Africa Express – Granary Square, London, September 8 2012
By Jim Hickson
How does one even begin to attempt to review such a happening as Africa Express? A rolling, near-constant performance comprising of six gigs, tens of pop-up performances and countless hours of jamming and rehearsals in between. All featuring more than 80 musicians. On a train.
This reviewer’s experience of the tour extends only to the London date of the tour, what had been billed as the grand finale. The five-hour performance was held at the newly opened Granary Square behind King’s Cross Station. This was the only open-air venue for a paid entry gig in the whole tour, and, as such, there was a real festival feel to the proceedings, which was certainly enhanced by the blasting sunshine during the daylight hours of the show.
As the first piece gets under way, and it’s already an exercise in ‘spot the famous musician’ with a piece lead by ‘desert blues’ guitarist Afel Bocoum and featuring an ensemble including Fodé Lassana Diabaté on balafon, John Paul Jones on bass and Damon Albarn on acoustic guitar. And so it continued throughout the evening, my friends and I exchanging whispers of “here comes Amadou on guitar,” “Fatoumata Diawara is singing with the Noisettes and Eliza Doolittle, wow!” and “hang on, is that Paul McCartney on bass?”
Musically, highlights included Nicolas Jarr ‘and friends’ (who happened to include Baaba Maal, Bassekou Kouyaté, Lassana Diabaté and Fatoumata Diawara) presenting an extended West African journey, mixing traditional music from the Mandé world with a subtle electronic background; a version of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, led by rappers Kano and Bashy and featuring Mehdi Haddab on electric oud, Rokia Traoré on typically scintillating vocals, the horn section of the Fela! musical and Led Zep’s own JohnPaul Jones on synth; Amadou Bagayoko leading Okwess International with Baloji; Rokia Traoré singing a hauntingly beautiful track ‘Dounia’ accompanied by, yes, the ex-Beatle, taking the bassline behind the rest of the band, unannounced… and I could go on and on and on. The stand out performer, however, was Fatoumata Diawara. She was never far from the stage, and for good reason: every time she opened her mouth, fantastic colours flew out – even if not singing, her dancing lit up the stage.
Through the evening, only three tracks somewhat missed the mark – Carl Barât’s offering a bit too noisy, in the wrong way; Eliza Doolittle’s otherwise beautiful rendition of Al Green’s ‘Let’s Stay Together’ slowed things down a little much; and Paul McCartney’s second lead number, well, it just didn’t work too well, in my opinion. But three pieces out of five hours’ worth still leaves a very large percentage of gold. One criticism I have heard from those further from the stage than I was the show’s poor sound quality, where a choice had to be made between seeing the stage and hearing the music from extra speakers halfway back in the crowd, no doubt due to London noise ordinances. Complaints raised at other AE gigs, however seemed to have been addressed here, with ensembles being introduced to the crowd before or after a song, and a five minute change over between pieces at the very most.
Altogether, the experience was one of overwhelming musical success, and one which wasn’t nearly as shambolic as could have been expected, with the sheer number of musicians. This wasn’t Africa Express’ first triumph, and here’s hoping it’s far from the last.