Damon Albarn’s Africa Express is perhaps the ultimate jam-sesh. The annual event is a clash of cultures and juxtaposition of genres which somehow harmonises into a truly impressive experience and a reminder of music’s overwhelming power.
The concept? Collect 80 musicians from Africa, the UK, and around the world, throw them on a train for a week, and get them to write, make music, and play impromptu sets all over the country. With so many backgrounds, egos and musical styles jumbled onto one moving cylinder, a certain degree of chaos seems inevitable. But while a few technicalities and messy changeovers slipped in during the six hours of music, the result of Albarn’s project involves some seriously moving moments.
Designed as a political statement about unity, togetherness, and living together, Africa Express has been working its way around the country, delivering bongo drums, Baba Maal, Carl Barat, Rizzle Kicks, bagpipes, and more, all as one not-quite-seamless but all together brilliant performance. Each stop on the tour is unique and irreplicable, with the music transforming and changing along the journey and on the stage itself.
At Glasgow’s Arches, audience members were treated to an immense range of musical styles and unheard-of combinations. A bongo-backed karaoke version of ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ later gave way to South African rapper Spoek Mathambo and bagpipes. Later, Albarn himself played a song which he had started writing a few weeks before, and had finished on the train that afternoon. That song might have sounded entirely different at the next show, and it’s this kind of one-off musical spontaneity which makes ‘Afex’ so special.
For the artists involved, it provided an indulgent opportunity to let creativity reign. Bombay Bicycle Club’s Jack Steadman says of the experience, “I found it exhilarating…I felt inspired like never before. An unlocking had occurred. To be watching was a privilege, let alone to be involved.” while Amadou Bagayoko of blind Malian duo Amadou and Miriam commented, “I was a pleasure for me to live through this train experience. Never has a train been so musical. I loved the sense of togetherness and complicity between the artists, and I also really appreciated the ‘pop ups’ when I had the opportunity to play in hospitals and schools.”
The website for the event is choc-full of similar comments; it seems not a single artist had a negative experience. That positivity and sense of community radiated from the stage, and had audience members enchanted, feeling lucky to have been witness to such an amicable, authentic collaboration.
Words; Tess Hokin