Review: Africa Express – Manchester

On Wednesday night, The Africa Express rolled into Manchester, surrounded by a great deal of excitement and anticipation. Gathering a huge amount of interest from the press over the week, Damon Albarn’s brilliant brainchild was on its third day on the tracks, with another three left to go, including a triumphant finale tomorrow night at Granary Square in King’s Cross, London.

Africa Express began in 2006 with a trip to Mali, when co-founder Damon Albarn took the likes of Fatboy Slim, Martha Wainwright and Jamie T to work with African legends such as Toumani Diabate, Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam and Bassekou Kouyate.  This was followed by a trial London event, then the now-legendary Glastonbury 2007 show, followed by trips to Nigeria, the Congo, Ethiopia and shows at the BBC Electric Proms, for 25,000 people in Paris town centre and with 50,000 people on a Spanish beach show.

This evening it was Manchester’s turn to witness one of the finest collaboration shows of our time, with over 80 musicians gearing up for an incredibly special night. Combining western acts such as Jack Steadman, Kyla La Grange, Lucy Rose, John McClure, Martina Topley-Bird, Rye Rye, Kano, Nick Zinner and many more; with the likes of Amadou, Rokia Traore, Spoek Mathambo, Krar Collective, Baaba Maal, Jupiter and Okwess International and dozens of sensational African backing vocalists and musicians; a four-hour fusion of sounds, textures, ideas and cultures ensued.

The combination of genres also highlighted the ever-changing musical influences from across the world, from hip-hop to indie, from traditional African music to britpop. What’s more, it was stunning to see acts like Rae Morris, Carl Barat and Kyla La Grange altering their original pieces and integrating them beautifully with artists from all over the African continent. The array of instruments on stage was equally amazing, as the crowd were introduced to guitars, drums and percussion that many wouldn’t have seen before. From Diabel Cissokho on the Kora, to Bassekou Kouyate playing the Ngoni; from Boubacar Dembele on the Djembe to Massamba Diop playing the amazing Talking Drum, each new instrument made the performances so much more special.

It would be impossible to list all the highlights from tonight’s show, as each act was as brilliant as the next. But on a personal level, there were some performances that will remain unforgettable. Peter Hook’s surprise appearance with Jack Steadman and Spoek Mathambo was just incredible as they threw themselves into a ‘darkwave township house’ version of the Joy Division classic, She’s Lost Control. One and a half thousand Mancunians felt Hook’s pulsating basslines thunder through the room, to much jubilation. A mass performance of The Clash’s Train In Vain was another illustrious moment as dozens of acts, including Amadou, Nick Zinner, John McClure and Carl Barat filled the stage to create a moment that Joe Strummer would certainly have been proud of. Amadou then returned to give one of the finest performances I’ve ever witnessed, with a very special and heart-pounding version of Masiteladi, as he rocked out on the guitar, with Damon Albarn getting particularly giddy on the side of the stage!

From a TFFT perspective, we cannot go without also mentioning performances from Rae Morris, who sang a sublime rendition of For You with the amazing Rokia Traore; Lucy Rose, who delivered Scar brilliantly with the addition of Rae Morris, Rokia Traore and Bintou Soumbounou on backing vocals; and finally Jack Steadman, who smashed out the wonderful Shuffle from Bombay Bicycle Club’s latest album A Different Kind Of Fix.