AiW Guest Anthony Leaker.
For those of you who can’t be bothered to read a long post here’s the conclusion: it was fantastic; you missed out; a genuinely once in a lifetime experience of incredible musicians and energised, inspiring, and occasionally sublime performances.
For the rest of you:
As a fairly long-term fan of live African music I was slightly sceptical about the idea of an Afro-Indie mash up. Having endured too many insipid gigs by skinny hipster haircut boys in guitar-drum-bass bands I wondered what exactly Carl Barat or Bombay Bicycle Club or even Damon Albarn (the man largely responsible for the event) could possibly bring to the party. Most, if not all, African bands or singers I have seen live tend to have a much greater sense of theatre, showmanship and performance than your average UK or US indie band. Yes, certain high profile indie bands put on a high-tec light show or supposedly edgy video backdrop, but such gimmickry is usually a means of hiding the fact that they are basically just reproducing the songs as they are on the recordings. African music, on the other hand, rarely needs such distractions because it is usually made to be played live. Additionally, there is often loads of great stuff happening on stage and above all, the performers actually engage with the audience. Now I realise this is all a bit vague and general and there are loads of exceptions, but such has been my experience, and thus my expectations were not exactly high. However, at £20 for five hours of music whatever happened it was bound to be worth it (the ticket price is just one of the many admirable elements of the African Express tour that need emphasising. £20! Compare that with Radiohead’s £65 for 2 hours at the hideous Millennium tin shed).
The gig took place in Granary Square just above Kings Cross train Station. This was an inspired choice. Firstly, it was open air which gave the gig a festival feel, though it is important to note that it didn’t try and brand itself as a festival, unlike the nonsense Hyde Park summer shows. Secondly, it was that rare thing, an unsponspored space – not a Lager or Phone company logo in sight. And, thirdly, because it was partly enclosed by buildings it was loud enough, again unlike the nonsense Hyde Park summer shows. Lastly, it was incredibly easy to get to and more importantly, to get into. No over the top security checks, ticket inspections etc.
The show had already started when I arrived. On stage Martina Topley-Bird was singing a version of The XX song “Crystalized” with Congolese musician Jupiter Bokondji. It was OK, but basically a bit rubbish. This was what I feared, barely rehearsed cover versions with a slight African twist. They left the stage without ceremony and some other people appeared and started picking up instruments, while DJs played some music. It all seemed very relaxed and cool, and yet very efficient. The next couple of bands were fine but not terribly memorable and certainly not as memorable as the incredible beatboxer Reeps One who kept the crowd enthralled while the performers got ready for the next song.
Though Damon Albarn and Rokia Traoré’s haunting version of “Melancholy Hill” was an early highlight, it wasn’t until the appearance of M1 from the U.S. group Dead Prez that the mood started to shift. M1 was joined by Karim, M.anifest and Afrikan Boy, and halfway through, by Kano and Bashy, to perform the well-known anthem “Hip-Hop”. If it had been a political rally I would have signed up there and then. It was amazing. The power, intensity and energy were astonishing. It seemed to last for ages and yet it never dragged. Nobody, neither the crowd nor the performers, seemed to want the song to end. What they were singing about I’ve no idea because the original song has only a couple of verses, and yet there seemed to be at least 10 different verses (sung in different languages), but whatever it is was, they meant it. Special mention should go to the awesome Oud player wigging out throughout the song.
By the end of the song it was becoming evident that the evening had the potential to be very special. Things were building. It was time for some legends. First up was Rokia Traoré’s, who performed an incredibly dark, atmospheric and emotionally charged song. Her singing was, is, a thing of wonder. Such beauty and intensity, fragility and power.
Playing bass in Rokia Traoré’s band, standing, almost hiding, behind her, was Paul McCartney. Though it is hard to read a crowd I definitely had the sense that certain parts of it were thinking, what the hell is he doing here? And I can see why, as he is the epitome of the establishment musician: the show closer of the Olympics, the Jubilee, Live Aid etc. etc. Isn’t McCartney and his songs-for-hire schtick precisely what Africa Express is directed against? Another part of the crowd, however, was thinking, Oh my God, it’s Paul McCartney, is he going to come back and play some of his own stuff, how will that work? But off he went without much fuss. A little Macca wave.
And then it was time for an actual mash-up. Senegalese music God, Baaba Maal, singing to the beats of electro-whizz Nicholas Jaar. It was great, though quite laid-back and different in mood from everything else. Baaba was soon back again with his own band and this was another show highlight. Must have been at least 15 musicians on stage, all in the zone, all incredible. Another mash-up followed, this time a staggering and highly original version of Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control” by the South African rapper/musician Spoek Mathambo.
As the evening reached its climax McCartney reappeared and played a couple of songs from his somehow overlooked disco/funk phase. I say somehow, because the songs were fantastic. Or maybe the emotion had got the better of me. During “Goodnight Tonight” it seemed as though every single performer was on stage and all were equal, there was no sense of any kind of hierarchy, and to see them all together like that was very moving. Even though the sing-a-long chorus seemed like a fitting end to the show there was still time for a couple more songs. Amadou finally, after playing guitar in the background for several songs, coming to centre stage and singing “Masite Ladi”. And then it was all over. I walked back to the train station convinced I’d just witnessed one of the greatest concerts of all time. I was getting carried away, sure, but I wasn’t the only one. The emotion, the passion, and the sense of something very special having taken place was palpable.
It is hard to pinpoint precisely what made it quite so special. Yes, the music was great. Yes, the performers were genial and modest and incredible and seemed genuinely committed. Yes, there was a complete lack of any commercialism, any self-promotion or any platitudinous (or even serious) political tub-thumping. And yet, there was a politics to the event and it was all the more powerful for the fact that it wasn’t articulated or made explicit. They didn’t attempt to create a message that could be reduced to a banal slogan or campaign pledge – though they did wave a “Tax the Rich” placard a couple of times – rather a message was conveyed or transmitted – and I’ve been trying to work out what it was ever since.
Anthony Leaker is passionate about music, film, Ashtanga yoga and Stewart Lee. With these, his research interests extend widely, to include the relationship between literature and philosophy, contemporary fiction, Wittgenstein and Stanley Cavell. His PhD thesis was an enquiry into Don DeLillo’s ambiguous engagement with metaphysics. He wishes it was on something hipper or more specific. Ideas (for hipper, more specific future projects) and any comments on the Africa Express post welcome.