September 21, 2012
The Arches, Glasgow, September 4
“We do have a sort of setlist…” grins Damon Albarn, the faintest notes of uncertainty audible in his voice. This train, we shall soon discover, does not run on rails. It doesn’t travel in straight lines, but in detours and tangents, and as if to prove the point, Albarn introduces a lilting, intricate afro-folk ditty he “started writing a month ago” with singer-songwriter Afel Bocoum. He finished it on the journey up from Middlesbrough this afternoon. Tomorrow it will probably sound completely, unrecognisably different. Welcome to Africa Express. Anyone who’s still sceptical about Albarn’s yearly world music extravaganza – anyone who thinks it’s a backslapping exercise in colonial indie onanism – really ought to witness it for themselves. Six hours, 80 musicians, one Class 47 diesel-electric locomotive and no ego: the logistics are impressive enough, but the execution is simply spellbinding. In the space of a few minutes, Rizzle Kicks and Carl Barât karaoke their way through a bongo-thrumming ‘Don’t Look Back Into The Sun’ before seguing into a ska-inflected ‘Down With The Trumpets’, all while Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith bounces away in the background. You can dance like a broken robot to Malian protest-funk, or marvel as South African rapper Spoek Mathambo attempts a Caledonian crossover with a trio of bagpipers, secure in the knowledge that right here and right now is the only time such a thing could
ever be construed as ‘good’.
Obviously, with so many musicians involved, you have to allow for a small margin of chaos. There are good bits and bad bits, but the only bits that’ll have you checking your watch are the changeovers, when the crew frantically tries to set up the stage for whoever is on next. On the whole, however, you have to marvel at how smoothly everything runs, and at Africa Express’ ability to surprise and delight you. Ethiopian hip-hoppers Krar Collective share a stage with Baltimorean up-and-comer Rye Rye; Jon McClure, Carl Barât and blind guitar virtuoso Amadou Bagayoko collaborate on an afrobeat version of The Clash’s ‘Train In Vain’.
Amid all this chaos and creativity, it’s hard to see how anyone could fail to be won over. This is music made for music’s sake: an idea that sounds straightforward, but which, after witnessing tonight’s show, you realise is something altogether too rare. More power to the elbows shovelling at this train’s furnace.
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