By Matt Jones
Africa Express is not your average gig. Originally formed as Damon Albarn’s angry reaction to the lack of African artists in the 2005 ‘Live 8’ concerts, it is an almost innumerable collective of African and Western musicians, currently touring the country via its own rail service.
Stepping aboard at Cardiff University Students’ Union Solus Bar, it immediately seems as chaotically fun as it sounds. Although the £15 tickets have not sold out, with most of those who could afford such extortionate railfares in their forties, the carriage is packed. On stage, a short woman with big hair and an even bigger voice sets the passengers alight. Living up to the expectations of the line-up, she is accompanied and followed by guitars, koras, beatboxers and all manner of musical talent. I have no idea what’s going on, but I’m glad to see we seem to be approaching our destination fast.
All of a sudden, the train slows. The Thin Controllor, Mr. Albarn, enters the carriage and takes the mic. It seems that without warning we are ‘On Melancholy Hill’ – a change of course apparently justified by the accompanying vocals of Malian musician Rokia Traore. Rokia’s vocals are great and Albarn can play the piano. But it sure is cold up here, Damon.
However, just as I begin to get nostalgic about the warmer climes that greeted us at the start of the journey, Carl Barat (The Libertines) and his mate Harley (Rizzle Kicks) rouse me with a cover of ‘Don’t Look Back into the Sun’. Things begin to look interesting again, until The Thin Controller strikes again. After a brief history lesson, Albarn begins another glum song taken from his 2011 opera about Dr. John Dee – everyone’s favourite sixteenth-century occultist who apparently has everything to do with Africa Express. A discreet heckler sums up the mood of the audience by with the words ‘PLAY SONG 2!’.
And here lies the problem with Africa Express. On paper it is mouth-watering; offering unrivalled electicism which is quite rightly the focal point of its huge advertising campaign – which has proved irresistible to the likes of the BBC and the Guardian, who have provided rolling coverage of the tour. But such eclecticism demands a very good controller, and at the risk of being fashionably critical of him, one is unsure whether Albarn makes the grade. All the ingredients for a carnival for fans of both ‘African’ and ‘Western’ musicians are here and we catch glimpses of this in moments like Spoek Mathambo, Jack Steadman and Peter Hook’s ravey-cover of Joy Division’s ‘Control’. Yet the audience is rarely allowed to enjoy these moments fully because of what came before and after them. Particularly frustrating seeing the audience treated to a brief dance-a-thon headed by Baaba Maal, only to be plunged seconds later into a Live 8-esque arms-around-each-others-shoulders-sway-a-thon by the musicians on stage. It is telling that the BBC chose the former, more lively moment to accompany its online news coverage of the Cardiff gig.
Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps having seen names like Tony Allen on the bill, I was expecting far more Afrobeat- and Highlife-inspired numbers – genres which appeared to have missed the train. Either way, ‘Damon Albarn’s Africa Express’ is an uncertain ride and for the better or for the worse, you’re never really sure where its headed.