It was just about the perfect evening for it. Benevolent blue skies looked down on the Africa Express stage, at one end of the new Granary Square in King’s Cross, and the 4,000 lucky revellers who gathered last night to see the results of one of Damon Albarn’s most ambitious projects.
Nearly a week ago, dozens of African and British musicians set out on a haulage train from Euston to tour the country, developing collaborations as they went. The logistics must have been nightmarish and some chaos during the party — more onlookers than performers on stage, the failure of the big screen to work for half the gig, sound problems — was only to be expected.
But that didn’t detract from a remarkable achievement in this celebration of the power of African culture today, its fashion and food as well as music. Artists from all four points of the African compass were present but with an especially large contingent from West Africa. Ghana-born rapper M.anifest, Malian divas Rokia Traoré and Fatoumata Diawara, ngoni maestro Bassekou Kouyate, Amadou of Amadou & Mariam fame, Baaba Maal from Senegal — the list went on.
The musical styles were too many to count. Funk, hip-hop, blues, rock and every African rhythm and beat under the sun. The tone gradually moved from instrumental music towards electronic music as the night wore on, but the gig’s finest moments came in the first couple of hours. Noisettes front-woman Shingai Shoniwa ruled the stage briefly with a hugely energetic performance; Rokia Traoré sang a ballad with Damon Albarn; local boy Kano led a rowdy international group of rappers in a sing-a-along. So much was happening that even a cameo from Paul McCartney barely raised a cheer.
Granary Square, hosting its first big music event, didn’t add any soul to the occasion (although the stunning sunset did) but it’s a naturally impressive space, with the new St Martin’s College building running down one side and the Victoriana of St Pancras Station visible (for the moment at least) in the distance on the other.