Damon Albarn steers the Africa Express to Liverpool.
African musicians have nothing to learn from us, says the Blur frontman – but we have everything to learn from them.
Damon Albarn stares at his last cigarette, broken in half as he pulled it out of the box. “Now, that has totally ruined my day,” he says. In a few moments, though, the day is back on course. A stray rolling paper is used to conduct emergency surgery on the cigarette, its owner lights up and confides a misgiving concerning Africa Express, the ever-expanding coalition of African and Western musicians he helped to originate. “Do you think Africa Express is a rubbish name? I dunno … I’ve struggled with it. But then, I struggle with names in general.”
The fact that things need to be called something has been a recurrent source of unease in Albarn’s life. Blur got their deal on the condition that they changed their name from the preferred Seymour. Last year’s The Good, The Bad & the Queen album was, he insisted, merely the title of the record. The group, featuring the afrobeat icon Tony Allen and the Clash’s Paul Simonon, didn’t have a name. And Africa Express? Well, what’s not to like? It does the job, doesn’t it? “All right,” says Albarn. “I guess it does emote a certain sense of movement.”
Four weeks before he turns 40, what does and doesn’t bother Damon Albarn bears interesting comparison. He’ll sweat the tiniest details with a control freakery that you suspect has magnified in the post-Blur years. Yet your attention turns to the bands booked to take part in next month’s Africa Express gettogether at the Olympia Theatre in Liverpool, and he responds with a shrug. “Well, I know I’ll be there,” he says. “We’ve had assurances from various parties. Apparently Baaba Maal and Franz Ferdinand are doing something. It’ll be fine.”
Seven years after his old bassist Alex James drily referred to him as “the blackest man in West London”, the incongruity that made the joke funny has slowly evaporated. Africa Express – as many of Albarn’s associates point out on his behalf – isn’t about one person. But it’s hard not to see his drive in its growth from a series of conversations in 2005 between some like-minded Londoners to the five-hour Glastonbury superjam last year.
If Albarn isn’t particularly worried about the finer details of the Olympia show, it’s probably because at the beginning of the Glastonbury get-together he – along with Ian Ashbridge, co-organiser of Africa Express and head of Wrasse Records – were pondering the prospect of a five-hour spectacular with only one artist in attendance. “For the first half-hour only Amadou & Mariam had turned up,” Ashbridge recalls.
“What you have to remember,” Albarn adds, “is that musicians are night people. They only get going when the sun goes down.”
An hour later, with the sun still very much up, the scale of the event started to become apparent. If you were unlucky enough not to be there, the list of performers tells its own story: assorted members of Tinariwen assisting Terry Hall as he sang Message to You Rudy alongside other Specials for the first time in 25 years; the Algerian raï king Rachid Taha and Albarn sharing the mike on Rock the Casbah; Fatboy Slim phasing and fiddling around a version of Fela Kuti’s Zombie while Tony Allen unleashed his original rhythm over it. “The problem was giving everyone a turn,” Ashbridge says. “It was surreal having to tell Damian Marley that there was no time for him to do a song.”
“There was definitely a sense that something special was happening,” says Taha. “By Rock the Casbah there were 25 musicians on stage. I didn’t know who half of them were, but it didn’t matter. It was the greatest show I’ve seen or been part of.”
Even so, there will be no return to Glastonbury. “The idea behind Africa Express,” Ashbridge says, “is that it will pop up where you least expect it to.”
Sandwiched between two huge housing estates in the deprived Everton locale (unemployment: 47.6 per cent), the Olympia fits the bill. A hundred years ago it was a circus venue with elephants and lions living in the basement. Recent spectacles beneath the venue’s Edwardian proscenium range from cage fighting to Chico & the Cheeky Girls. “That makes it a perfect venue for Africa Express,” says Ashbridge, who adds that – at £10 a ticket – the show ought to attract a sizeable local audience.
Inclusivity and affordability are key to the Africa Express ethos. At the same time, it can’t be cheap to freight rumoured attendees such as Amadou & Mariam, Hard-Fi, Souad Massi and Baaba Maal to the same place. It’s a beautiful idea, but it’s hardly going to pay for itself, surely? “Well, a lot of beautiful things don’t pay for themselves,” says Albarn. “But that doesn’t mean they should not happen, does it? If bands can afford it, we ask them to pay for their travel. What I don’t want is for people to think of this as a charity. Because there are enough people who see Africa itself as a charity.”
If the Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal didn’t agree, he wouldn’t have been among the first singers to fly over and seek a personal audience with Albarn. “Music is a kind of education,” Maal says. “It is impossible to have any understanding of African life by watching stories about poverty on the news. If this is all you see, then people think Africa is just a crisis that needs [people] to make [it] better.”
Albarn is reticent to criticise the good intentions of Live Aid and Live 8, but he lambasted Live 8 for herding African musicians off to a separate show at the Eden Project. His remarks didn’t go unnoticed. “I was approached to do a sort of event in Hyde Park the year after Live 8 and I said no way – that would have been like doing the same thing all over again but putting a better flavour to it. People might have a nice day and get on well, but it’s no way near enough to form a meaningful relationship with a continent.”
It’s a job, he argues, to be undertaken in smaller but longer-term increments. When he, Ashbridge and a band of like-minded souls got together in the wake of Live 8, they knew that much, but beyond that Africa Express amounted to little more than good intentions. “Some of us – myself, Jamie T, Scratch [from the Roots] and Martha Wainwright were roped into a trip to Mali,” says Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook. “I would describe it as a sort of travelling think tank. We met with Amadou & Mariam, went to Salif Keita’s club, watched a band rehearsing in their front room.”
Did anyone know what they were there for? “We did and we didn’t,” laughs Cook. “Damon’s essentially a bully, but a charismatic one. He’s the kind of person you follow off the edge of a cliff because it would be a laugh on the way down.”
In a second trip after Glastonbury 2007 Albarn led more musicians to the sprawling Congolese capital of Kinshasa. Massive Attack’s Robert del Naja remembers the “energy and beauty of the people” which blew away all the “clichés of poverty and disease” mediated by television. John MacLean of the Aliens found the trip more hard-going. “In Africa nothing is scheduled. You’re told you’re about to do something – eat or leave or whatever – and nothing will happen for two more hours. ‘Africa time’, they call it. But while you wait, you see amazing things.”
As the man with the tape recorder, waiting accounts for much of what Albarn does on these trips. “Once in a while there’s a moment of pure magic – being on an open-air stage in a little yard on a Saturday afternoon, with two Soviet-looking concrete buildings behind us that had bulletholes all over them. We’re all playing, and then suddenly, out of nowhere, De La Soul start doing (A Roller Skating Jam Called) Saturday over the rhythm of all these musicians.”
Just as important as knowing what you want, says Albarn, is what you don’t want. Not for Africa Express the Peter Gabriel/Real World-sanctioned notion of African music as something subject to the pristine production and presentation of, well, a Peter Gabriel record. Collaborating with Toumani Diabate and Afel Bocum in 2002, Albarn’s feeling that “African records sound best when they’re recorded in Africa, with the smell and the heat and the people” was borne out by the resulting Mali Music album.
While Ashbridge talks of Africa Express doing the work that John Peel once did – “breaking down the barriers between genres, so that people are open to all sorts of good music” – Albarn’s love of African music seems to have radicalised him. “For the past 150 years the West has been screwing equilibrium wherever it can. We’ve got to get out of this ‘saving Africans’ mindset because” – he emits a mildly delirious chuckle – “we’re the ones that need to be saved!”
If any of this rhetoric fails to manifest itself at the Liverpool Olympia, that’s as it should be. “People won’t care about a continent and the problems it faces if they have no sense of orientation around its culture,” says Albarn. “But music can give them that. It gave me that.”
If he speaks with the zeal of an idealist, that’s probably because he has become one. It’s the opposite of the career-long transition that most pop stars undergo, in which wide-eyed idealism gives way to hardbitten pragmatism. At this point, though, idealism – or at least the ideal of bringing together Africa and the West through music – is yielding remarkable results.
At his West London HQ, Albarn plays a 30-minute sound-collage, assembled for possible release, that resulted from the trips to Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The hubbub of crowd noise is the only constant as the smoggy syncopations of Kinshasa’s musicians – and, on this occasion, De La Soul – mutate into moments of synergy. Pedals slam down on makeshift FX boards that make the guitars attached to them sound utterly otherworldly. Genres instantly invent themselves according to the noise being made.
“It sounds like the future doesn’t it?” Albarn says. “That’s what we need to get our heads around. They have nothing to learn from us. We have everything to learn from them.”