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BBC Electric Proms 2008

United Kingdom United Kingdom | 24 October 2008

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.

Thankfully, my 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 funky town.

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 catalogue.

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 and 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

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