Africa Express live in London
- By Jed Novick -
- Sep 12, 2012
For a 70-year-old bloke, Paul McCartney gets around. “Make sure you stay till the end”, we were told as we entered Granary Square in the newly poshed up Kings Cross. “It’ll probably be McCartney doing Hey Jude”, someone said. The post-Olympic quip fell flat just over an hour into the gig because there he was, playing slinky, exquisite bass behind Malian singer Rokia Traore, who earlier had taken us through a beautiful version of the Gorillaz’ On Melancholy Hill.
McCartney has earned the right to be here, being one of the first British musicians to embrace African music when he recorded ‘Band On The Run’ in Lagos in 1973. Respect where it’s due.
The idea behind Africa Express is, like a lot of the ideas Damon Albarn comes up with, ambitious and inspired and a bit different. A train full of musicians on a private charter traveling up and down the land, rehearsing and living on the train, stopping now and then to play. It’s a fantastic idea if a logistical nightmare. But if life on the train was anywhere near as much fun as this gig, who cares about the logistics?
London was the final stop for the Express, a journey that had already taken in Middlesbrough, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol, and it quickly becomes clear that all the normal rules about gigs quickly go out of the window. You don’t come to see anyone, because most of the time you don’t know who’s onstage. You don’t come to listen to this tune or that song because most of it is unfamiliar. One minute you’re listening to a fantastic jam that sounds like what you think African music sounds like - all polyrhythmic drums and dancing guitars - the next it’s Carl Barat fronting a cast of thousands on a version of The Libertines' 'Don’t Look Back'.
Then there was South African DJ Spoek Mathambo’s take on Joy Division’s 'She’s Lost Control'. A revolving cast on the stage of African stars - Afel Mocoum, Tony Allen, Amadou, Fatoumata Diawara - and ‘local’ names such as Led Zep’s John Paul Jones, grimesters Kano and Bashy, jazz drummer Seb Roachford, Gruff Rhys, The Noisettes, Eliza Doolittle, Nick Zinner of The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Martina Topley Bird, The Magic Numbers, John McClure of Reverend and The Makers... But it didn’t matter who was on stage because what we were left with was the music - and the music was fantastic. The most exuberant, energetic, joyful music.
The star, the public face, the name that everyone knows is, of course, Albarn but he doesn’t play the star, choosing instead to hide behind a baseball cap and his keyboards. He, more than anyone, knows the key is no stars, just the music. What became clear was that the phrase ‘world music’ was redundant because it was so obvious. All the music here was world music because it was just music. African rappers dressing like New Yorkers sounding like Londoners.
McCartney returned to lead the stage through 'Wings’ Don’t Say It' and 'Coming Up', while a personal highlight was the exhilarating version - all percussion and horns - of Led Zeppelin’s 'Kashmir'.
As the warm night air spirited us away it was hard to avoid the smiles on people’s faces. For the most part the images of Africa we’re fed are depressing and negative, but this was the real heart and soul, vibrant, pulsating and alive.
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