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.
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Thanks so much, Anthony, for this – it is clearly by far and away the best guest post AiW have ever had 🙂
I wanted to ask you if ‘the message’ has got any closer to something definable? I SO wish I had been there. Grr. There clearly was something – something pretty epic – and yet somehow resistant, although not resistant in an aggressive, loud way – going on, more than just amazing music and superbly talented performers, I quote, “wigging out”, and occasional sublimity… is it something about the benefits of it and where they are/were intended? – it’s clearly not the tired, old, patronising model of promotion of/for Africa and music that rolls out periodically – any echoes? Ghosts?
Thanks for the reply Katie. Here goes with an attempt at articulating the message: I’m not sure if I’m just being sentimental – moved by a great gig – or if there was something else being communicated. Cultural exchange, cultural miscegenation seems to me to be a great thing, but obviously, it is frequently deeply problematic because so often one culture dominates. And the political, ideological issues at stake can be fraught and complex and well … haven’t time to go into it. But as a possibility, albeit a possibly impossible one like the new aporia fragrance, it – genuine cultural miscegenation – seems to contain the potential for good. Africa Express seemed like a genuine cultural exchange. It was genuinely eclectic, and everyone seemed to be engaging with one another equally – there was no sense of one genre or mode or person or outlook or musical language dominating. Ok, yes Damon Albarn had a more significant role than others but you’d have never have guessed that from his behaviour. And I don’t think he is seeking to benefit financially or anything. But yes, I acknowledge if one were really to examine it deeply there are probably all sorts of power ops at play.
So, it felt like a model of genuine equality, genuine coming together. Not for a specific or explicit political cause – other than raising the profile of African music, and thus of opening up narrow minded Brits to different forms of music and different ways of seeing. But there were no specious claims being made or implied about music transcending politics (c.f. Paul Simon, for instance). The music and event was political. At least some of it – check this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKfwSFI8LhQ,
But it left the thinking up to the audience.
There was no message, it was an invitation and provocation to think. To think about the ways in which we consume music, the ways in which we experience other cultures, the ways in which it is possible to share ideas and music in an exploratory, alternative mode that avoids cliche and exoticisation (sic – is that a word?).
The obvious question is what made it different from seeing, for example, the annual African Soul Rebels tour and my initial response would be that the latter, though enjoyable, is somewhat formulaic, commercially driven, a bit insipid. And also a bit too reverent and overly fetishizing of African music.
Anyway, I’m going on too much. I’ll never stop.
I was at Africa Express too and enjoyed every minute. It was great to see so many incredible African artists all playing on stage together, along with the likes of Damon Albarn, John Paul Jones and Macca. The musicians, atmosphere, crowd and venue were fantastic. There were a few sound/mic issues at times but it was easily forgiven! It was a one-of-a-kind evening – big shame there won’t probably be anything like it again.
Hi Anthony, thanks for your post. I almost stopped reading it when you said it was great and we missed out =P but I decided to give you a chance, and I am glad I did 😉
Loved the way you write, chaotic and cool, you really get through how was the night. I felt I was there too. And I was among those who thought: oh no, is Paul coming back later to sing ‘hey Jude’ to save Africa (as he has done before)?
I have to confess I don’t know much about African music. And I am ashamed of that. Once in Nigeria, I danced for hours with this singer in a party, just to find out later on that he was Rolling Dollar (one of Fela Kuti’s partners). Now I am a big fan of his music. And no, I have no pictures of that day. So, out of my total ignorance, it interested me how you compared Africa Express to African Soul Rebels, especially when you say that there was ‘overly fetishizing African music’ on the second event.