage.
Through the evening, only three songs somewhat missed the mark – Carl Barât’s offering a bit too noisy, in the wrong way; Eliza Doolittle’s otherwise beautiful rendition of Al Green’s 'Let’s Stay Together' slowed things down a little much; and Paul McCartney’s second lead number…well, it just didn’t work too well, in my opinion – but three pieces out of five hours’ worth still leaves a very large percentage of gold. One criticism I heard from friends further from the stage than myself was that the music was so quiet that a choice had to be made between seeing the stage and hearing the music from the back up speakers halfway back in the crowd, no doubt due to the recent controversies surrounding open air music in London. Complaints raised at other Africa Express gigs, however, seemed to have been addressed here, with ensembles being introduced to the crowd before or after a song, and a five-minute change over between pieces at the very most.
Altogether, the experience was one of overwhelming musical success, and one which wasn’t nearly as shambolic as could have been expected, with the sheer number of musicians and only six days (in between other gigs) to plan almost from scratch. This wasn’t Africa Express’s first triumph, and here’s hoping it’s far from its last.
Photo: Africa Express London Granary Square 2012, by Haydn. Used under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.