All aboard the Africa Express

Africa Express founders Damon Albarn and Stephen Budd give a guided tour of their locomotive live lounge

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Damon Albarn, Tony Allen and Baaba Maal are among 80 artists who have set off on a unique train journey around the UK, making music as they go.

African drumbeats and excitable chatter fill the air as some of the world's best known musicians arrive at London's Euston station to board the train that will be their home for the next week.

Leading the pack is Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn, one of the founders of the Africa Express project that has already produced unforgettable live collaborations between African and Western musicians, at events such as Glastonbury and the BBC's Electric Proms.

This time, most of the action will take place on board a specially customised train, as it tours the UK for a series of workshops and gigs starting in Middlesbrough and culminating at London's Kings Cross on Saturday.

Even Albarn, renowned for his experimental side projects, admits it is an ambitious concept.

"It's borderline insane, I'd say. I suppose it was called Africa Express but I never really imagined it as a train," reveals Albarn.

"And now it's sort of manifested itself as a train. I can't believe that some rail company's been mad enough to let us do this."

Those climbing on board to the sound of the Congo's Jupiter And Okwess International performing on the platform include Amadou And Mariam, Rokia Treoria, Baaba Maal, Rizzle Kicks, members of Bombay Bicycle Club and the head of XL Records, Richard Russell.

The Africa Express artists The 80 African and Western musicians will collaborate in live performances each night

The 1970s British Rail diesel train has been transformed into a locomotive live lounge, with old luggage compartments transformed into chill out zones, a Moroccan tea room and three rehearsal rooms - where Fela Kuti's drummer Tony Allen is already inspecting the kit.

"We're going to go into schools and factories and play in town centres. It's a blitz of collaborative mayhem," says Albarn.

"Hopefully by the time we get back to London, everyone will know each other, because we've been on a train for a week and there's nowhere else to go, really.

"Hopefully in these rehearsal rooms we'll put something together and it will sound tight and explosive and soulful."

Albarn says there have been no rehearsals so far as the musicians are all "so brilliant and comfortable in themselves".

"The nice thing about Africa Express is it's always been a very free, open idea," he explains.

Africa Express at the BBC Electric Proms After a legendary performance at Glastonbury, Africa Express took part in the BBC's Electric Proms in 2008

"It doesn't belong to anyone, anyone who turns up is part of it, so it's all inclusive in that sense. As you can see from all the flags it's a pretty international train."

Artists from 42 different countries will be on board across the week, including Yeah Yeah Yeahs' guitarist Nick Zinner, who flew in from the US for the trip and has already taken part in two Africa Express events.

As well as working with Mali's Amadou And Mariam again, Zinner says he is looking forward to collaborating with his "favourite rapper", British star Kano.

"It's just one of the greatest things I've ever been lucky enough to be part of. It's one of the biggest learning and inspirational experiences of my life so far, so I'm really just thrilled to be here," said Zinner.

Africa Express is also one of the final events of the London 2012 Festival, running alongside the Olympics, and a fitting climax says festival director Ruth Mackenzie.

London 2012 - One extraordinary year

London 2012 One extraordinary year graphic

"This is actually everything that sums up the values of London 2012 festival," she says, before seeing the train off.

"World class artists performing all over the UK, going to places like Middlesbrough, Glasgow, Cardiff, working with local musicians. This is absolutely world class work at your doorstep."

Artists as diverse as Ghanaian rapper M.anifest, the Noisettes, Romeo Stodart from The Magic Numbers, Thandiswa, Bashy, Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals and Spoek Mathambo will also be on board.

The list of just over 80 acts goes on to include Fatoumata Diawara, Bassekou Kouyate, John McClure, Gilles Peterson, Maximo Park, The Bots and Toumani Diabate.

Dougy Mandagi, lead singer of Australian band Temper Trap says it is an "honour and a privilege" to be asked to join them on the train, which is also stopping in Bristol and Manchester.

"There's some big hitters here. I'm looking forward to sharing ideas with different people and writing stuff on the fly."

Fellow artist Afrikan Boy, who was born in Nigeria but raised in the UK, is just as excited about the prospect of collaborating.

"I was trying to go through the list of artists they sent us and pick who I want to perform with, but there's so many fantastic names, I'm like an artist in a candy store," he said.

Rehearsals aboard the Africa Express Rehearsals were held aboard the train, including members of The Very Best, The Temper Trap, and The Bots amongst others

Albarn adds: "It's definitely going to be something that none of us have experienced before. We're all equally as excited and that's got to translate in the music.

"Not everyone will be able to communicate speaking wise but we all share that thing in common. That's why everyone's here, that's why there's never any wars between musicians, because we are able to communicate with each other.

"Really if you want to look in the greater scheme of things, that's what Africa Express represents, it's that possibility of an all inclusive society."

For Albarn though it is "making music" that he is looking forward to the most - although another activity does come a close second.

"We're allowed to use the horn whenever we want, which is brilliant. That's got to be the best thing, surely?"

The Africa Express Train Tour stops at Middlesbrough Town Hall, The Arches Glasgow, HMV Ritz Manchester, Cardiff University, The Big Top in Bristol and Granary Square, London's Kings Cross between Monday 3 and Saturday 8 September.

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