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Africa Express

Africa Express

Another BBC Electric Proms inspiration hits London
23 October 2008 - As part of the BBC Electric Proms, Africa Express came to London's Koko. The cream of African talent from across the continent teamed up with the likes of Johnny Marr, Flea, Romeo Stodart and Hard Fi.

"We started Africa Express because we wanted to inspire western musicians about the incredible depth of African music and bring some cultural interplay between the two," says organiser Steve Budd, "... and we have witnessed that in the various African Express trips we have put together."

The latest 'trip' involved taking western musicians to Lagos in Nigeria, and tonight's seven hour show is the direct result.

Senegalese guitar virtuoso Baaba Maal starts off the proceedings onstage by proclaiming:

"I am so glad to have discovered this concept, I have traveled all over the world, especially Africa. I want everyone to think of people who have been living with conflicts all over the continent and give them the support and love they need."

Maal starts playing with his phenomenal band before the familiar figure of Romeo from The Magic Numbers shuffles onstage clutching his guitar. When I caught up with him before the show, he looked like a man awaking from the warmest, fuzziest dream of his life:

"I have just come back from Lagos" he tells me, "I was playing at Fela Kuti's 'Shrine', the most amazing experience of my life," he grins.

Most of the musicians here tonight have just come back from the latest Africa Express trip to Lagos in Nigeria. Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Laura Manuel and John McClure from Reverend and the Makers, Drew McConnell from Babyshambles and self-professed 'doowop soul' queen V V Brown were just some of those who made the trip to play at Fela Kuti's 'Shrine' - one of Africa's most famous nightclubs - and jamm with Afrobeat legend Tony Allen and musicians like Baaba Maal and Senegalese rap trio Daara J.

Soon the stage is full - Flea is on bass, Romeo on guitar, members of Daara J are there and then Maal introduces beautiful Malian singer Omou Sangare, one of Africa's greatest divas, to sing for the highly appreciative crowd. Then the boys from Daara J take over the mic and gets everyone hopping with shouts of "How are you feeling?" to which the crowd answers with a massive roar.
"It's music without ego, which is rare..."
Remi Kabaka, Gorillaz

Everywhere I look backstage there is another familiar face, it's hard to keep track of who is playing with who and who everyone is. I have to shamefully ask some of the artists to write their names in my notebook - which becomes covered in scrawling handwriting from members of Baaba Maal's band, Syrian rapper Eslam Jawwad ('like Islam but with an 'e'), Faada Freddy from Daara J and Mama Gaye who plays guitar with Baaba and is phenomenal.

Another member of Maal's band and solo artist in his own right Massamba Diop plays the tama (the 'talking drum' from Senegal), resplendent in a pink traditional smock he makes his way to the front of the stage for his awesome solo and then stands arms outstretched lapping up the praise from the crowd.

Some people I spoke to half way through the night said they were slightly disappointed with the event. That the African musicians seemed to be playing second fiddle to the indie kids.

One example cited was Hard Fi playing a few tracks with the likes of Hakim Hammadouche on mandol and Mehdi Haddab on the oud (the North African lute), two world renowned musicians who took a back seat on the songs, which were hardly allowing them to show what they are capable of.

Then came the big crowd-pleaser, a version of Chemical Brothers Galvanise. Did they really need to perform a song that most of the crowd would know? I would rather have heard Hard Fi playing on one of Mehdi or Hakim's tunes.

Amadou, from the great Malian blind duo Amadou and Mariam, joined in on guitar for this one and it just seemed wrong, that this world music legend would be on stage behind the lads from Hard Fi, playing Chemical Brothers riffs.

It was a 7 hour gig and I was dead on my feet by close to midnight so headed homeward, missing Malian kora legend Toumani Diabate, Amadou and Mariam playing with Johnny Marr - and that wasn't even all. To try and come close to a full set list of tonight's show would take hours, but I have left out performances from The Kick Horns, Bashy, Kano, The Aliens, Hypnotic Brass, Jim Palmer (Robert's son on drums), Damon Albarn (of course), Barry Reynolds, a street poet whose name I didn't catch and many, many more.

Ruth Barnes

Have your say

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Comments so far

Dr Gee, West London
The writer is missing the point with Hard Fi's excellent set - it was a collaboration blending sounds from different continents, producing an amazing result. If you thought Mehdi was in the background on the tracks played you must have been watching a different gig. And exclusively name-dropping the western artists at the start of your piece makes you guilty of what you accuse them of! Africa Express was a fantastic event, and the happy faces in the the crowd and on the stage said it all.

Ikechukwu Anunobi Lagos
Actually the shrine you describe is femi Kuti's. Fela's shrine was at a different location in lagos and also had a different sort of patronage. Artists , intellectuals and also the working class. You would be hard pressed to find that in Femi's shrine. The moral is please collaborate with us on an equal footing or you will get booed off the stage like Damon albarn and his group at the psedo shrine in lagos. I'm sure no one told the bbc that.....

Jan Surrey
Hard-Fi were brilliant they really got the party started as they did in Liverpool and Glastonbury.

Hard fi were rubbish! what the hell where they doing there?same for "the aliens" and the magic numbers playing 2 or 3 songs each...totally out of place when there was so many afrikan musicians there to play...

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