The idea behind Africa Express is simple: take a bunch of western pop stars and put them on stage with some of the best African talent of today for on-the-spot collaborations. Damon Albarn's collaborative project has worked wonders before, blowing away the Glastonbury Festival in 2007 and playing London at the Roundhouse's Electric Proms, but this time there is an actual train involved.
Dozens of bands and musicians – from the Noisettes and rapper Kano to Malian superstars Amadou & Mariam and Toumani Diabaté – board a specially secured locomotive at Euston on 2 September, setting off on a UK-wide tour as part of the London 2012 Festival. They return to London on 8 September for a culminating gig at Granary Square near King's Cross, London's newest designed open space.
Musical omnivore Albarn, who has described the sounds of Africa as "the future of music", was working with African musicians as far back as 2004, when he released the album Mali Music. Africa Express grew out of his annoyance at the lack of African artists at Live8, and has seen various trips to the continent by groups of European musicians and producers. This is the most ambitious project so far for the collective. Pop-up gigs at unusual venues are being promised as part of the tour, although there is no guarantee that any impromptu performances will happen in in the capital.
The London stop for the Africa Express will be a high profile moment for Granary Square and the whole redevelopment of the area north of King's Cross. The gig is the first major music event at the space, which opened in June and is similar in size to Trafalgar Square.
Five of the artists/bands performing on the London leg of the Africa Express tour are:
- Blind couple Amadou & Mariam are African music royalty. The husband and wife team burst onto the pop charts internationally in 2004 with their Manu Chao-produced album Dimanche à Bamako.
- Bassekou Kouyate plays the ngoni, a dinky West African string instrument on which he plays the most incredible blues. One of a number of Malian world music stars, Kouyate leads the field with his band Ngoni Ba.
- "Bona fide indie rock stars" Bombay Bicycle Club were interviewed on these pages last week. Lead singer Jack Steadman is on the Africa Express.
- Nneka is a Nigerian-German vocalist whose hip-hop smarts have made her one of the pan-African rising stars of the last few years.
- An emerging artist like Nneka, singer Thandiswa is from South Africa. Her 2009 record Ibokwe was acclaimed for its blend of local dances and rhythms with a palette of funk, soul and other African influences.
Images, by Andy Buurman and Simon Phipps, courtesy of Africa Express.