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theartsdesk at Africa Express: Bound for Glory | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at Africa Express: Bound for Glory

theartsdesk at Africa Express: Bound for Glory

We hitch a ride on the rhythm train for a week of joyously spontaneous music-making

All aboard: the Africa Express train and its motley crew at EustonLarge images: Simon Phipps/All other images: © Andy Morgan

The carriage swayed violently, sending a bottle of Perroni sliding across the Formica table top and into the quick hand of Malian guitarist Afel Bocoum. As we sped along, the sun sent flecks of light up the walls, across the ceiling, along the luggage racks and back down over assorted musicians who were sleeping, lounging, talking or playing music together in small groups.

A green noise of trees and hedges blurred past our window, whilst barebacked hills seemed to stand completely still in the blue distance. The Africa Express was cruising through Dumfries and Galloway on its way to down to Manchester; a capsule of calm in a world racing by.

Afel and I had been talking about northern Mali in one of the 1970s carriages towards the front of this six day Africa-inspired festival on wheels. At the specific request of Damon Albarn and the organisers, our chartered train was made up of a motley assortment of rolling stock, representing a linear history of train travel, starting in the 1950s at the rear and going through to the 1970s in front. The main rehearsal space (pictured below) was situated towards the back of the train in a carriage with the lovely name of "The Northern Belle", which evoked a time when train travel made people dream of new horizons and romance. Its heavily painted wooden paneling and ill-fitting doors had a wonderful texture and eccentricity about them, and when another train went by in the opposite direction at speed, the whole carriage seemed to explode with noise and clanging. The 1970s coaches in the front reminded anyone old enough to remember of the dawn of high-speed intercity travel, of winters of discontent, drab commuter living and atrocious British Rail food. But they were first class, and comfortable. The whole train was first class, in more ways than one.

Afel Bocoum’s hometown of Niafunké in northern Mali had been taken over by the Islamist terror group, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. The village, a hundred kilometers south west of Timbuktu on the Niger River, was almost empty now, except for the old, the sick and the desperately poor. Afel had taken his family down south to the safety of the Malian capital Bamako but he had to leave his elderly parents behind. “The Salafists are chopping off hands and stoning people,” he said, with melancholy resignation. “We’ve lived with Touareg rebellions for decades. But this is something else. It’s an occupation." And then he held his bottle, to stop it sliding away again, and turned his head to stare at the green Galloway hills. “I had to get away from Mali,” he admits. “I needed to breathe.” 

Almost everyone on this train needed to get away from something. The Malians needed to escape the war at home. The Congolese and African artists in general needed to try and extricate themselves from a backwater of the music industry and media reserved for what is often called "world music". Many of the western musicians on the train needed to get away from the monotony of the well trodden showbiz career path; from the album-tour-album treadmill; from endless hours cooped up in airplanes and tour buses; from gigs that are well-rehearsed, formatted and safe; from festivals where contact with other bands and musicians rarely extends beyond hello, goodbye, a beer and a spliff. 

The Africa Express train (pictured left, with author) left Euston on the first Sunday in September bound for Middlesborough, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff, Bristol and London. In each city, there was a raucous and dizzyingly varied performance by the 80 or so musicians on board. Most of the shows were sold out. None of the music even existed in the form it was played before the start of the week. Often, a song that was nothing more than an idea in the morning became a star-turn the same evening. Spontaneity was the watchword. Someone said that it would be a great idea to get Peter Hook to play bass in Manchester on Spoek Mathambo’s version of the Joy Division classic "She’s Lost Control". Sure enough, when we arrived at The Ritz, there he was on stage soundchecking with Spoek, bass slung low to the knee, pounding out the classic riff like a man working an oxyacetylene torch. 

Africa Express began life almost seven years ago. A group of us, lead by Damon Albarn and the deputy editor of the Independent at the time, Ian Birrell, were revolted by the fact that Bob Geldof chose to sideline African music during the Live 8 concerts. We reckoned that rather than being relegated to a supporting role, African musicians could be the vanguard of a transformation in Africa’s global image, from a continent deemed to be terminally blighted by war, disease, corruption and famine to one deemed to possess immense human capital and talent, whose cultural riches deserve to be both acknowledged and celebrated, a continent which often has more to teach us in the West about courage, dignity and respect than vice versa.  

But if the original intentions were clear, the strategy took a while to mature. At first the talk was all about promoting huge gigs to rival Live 8, with African and western artists performing on a strictly equal footing. It was about massive exposure, huge marketing impact and the bludgeoning of cynical western media into submission. We have Mr Albarn (pictured below with admirers at Carlisle station) to thank for readjusting our ambitions. It was he who told us in no uncertain terms during one memorable meeting outside a café in Westbourne Road that we were pissing into the wrong pot entirely. We had to go back to basics, he said, and patiently forge links between the worlds of western rock, pop and urban music and the musicians of Africa. It had to happen at a musical and human level, first and foremost. Image and marketing were secondary concerns. And so that’s what we tried to do. 

The first Africa Express event was a trip to Bamako involving about 20 western artists and a host of Malian legends. It was followed by a gig in a small club in Brixton, trips to Kinshasa in the DRC, Lagos in Nigeria, Addis Abeba in Ethiopia and larger shows at Glastonbury, London, Liverpool, Paris and Galicia. All that activity, all that fraternizing between musicians from different continents lead directly to platform 18 of London’s Euston Station where the Africa Express train departed at 11am on Sunday 2nd September 2012.

There had been talk about trains for a long time. With a name like Africa Express, it seemed logical to put the whole idea on wheels and travel from city to city spreading the core message. But logistically speaking, the challenge of organizing a train tour was a K2 rather than a mere Ben Nevis or Mont Blanc.

Inserting a charter train into the regular daily schedules of the British rail network presents a huge mathematical problem. The slightest delay or hiccup of the unscheduled charter has knock-on effects that could threaten the smooth running of the entire British rail system. Hence the £300-per-minute fine that was imposed on Africa Express for any delay. There could be no rock ’n’ roll slackness in timekeeping on this tour. Then there was the cost of chartering the train, and paying for the litre of diesel that the old 47 class engines consume every 30 seconds or so. And there were the challenges of accommodating, feeding and transporting over 80 musicians, some of whom had to go the absurd labyrinthine visa procedures imposed on African artists by the UK Border Agency. 

Then LOCOG, the London Olympic organising committee, approached Africa Express with an invitation, a budget and a chance of making the dream a reality. The work put in by certain individuals in the Africa Express team just to put the train on the tracks and fill it with artists was nothing less than titanic. Those who were privileged to have a seat on the Africa Express had to pinch themselves when they saw it standing there on platform 18, so weird and otherworldly, like an artist’s vision of what a British train should look like, stuffed with Moroccan carpets, bean bags, idiosyncrasy, character and music. 

The train itself accounted for a chunk of the magic. As a method of transport, train travel beats all rivals by a huge margin. “It’s like being in a small comfortable room,” Afel told me. “Watching the beautiful landscape go by.” Walking from one end of the train to the other was like walking through a strange musical colony. First, at the back, there were the "offices"; small 1960s compartments full of Africa Express team workers beavering away over their computers. Then there were a couple of relaxation and chill-out rooms in the old 1950s baggage wagons. You could get a massage there from our resident masseuse and yoga teacher, or just doze off a hangover and prepare yourself for the musical assault on the next city.

Next was the rehearsal carriage, always full of swaying musicians kicking out the jams and ignoring the loud rush of rails beneath their feet. Sometimes the place was so packed you couldn’t walk through it; M.anifest or M1 from Dead Prez might be laying down a rap over a rhythm provided by bassist Yao from Amadou & Mariam’s band and Cubain, the tall steady-eyed percussionist with Okwess international. Damon might be there with his melodica, standing next to Richard Russell, boss of XL Recordings, producing all kinds of electronic bleeps and rhythms from assorted machines. The wonderful singer Nelly from Okwess might be sharing a mic with Martina Topley-Bird or Genet Asseta, the ever-smiling lead vocalist of the Krar Collective. And mind you don’t trip over Romeo Stodart from the Magic Numbers, as he adds melodic licks to the rolling rhythms. It was almost impossible to pass the rehearsal wagon without stopping for a moment and enjoying the music.

Watch Baaba Maal, Rokia Traore et al rehearsing on Africa Express

Further on, in the 1970s first class coaches, there were "zones" where different bands set up their informal headquarters: the Jupiter and Okwess International space, the Rokia Traore and Band section, the Amadou Bagayoko zone, the Afel Bocoum lounge, the Temper Trap space, The Very Best seating area, the Baaba Maal corner and the Carl Barât/John McLure chat room. But the train never had any kind of tribal or cliquey feel about it. That’s the real beauty of it all; you could get up, wander about and mingle. Mingling was at the root of the tour’s success. Previously, Africa Express had assembled a cast of African and Western musicians for a night, or a day or two at best. This time it was for a whole week. The train allowed relationships to form, music to be played and collaborations to be bedded down and strengthened. For a week, the train was our home from home and each time it rolled into a station in morning, after spending the night in sidings somewhere, we cheered it as we would cheer the return of an old mate. When anyone was hungry or thirsty there was an old British Rail buffet car to service those needs, with sarnies or hot rice and stew, beer, Coca Cola and lemonade.

On the approach to Scotland a band of Scottish pipers turned up, piping their way down the length of the train to the absolute delight and surprise of everyone on board. The sight provoked a number of strange attempts to explain the phenomenon of the kilt to some of our African brethren. Then, on the basis of nothing more than a whimsical spark of inspiration, the pipers began to jam over the tradi-modern rhythms of Kinshasa, courtesy of Okwess International, and this peculiarly eccentric and Africa Express-like combination appeared at the Arches in Glasgow that very same night to an ecstatic reception from the local crowd.  

As we travelled down through the Welsh marches, the countryside was lush and verdant in the late summer sunshine. In fact, I’ve rarely seen the natural beauty of the British Isles so luxuriously displayed as it was during the tour. I kept turning to Jupiter, Afel or others and saying, “Look!…regardez la brousse anglaise, comme c’est jolie!” The Welsh hills inspired Damon to revive a song called "Applecart", all about the forgotten beauty of our own countryside, and perform it at Solus in Cardiff.

Okwess were the vibemasters of the tour par excellence, conjuring up magic on drab station platforms to the delight of the travelling public

If anything, the gigs themselves were the most conventional aspect of the whole tour. They happened in pretty-much standard music venues in front of expectant local crowds who had brought tickets in advance. The fact that nobody on the train knew in the morning if they were going to be performing that same night did add an unusual and invigorating edge to each day’s proceedings. Musicians had to submit their ideas to an informal selection panel who would then hunker down every afternoon to try and thrash out a set for that evening’s show. 

“I got this idea to combine Ethiopian krar melodies with Congolese percussion, the Express horns, a human beatboxer and a top line up African and European MCs… can we play tonight?” “Sorry mate, too much rap on tonight’s show already… maybe tomorrow.” In truth, strenuous efforts were made to accommodate as many ideas and mini-projects as possible, given the constraints of time, but it wasn’t always easy…

Each set would consist of a minimum of three-and-a-half hours of constantly revolving line-ups and artists, like an old soul revue from the 1960s, with no regular backing band and cast of almost a hundred. Africa Express’ resident stage manager Big Dave was in large part responsible for keeping the craziness on track each evening, and ensuring that changeovers were as slick as possible. 

Far more radical than the shows themselves were what became known as the "pop ups", which were small impromptu gigs that took place on station platforms, in shopping centres, schools, hospitals, record shops, community centres and parks (pictured left, Tamar Osborn [Express Horns], Bintou Soumbounou and Fatim Kouyate [Rokia Traore's band], MC M.anifest and Rokia Traore on the bandstand in Hanley Park, Stoke-on-Trent.) Punters buying records at Spillers in Cardiff were flabbergasted to see the infamous but equally hilarious and lovable Carl Barat of Libertines fame stroll into their midst with various African instrumentalists in tow and play an short set. Carers and patients at a centre for the severely disabled in Bristol were quite gobsmacked when Damon Albarn turned up to sing a few tunes and talk about the strife in Mali. Hardly anyone showed to see Jupiter and Okwess International when they played at Middlesborough Football Stadium. But it hardly mattered. Okwess were the vibemasters of the tour par excellence, conjuring up magic on drab station platforms to the delight of the travelling public.

On the morning after the gig in Glasgow, I set out in a pair of taxis with Amadou Bagayoko, Amadou’s bassist and drummer, Romeo Stodart from the Magic Numbers and the rapper M3nsah. We were bound for Easterhouse, a suburb of Glasgow with a "reputation". What kind of reputation? Well, our Glaswegian cabbie seemed to have a dim notion of Easterhouse’s geography and spent some of drive out explaining how all the "scum" of Glasgow had been moved there during the post-war slum clearances. “Tak’ a good care of yer belongings wan we arrive, won’t ye!” he added. 

After losing precious minutes getting lost in the beige pebble-dashed estates of Easterhouse, we arrived at The Platform, a impressively modern and well-equipped arts and community centre. We were now fighting the clock - the train cannot wait! - and so had to set up in record time. Amadou played a total of three songs and the London based Ghanaian rapper M3nsah laid down a flow on two of them. It was all over in 15 minutes. A group of local school kids came up, bright faced and excited, to chat. “Is yer guitar made outae gold?” one of them asked of Amadou. There was a black kid there who spoke French. It turns out he was a refugee child from Kinshasa, DRC. “What’s life like here?” I asked him. “It’s ok,” he answered. “We’re coping.” Then we ran back to the taxis and raced through Glasgow Central to catch the Africa Express, which we did we just a few minutes to spare. 

About 10 of these pop-ups happened every day. They were often the place where the best ideas for collaborations germinated and where the whole purpose of the train tour was most clearly visible and keenly felt. Pop-ups also lit up the platforms of the cities we passed through. When we arrived in Carlisle, the doors of the rehearsal wagon were flung open, and the London born Nigerian rapper Afrikan Boy vibed up the crowd for a few delirious minutes. Then a special show featuring The Krar Collective followed by Jupiter & Okwess International (pictured above at Euston) was staged on platform two. I saw something there that I thought had gone from Britain; a simple welcoming curiosity and joy at the presence of people from other worlds. It was like watching that film of Gandhi visiting the East End of London in the 1930s. “I like you because you’re something different, unusual, special,” the faces in the crowd seemed to say. And they were saying it because what they saw wasn’t an Africa that was in need and therefore had to be pitied. It was a proud, confident and joyful Africa. 

So many people – musicians, journalists, promoters, railway personnel, photographers – were moved to say that the Africa Express train tour 2012 was one of the best things they had ever been involved in. And they facebooked, and tweeted as much. It felt like a blessing to be onboard. One hundred musicians and organizers, and not one voice raised in anger, not one ego-driven tantrum, not one scene of rank-pulling pettiness. That alone was incredible. Somehow, a strange and unfamiliar spirit took hold, one of democracy, mutual-respect, courage and friendship. 

Sounds like pink treacle, does it?  Ah yes, but perhaps you weren’t there!

Watch Africa Express pitch camp in Stoke

It was like an artist’s vision of what a British train should look like, stuffed with Moroccan carpets, bean bags, idiosyncrasy, character and music

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