Africa Express, Solus, Cardiff
‘If you think it’s tough now, come to Africa!’ repeats Mensah, delivery dovetailing perfectly with Ghanaian rapper M.anifest as Reeps the human beatbox, backwards baseball cap and face set as if he can’t control what he is doing makes a collection of sounds using only his vocal chords. Earlier, the refrain had been ‘To really know joy, you have to suffer.’ At that point Africa Express co-creator Damon Albarn had invaded the stage simply to chant the word ‘suffer’ whilst alternately bear-hugging and over-enthusiastically shaking the shoulders of the other performers, much in the manner of a fan allowed to run amok onstage.
In many ways, the joyful chaos of this scene encapsulates something profound about Africa Express. The whole project is a heady concoction of eclectic music where a pan-African vibe soundclashes with the West, a subtle reminder of the difficulties much of the continent still faces without getting pious or preachy – and yet another wonderful brainchild from the restless mind of the man who gave the world Blur, Gorillaz and The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
The advertised 85 musicians on tour throughout the whole island of Great Britain on a chartered train called the Africa Express sounds impressive on paper. On stage, it is a glorious mess. Each song in the set requires such a diverse range of instruments and personnel that there is a constant flow of roadie (railie?) activity in addition to the coming and going of any number of superstar musicians. Over three hours, we effectively watch twenty-four separate gigs, and the sheer range of artists involved means there is truly something for everyone.
Shingai Shoniwa from the Noisettes leads a rousing version of ‘Go Baby Go Baby Go (Don’t Upset the Rhythm)’. Gruff Rhys provides a crowd-pleasing Welsh connection with a version of ‘Gyrru Gyrru Gyrru’ that reaches a sped-up finale reaching ridiculous proportions, Albarn revelling in his role encouraging the multiple percussionists. Carl Barat leads a noisy race through ‘Don’t Look Back’ that possibly involves more onstage chaos than the original Libertines tours where it first appeared.
But despite the presence of such credible British musicians, it is undoubtedly the African contingent who provide the evening’s real highlights. Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal asks us to close our eyes and imagine the savannah. Western pretensions to ‘cool’ have long cast such behaviour as cringe-worthy, but fortunately Africa Express is free from such self-imposed inhibitions, and Maal’s soundscapes on ‘Senegal Mali’ evoke a vision of West Africa for an audience who, mostly, one would guess, have never been there. Similarly, the crowd go crazy for Amadou Bagayoko, one half of the blind Malian husband-and-wife duo Amadou and Mariam, who provides a turbo-charged guitar line to a version of ‘Train in Vain’ by The Clash, featuring Carl Barat and the ‘Reverend’ Jon McClure, before closing the show with a virtuoso display on ‘Masite Ladi’ that casts him as heir to John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards rolled into one.
Amadou is blind. Maal asks us to close our eyes. Albarn, side of stage and seated at the piano, is often lost in the music, his own eyes firmly scrunched. And this is the essence of Africa Express. These are musicians from Bamako, Dakar and Kinshasa, Johannesburg, London, and Sheffield, with backgrounds variously in pop and rock, indie and dance, rap and hip-hop. There are virtuosos of the kora, the ngoni, the djembe, guitar, bass and drums and the human voice. What unites them all is a lack of boundaries; Africa Express does not recognise political borders or genre distinctions or traditional blends of instrumentation. Music – and friendship – has rendered this collective blind to such limiting concepts.
The musical and racial diversity is also reflected in the ragbag fashion sense of the artists. Jupiter Bokondji, a six foot five Congolese singer with whom Albarn collaborated on Kinshasa One Two, wears a snazzy crocodile-patterned suit with a Bob Marley t-shirt; Shingai Shoniwa is resplendent in a skintight red jumpsuit; Terri Walker wears a t-shirt with the simple slogan ‘British’. South African vocalist Spoek Mathambo wears flip-up sun-specs; Albarn is characteristically scruffy in t-shirt, turned-up jeans and trademark Modern Life is Rubbish-era cherry red Dr Martens. The ‘anything goes’ look and multiple expressions of individuality on show perfectly complement the experimental looseness of the music.
Albarn himself, of course, is no respecter of genre, as his contributions here prove. There are traces of his own wildly diverse summer in the singer’s choices to play ‘Apple Carts’, a track from the song cycle to accompany his opera Dr Dee, performed at the English National Opera in July, and his original band’s ‘Tender’, which brought the curtain down on the Olympic Games in front of 80,000 people in Hyde Park in August. For the former he is accompanied by violinist Marques Toliver and explains how the journey through ‘the Welsh countryside’ experienced on the train earlier in the day – and John Dee’s own Welsh ancestry – gave inspiration for the bucolic choice of track. For the latter, Albarn is joined by a makeshift choir comprising a collection of female lead vocalists from the Africa Express collective and, inevitably, the audience.
But Damon’s most fruitful collaboration of the evening is with the Malian chanteuse Rokia Traore on a song from yet another of his ‘side projects’: the Gorillaz single ‘On Melancholy Hill’. A plaintive version has Albarn once again lost in the simple beauty of the melody, singing the first half of the song before it takes flight with Traore’s soaring vocal in the second. Traore gets a hug – Albarn leaning precariously over the piano – for her trouble, and this is another theme: the love, affection and mutual respect within the onstage collective. Over the course of the evening, this transmits itself to the audience.
Occasionally this spills over into over-appreciation, generosity overkill. When Fatoumata Diawara finishes up a beautiful version of ‘Alama’ over which Albarn has been playing ever more intricate piano loops, she sweeps an appreciative arm in Damon’s direction. For Diawara, Albarn’s input has improved the track and she wants the audience to give him credit. Albarn merely scowls and shakes his head at her before returning the gesture, determined that Africa Express should not be about him.
But by the end of the gig, Albarn can’t help himself. He has already sung the praises of the Welsh countryside and said that for him personally it was high time he played in Wales. Throughout the gig, MC Mensah has been whipping up the crowd through favourable comparisons to ‘last night in Manchester’. After Amadou’s stunning guitar outro, Albarn screams ‘Cardiff!’ before massaging his Malian friend’s shoulders and shouting into his ear: ‘Brilliant… just brilliant, mate.’ One would have to concur.