United Kingdom | |
24 October 2008
BBC Electric Proms' premise is about new moments in music; so what happens with African and Western music collide?
The crossover between western and African music hasn't always been easy to pull off. Many collaborative projects evoke
images of smug aging rockers roping in chanting tribesman for late-career albums in an attempt to show they've 'discovered'
world music. Therefore it's with some trepidation I enter Camden's Koko for the latest installment of Damon Albarn's
Africa Express project.
fears are unfounded. Part of the BBC's Electric Proms festival (like the classical proms but, erm, electric), Africa Express is an evening of collaborations
that team British and American artists with the cream of Africa's burgeoning music scene. For the most part, the gig is
a euphoric triumph; a hands-aloft celebration of the sheer diversity and unrivalled musical creativity rife within the African
continent and beyond.
Africa Express is in essence an extended
jam peppered with spur-of-the-moment collaborations and cover versions, with Albarn admitting early on that they are "just
making it up as we go along." Many of the acts here have just returned from a five-day musical boot camp in Lagos,
Nigeria culminating in a gig at Fela Kuti's venue Afrika Shrine. Having endured a performance that was "not
the easiest," as Albarn cryptically described it, they have jetted back to the less exotic climes of Camden High
Street to show off the fruits of their labour.
The western artists on show include musical heavyweights (Albarn,
Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea and ex-Smiths man turned general guitar gadabout Johnny Marr),
middleweights (The Magic Numbers' Romeo Stodart, Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly and Hard-Fi)
and lesser known up-and-comers (Brit rapper Sway, homegrown London
talent VV Brown and Chicagoan band-of-brothers Hypnotic
Brass Ensemble). Much of this genre-spanning collective serves as a malleable backing band for African musical behemoths
such as Baaba Maal, Toumani Diabate and Amadou & Mariam.
We start proceedings with the
unsurpassable Baaba Maal
taking to the stage to perform a beautiful solo acoustic number, before teasingly announcing that we are "in for
a lot of surprises tonight." Sure enough, on the next song he is joined onstage by Stodart, Flea and Fela Kuti man
Tony Allen; the trio eventually becoming the self appointed Africa Express house band, collaborating with the majority of the
other artists. A plethora of lesser known talents then join in to form the most multi-layered and aurally intense jam session
these ears have heard.
A little later Hard-Fi
play a three song set which, frankly, seems slightly at odds with the spirit of the evening. By steadfastly sticking to their
chugging chav-indie stylings, they successfully drown out the playing of Algerian rai star Rachid Taha during
a cover of The Cure's 'Killing an Arab'. This is only beaten as a lowlight later on by a fumbling and shambolic
performance from unsuccessful Beta Band offshoot The Aliens, with the singer's spaced-out high kicking
and mumbled singing serving only to confuse and perplex an unimpressed crowd.
Thankfully Rich Archer's Staines
massive get things on the right track with a pulsating cover of The Chemical Brothers' 'Galvanize'; flanked by
Amadou Bagayoko and a three-piece brass section.
The brass comes thick and fast with a short but
sweet set from Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, a group who certainly live up to their name. Joined by a seemingly endless stream
of multinational rappers, their swirling trumpets create infectiously danceable hip hop that sends the Africa Express flailing and hollering into
The biggest cheer of the evening, however, is reserved for blind Malian duo Amadou & Mariam. Their
odds-defying, feel-good afro-pop proves a hit, not only with the astonishingly mixed crowd in Koko, but also their fellow
musicians, with a mammoth sixteen-strong troupe joining them onstage to jam-through choice picks from their remarkable back
Later the Stodart/Flea/Allen triad is joined by Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly's Sam Duckworth
who, as a self-confessed "sucker for a good horn line", busks through a version of Fela Kuti's
'Water Get No Enemy' with the house brass section, as well as an imaginative acoustic take on Hot Chip's 'Over
Curator Damon Albarn gradually gets more involved and seems to come closer to the fore the merrier he gets. Having
stuck to skirting the edges clutching his melodica early on in the gig, Albarn eventually jams on the instrument with Flea
(the Red Hot Chili Peppers man playing the trumpet) creating ample YouTube-fodder for camera-phone wielding crowd members,
before leading the audience in some impromptu call and response chanting, drink in hand.
As the wee small hours
approach a euphoric Albarn pays a gushing tribute to Toumani Diabate and the Africa All Stars, before kneeling on the floor, closing his eyes and
smiling quietly; as he is clearly enamoured by Diabate's astonishing kora playing.
A sprawling evening of
collaborations draws to a close around four, with the vapid Reverend and The Makers having already made sure
that all, bar the hardiest in the crowd, have gone home (it is a Wednesday after all). Clocking in at around seven hours Africa Express
is more than worth the ticket price - despite a lack of introductions meaning the less informed of us were left wondering
precisely who it was playing onstage. However some bona-fide 'I was there' collaborations combined with the passion,
ability and respect exhibited by the musicians on show ensures that Albarn's brainchild is a resounding triumph. Let's
hope the African Express keeps rolling on its intercontinental tracks for many years to come.
By Francis Whittaker
BBC Electric Proms 2008
performances can be viewed online at www.bbc.co.uk/electricproms