Earlier this year, Africa Express played one of their biggest gigs to date at Waltham Forest in Leytonstone, east London. It was a diverse jamboree of artists that included Wolf Alice’s Ellie Rowsell, South Africa’s Moonchild Sanelly – who describes her sound as “future ghetto punk” – and Blur’s Damon Albarn, the collective’s most recognisable name on these shores.
The date of the gig was particularly telling, too. It took place on March 29, 2019 – Britain’s original date to leave the European Union. In the face of political uncertainty and division, Africa Express were showcasing a collaborative and joyous display of the very human ties that cannot be unbound.
‘EGOLI’, the group’s fourth album, is a similar celebration of these complementing and contrasting sounds. It’s a full-throttle album that sees big names and burgeoning stars rub shoulders for what may be the collective’s most enjoyable to date. Damon Albarn, Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys all feature, but you’ll likely be left awe-inspired by artists both experienced and new from South Africa and beyond, including legendary vocal group the Mahotella Queens, hip-hop firebrand Moonchild Sanelly and more.
Recorded over a week-long period in Johannesburg, South Africa, ‘EGOLI’ operates in stark-contrast to the marathon-sized gigs that they’ve become accustomed to. The aforementioned London gig ran for nearly five-hours and in 2015, Albarn was removed from the stage in Denmark when the group’s showtime had run well-over curfew. ‘EGOLI’ runs for 18-tracks, sure, but there’s little chance if you’ll be dragged away kicking and screaming from this album – it’s a slick and polished affair.
‘City In Lights’, a pulsating disco-thumper that might be their biggest pop moment yet, was inspired by mbaqanga singer Hilda Tloubatla and her journey to Johannesburg. “I thought of all the women who come to the city to follow their dreams and make a better life for themselves,” UK’s rising dance queen Georgia says of the track. ‘I Can’t Move’, meanwhile – starring Sanelly, Albarn, Mr Jukes (Bombay Bicycle Club’s Jack Steadman), Sibot and Blue May – is a funk-laden groove, perfect for club-hopping wherever you are on the planet.
Some of the mellower moments are just as enjoyable. Sanelly, arguably the album’s most exciting personality, lends her smoky vocals to ‘Morals’, a laid-back R&B-infused jam. The intertwining vocals from Gruff Rhys and Zolani Mahola on ‘Absolutely Everything Is Pointing To The Light’, meanwhile, offer a simply divine moment.
‘EGOLI’ is a scattershot and hedonistic diary of the collective’s week-long recording sessions, and each song offers an insight into the vibrant sounds of Johannesburg and the city’s unique twist on house, folk, jazz and beyond. Community and collaboration are a powerful force on this album, but perhaps Sanelly puts it best. “We were like kids in a candy store,” she has said. “You could make any genre of music from futuristic rave to ballads with legendary stars. I loved every minute of it.” We did too, Sanelly.