Entertainment & Arts

The Africa Express rolls into London

The Africa Express, the train that carried 80 musicians from Africa, Europe and other parts of the world around the UK for a week, has reached its final destination, London's King's Cross, for its last concert.

For everyone involved, including the BBC Africa team who were on board for the whole journey, it has been an extraordinary adventure.

The tour was part of the London 2012 festival to celebrate the Olympic and Paralympic games. Some of the biggest stars from Africa, including Baaba Maal, Rokia Traore, Amadou Bagayoko and Tony Allen, took part.

They played alongside rock stars like Damon Albarn, John Paul Jones, Carl Barat and Nick Zinner, and a group of talented younger artists, including US rappers M1 (Dead Prez) and Kano, M.anifest from Ghana, and South Africans Thandiswa and Spoek Mathambo.

From the UK, there were the likes of Rizzle Kicks, Afrikan Boy, Martina Topley-Bird, Kyla La Grange, Reeps One, Pauli the PSM, as well as London-based Krar Collective, originally from Ethiopia, and Tanzanian Mim Suleiman, among many others.

Albarn - the frontman of Blur and Gorillaz and one of the co-founders of the Africa Express - told the BBC that for him this tour had been "a very magical experience".

"I was given an anthology of African rhythms and sounds when I was a kid as a Christmas present and maybe that's where it all started for me," he said.

That early love for African music never faded and six years ago, he and two other big fans of the rhythms of Africa - music producer Stephen Budd and journalist Ian Birrell, former editor of the Independent - started the Africa Express project by taking several British stars to Mali where they played with the likes of Toumani Diabate and Salif Keita.

A year later, many of those musicians performed together at the Glastonbury festival in the UK. The project later continued with trips to Nigeria, DR Congo and Ethiopia.

Music and ideas

For the artists, the Africa Express has been a laboratory of collaboration, a space to share music and ideas.

In one of its carriages, musicians from different bands and backgrounds jammed together all day long.

One could hear, for example, Damon Albarn playing with one of the greatest drummers in the world, Nigeria's Tony Allen, and then a young percussionist from Kinshasa, Alberto Mapoto, from Jupiter's band, Okwess International, would join in and kindly ask Allen to move away from the drum kit and let him play.

It seemed almost sacrilegious but then that was the whole spirit of the journey - breaking barriers, opening new spaces.

All the musicians, old and young, world famous or emerging, from Bamako or from Brooklyn, were performing as equals.

On Friday night, Egyptian MC Kareem Rush, from the hip hop trio Arabian Knightz, was relaxing backstage in Bristol, during one of the tour's final concerts, when the organisers invited him to join one of his idols, John Paul Jones, who was, with many other artists, improvising a wonderful version of Led Zeppelin's song Kashmir.

"I couldn't believe that this was happening to me. Sometimes people spend weeks rehearsing before playing on stage together. Here we just do it," the young musician said.

For John Paul Jones himself, this semi-African semi-global new version of Kashmir was "very interesting, it was good".

"There is a lot of energy going around and it keeps your mind open. Everybody is so happy to be here and to be playing. It's just fun, pure music," he told BBC Africa.

Platform fun

The train took the musicians to several cities all over the UK - Milton Keynes, Stoke-on-Trent, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Glasgow, Manchester, Crewe, Cardiff and Bristol - before returning to London.

Image caption The artists performed in several station platforms across the UK

It was amazing to see the faces of commuters when this weird train would suddenly stop at a station and, out of the blue, all these great musicians would jam together on a platform for a while before moving on.

The artists also took part in many pop-up shows in schools, community centres, parks and other improvised venues.

For many people it was their first encounter with African music. In Glasgow, two young girls told us that they had gone to the venue because they wanted to see some of the younger British rap stars but were "tremendously moved" by the African music.

When we met them, they were by a noticeboard at the concert's venue, writing down the names of the African musicians they liked.

"Every night it's been amazing in different ways. It's incredible the talent of these artists. It's inspirational the way they come together and are so generous with each other, in the way they perform and share songs and share ideas," Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell said.

As the train was approaching King's Cross, the artists were exchanging hugs and contact details.

Several of the younger musicians told the BBC that this journey would change their lives. Some of them were already making plans for collaborating in records or travelling to Africa together.

The Africa Express may have reached its final destination but the wonderful energy that it has generated will be around for a long time.

To follow the journey step by step, please visit the BBC Africa page on Facebook where we have uploaded hundreds of pictures of the journey. In the next few days we will also publish several videos we recorded on board.

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