Africa Express assembles African and UK musical talent for world tour

Damon Albarn-helmed project features Tony Allen, Carl Barat and more

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Africa Express assembles African and UK musical talent for world tour

Photo: Mark Allan

Continuing Damon Albarn’s love affair with the music of the continent, the forthcoming Africa Express tour is surely the most high-profile collaboration ever attempted between the musicians of Africa and of the UK. Yet it has its roots with that other Western patron of Africa, Sir Bob Geldof. When Albarn and a group of like-minded friends inaugurated the project in 2006, it was as a direct response to the previous year’s Live 8 event in London and the absence of any artists from the continent it was meant to be helping.

Since 2002’s Mali Music album, Albarn’s interest in sounds which originate south of Morocco has been well-documented. He would later spearhead the Kinshasa One Two project for release on Warp Records, and when he formed his one-album supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen, it was to the unlikely figure of afrobeat figurehead Fela Kuti’s drummer Tony Allen he would turn to take up the sticks. Africa Express represents several steps along from these projects, however, with a festival’s worth of talent contributing more than a month of their time to this live tour.

‘There have been gigs in Lagos, Ethiopia, Mali,’ says the tour’s manager, Lauren Roth de Wolf, ‘and when I say gigs I mean a bunch of people would go over for a week, they’d collaborate, play shows, play street spaces and play in people’s houses. They played the Shrine in Nigeria, which is a legendary music spot.’ Individual shows would also follow in Paris, La Coruna, Bristol, Liverpool and London, although Albarn and co haven’t embarked in a full tour yet, let alone one on a train.

This is where the concept gets even more unusual. Not only has Albarn drawn together a truly stunning array of talent to play each show (Glasgow will feature Western artists Carl Barat, Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jack Steadman of Bombay Bicycle Club and the entire Temper Trap, African delegates Amadou & Mariam, Baaba Mal and Tony Allen himself, alongside dozens more), but the whole tour will take place on the Africa Express – a specially commandeered train which will transport the musicians around the country for a month.

‘I heard Damon mention that one of his dreams was to play the banjo off the side of a train travelling across the American prairie,’ says Roth de Wolf. ‘I’m not sure if Middlesbrough’s going to be quite the same, though. We have a giant baggage car with everything taken out if it, which will be a rehearsal space, and a café and spaces to sit and collaborate, so the artists can pretty much compose as they go. We also have the capacity to open the doors of the rehearsal car and play gigs on platforms, so if you see the train coming you might be treated to an impromptu concert. They probably won’t be publicised, but if its not too hectic, we might start telling people where we are and roughly when.’

There are also plans to hold guerrilla gigs in workplaces and schools to tie in with each show, she says, and these will again be unannounced. As for the concert, it’s merely a semi-improvised extension of the musicians’ time on the Express together, bridging continents with work created that day or collaborative versions of each others’ established songs. Everything is being filmed, and the tentative plan is to collate the footage into a documentary film somewhere down the line. ‘Whether or not we do it again,’ ponders Roth de Wolf, ‘let’s see how this one goes. Ask me again in a couple of months.’

The Arches, Glasgow, Tue 4 Sep

Africa Express Sound System - Official Video

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