All aboard the Africa Express!
All aboard the Africa Express!
Africa Express
Manchester Ritz
Live Review
Sept 4th 2012

Fusion is at the heart of all great music. Sparking ideas and creating new textures and pushing musicians to the brink it’s the best way to make music taking everyone out of their comfort zones and on a trip, including the audience who get a whole new bunch of great musicians and performers to check out.

Tonight was pure fusion as a cream crop of African and British mashed it up to perfection. What’s great is that this is an attempt to lift African music away from being a worthy cause, a music for people with knitted hats to collect and present it as a pop music of its own. The musicians on the stage are not professors or record collectors they are the music of the streets and the taxis and markets of their respect counties- part of a never ending development of music in a huge continent that is seething with great musical ideas and life and not the endless civil wars of popular perception. If it doesn’t feel like they play enough African music tonight it’s maybe because African music is changing all the time, it’s not traditional, it is hip hop flavoured with rap making a huge inroad on the continent. Constantly evolving and incorporating African music, like the continent itself, is already somewhere else. The great lesson from this excursion is that music is no longer the the Anglo- American machine- it’s everywhere and even if this kind of thing has been attempted before by the likes of Peter Gabriel in the mainstream to The Ex in the underground it’s always great to see it done.

The 80 musicians are up there for four hours with a never ending constantly changing, fluid line up pulled from the 80 plus musicians milling about backstage and it all works.

Africa Express is a great concept. Another brain strom from Damon Albarn- a man who doesn’t seem to stop moving. It’s not enough to just have the idea, he actually gets them completed and this is one of hs best idea yet.

Get 80 musicians from Africa and the indie scene and stick them on a train and tour round the UK playing a mixture of off kilter indie rock and African music and hip hop. Sometimes they get off the train and busk in the station, like in Carlisle or they split into smaller groups and run a round the city playing geurilla gigs bringing the music to the people.

There is no set plan and ad hoc is very much the theme. The whole thing runs by the seat of its pants but it runs and a remarkable array of music is fast forwarded across the stage with each act getting a song each.

Fittingly the whole gig is a blur of music and faces. Things start with Malian guitar player Afel Boucoum and his band, then there is part South-African/part Zimbabwean,born in Watford singer songwriter Kyla la Grange, from Mali Bassekou Kouyate, someone from Bombay Bicycle Club, Spoek and the wonderful Ethiopian now based in London, Louder Than War faves, the Krar Collective who we have covered on these pages before.

There are plenty of names known to the UK scene like Carl Barrett and John Mclure from Reverend and the Makers who romp through a version of the Clash’s Train In Vain which brings back memories of the Justice Tonight gigs with its warmth and camaraderie and familiar Clash chords. Of course Joe Strummer would have been a perfect guest on this tour which is perhaps the dream tour for the late Clash icon.

Damon Albarn, of course, gets a sing song playing Blur hit Tender with a brilliant array of women singers from Congo, Ethiopia, Tanzania, America and London. Tender is tripped down to piano, Afrobeat king Tony Allen on drums and a touch of guitar from someone who I can’t see in the corner. The eight glorious women singers lift the song up to a gospel heaven building it round Damon’s plaintive vocal- a moving and powerful moment.

Peter Hook pops up for a haunting version of She’s Lost Control with Spoek Mathambo . South African Mathambo delivers a great vocal like on his brilliant neo grime version of the track which captures the songs innate darkness in a 21st century manner. The version tonight is slowed down and twangier than usual and gels perfectly with the driving percussion. It’s the best version of this song I’ve heard for a long time and Hooky’s bass sounds magificnet- almost twanging like it’s Hank Marvin from the godlike Shadows jamming with jamming JJ Burnel.

There are lots of woman onstage tonight which is great- breaking down the male stereotypes and giving the whole event a different feel than these kind of things would have had in the past.

From Zaire Jupiter and Okwess bring the house down with an African fusion jam driven by a mountain of percussion whilst all night Tony Allen, the Afrobeat king has been mind blowing on the drums- one of the great drummers of pour times. There’s plenty of rapping with the likes of Kano and Bashy killer on the mics and the music really flows from the hip hop beats to melancholia to a tenderness and soulful beauty as the never ending cast take the stage.

There’s a lot of point to this- the fusions sound great and the sparks of creativity that you always get when musicians of different disciplines is truly effective. The sense of unity and respect amongst the players on and off stage is palpable and powerful and sends out a powerful message to our sometimes fractured world. The strong idea of inter connecticty and mutual dependence is great, especially as no-one on that stage has watered down what they are doing- if Peter Hook wants to play in his own distinctive style then the African rhythms and vocals will work perfectly with it. The musicians are quite brilliant and they make this whole thing work.

Africa Express is a lot of things but it’s also the best party in town and for that alone it should be celebrated.

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Award winning journalist and boss of Louder Than War. In a 30 year music writing career, John was the first to write about bands such as Stone Roses and Nirvana and has several best selling music books to his name. He constantly tours the world with Goldblade and the Membranes playing gigs or doing spoken word and speaking at music conferences.


  1. Have to disagree with your view of events…At times It felt like I had slipped into some retro pop hell…the reason “it doesn\’t feel like they play enough African music tonight” is because they didn’t play enough African music…far too many of the line ups during the course of the evening had a token African prescence and appeared to consist of musicans trying to play with an African feel or sensibility or just doing their thing whilst an African musician tried to drop a vibe on top……I love the whole idea but this could have been so much better…Taking musicians out of their comfort zone live is brave and can bring superb collaborations into the realms of the sublime but last night it didn’t work…for me…I get that African music does not have to be all Traditiona.Check out Daara J in their pomp for example, but tonight lacked a cohesive African vibe for me. Other than the wonderful opening by Afel Boucoum, a storming track by Amadou (no mIriam!!) and a rousing appearance by Baaba Maal ( including two extras from the audience) I left feeling underwhelmed by the experience. A number of artistes advertised on the posters all over Manchester were noteable in their abscence too…clever marketing ploy?? Hats off to Damon Albarn for having the balls to make this happen…I can see where it might go and I wish him well with future events….I agree that the energy of the performers on the night says a whole lot about what the atmosphere on the train itself must be like but in the end there was a whole lot of Express and very little Africa.


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