Collaboration with every nation
Africa Express’ cross-continental jams insist on spontaneity, so what will happen at their Fela Kuti tribute is anyone’s guess, says Robin Denselow
Fela Kuti will be “dancing in his grave.” That’s what his son, Femi, says. The reason for the late Afrobeat pioneer’s posthumous pleasure? An event that perfectly captures the spirit of the old Afrika Shrine, the celebrated nightclub that he ran in the Nigerian capital in the 70s. On October 18, as the climax of this year’s Felabration festival in Lagos, there’s to be a very special concert outside Femi’s own Afrika Shrine. A crowd of 10,000 will be there for an all-night show that’s just the start of the bravest, most high-profile venture yet by Africa Express, the ever-expanding group of African and British musicians who specialise in lengthy shows and bravely spontaneous collaborations.
So who will be taking part in this latest event? As ever, AE is making no announcements in advance. But Fela’s sons Femi and Seun will certainly be present, with Femi “jumping on the stage and playing with anybody. It will be my duty to work with as many people as possible.” His guests will include Baaba Maal, Amadou and Mariam, Damon Albarn and Tony Allen, the percussion genius who worked with Fela and recently collaborated with Albarn in the Good, the Bad and the Queen. Jon McClure, formerly the leader of Reverend and the Makers, is “very much looking forward to it”, and it’s likely that the cast will also include Bassekou Kouyate and Rachid Taha. Ginger Baker, the former Cream drummer, who was also one of the first British rock musicians to work with his African counterparts (he played with Fela), has accepted an invitation, while Franz Ferdinand – who took part in the last AE event in Liverpool – are “hoping to go and pretty excited”, according to Alex Kapranos, and the same goes for the Magic Numbers. According to Ian Ashbridge, one of AE’s founders, “We won’t know who will be there until the last minute – it’s all voluntary and there are no contracts.”
When the Lagos show is over, Femi Kuti will stay behind to wind up Felabration while the rest of the AE lineup heads for London and two more wildly experimental shows, with Souad Massi joining the troupe. On October 22, they will be at Koko in London for another set of impromptu collaborations that is scheduled to last until 4am. This will be the fourth AE show in the UK but will reach a far bigger audience and far more attention than their earlier, low-key outings because it will be broadcast on Radio 1 as part of the Electric Proms, which presents a rare opportunity for African stars who might normally expect to appear on Radio 3. It won’t just be a passing snippet either: Radio 1 is to broadcast all five hours of the Koko show live, from 11pm until the show finishes at around four the following morning, and the show will also be on BBCTV, through the interactive red button.
The following night many of the African artists (but not the British stars) will head across town to the Barbican, for the Africa Now show. This event is somewhat more conventional, simply because the lineup – part of it, at least – has actually has been announced in advance. It will include Baaba Maal, Rachid Taha, Amadou and Mariam and Senegalese rappers Daara J.
What’s extraordinary about Africa Express is that it defies all the normal rules of pop promotion. There’s no product to plug, the artists aren’t paid, and there’s only a rudimentary running order for the shows, allowing as much spontaneity as possible. The aim is to present African and western musicians on an equal footing, encourage collaboration, and allow new audiences to discover African music. The man unwittingly responsible for all this was Bob Geldof, who infuriated African musicians (and African music fans) by assembling an almost exclusively non-African cast for the massive London Live 8 concert in July 2005. A second concert for African artists at the Eden Project in Cornwall enjoyed far less TV coverage, and led to mutterings about musical apartheid.
Africa Express was as an attempt to put that right. The initial aim was for two concerts, in London’s Hyde Park and in Bamako, Mali, and according to Ashbridge “Albarn was keen on collaboration from the start.” The first AE outing, in September 2006, took Albarn, Martha Wainwright, Norman Cook and beat-boxer Scratch to Mali to meet the likes of Salif Keita, Amadou and Mariam and Toumani Diabate, with the western musicians joining in the musical sessions. Back in London, they tried to repeat the experience at Jamm in Brixton, where the audience didn’t know what to expect but were treated to an improvised show with no set list, involving Albarn, Souad Massi, Amadou and Mariam and others, with the Kaiser Chiefs in the audience.
Last year, the experiments continued at Glastonbury, with Billy Bragg, Toumani Diabate, Amadou and Mariam, Norman Cook, the Magic Numbers and others collaborating on a stage well away from the television cameras or the crowds who had clearly not heard of Africa Express and didn’t know what an historic show they were missing. Albarn said he didn’t want publicity in advance, “because I love that word of mouth thing”. So it continued, with a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo last October followed by a another lengthy experimental show this March in the fading splendour of the Liverpool Olympia, where a remarkable line-up turned out to play in front of a small audience who clearly didn’t expect Franz Ferdinand to be collaborating with Baaba Maal.
The experience of working with African musicians has had a startling effect on the British bands involved. Alex Kapranos says the Liverpool show was “the most exciting gig that Franz Ferdinand played this year. The best thing about it was that there was no planning at all, and that’s what really turned me on. We had about five minutes to rehearse, and it was a complete contrast to the average indie gig you go to, where the band has been playing the same songs over and over for weeks. Safety is the enemy of any musician”. Jon McClure agrees: “It’s an amazing experience and sharpens your game as a musician. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone”.
The Africans also approved. Baaba Maal says he enjoyed performing with Rachid Taha and with Franz Ferdinand (“I want to push that one if I get the chance. I love Take Me Out and I love the fact that they come from a different environment”), while Amadou Bagayoko, of Amadou and Mariam, enthuses about the attraction of working with “hundreds of musicians, from Damon Albarn to K’Naan or Son of Dave”. But he reckons playing with Romeo Stodart of the Magic Numbers was “the best collaboration so far because we have similar ways of playing the guitar”. The on-stage collaborations are moving to the studio, with Albarn appearing on the forthcoming Amadou and Mariam album, and McClure inviting the Malian ngoni star Bassekou Kouyate to record with his new band Mongrel, including former Arctic Monkey Andy Nicholson.
There have been collaborations in earlier pop eras, of course – the Stranglers joined the Burundi Drummers at an early Womad festival, Peter Gabriel has worked with the likes of Papa Wemba, and Ginger Baker played with Fela Kuti back in the 70s. So the idea is not new, but as Ashbridge says: “We’ve gone backwards since those days, and we are trying to redress the balance and treat African and western artists the same way. It’s not about sales, but kids who are into Franz Ferdinand will ask, ‘Who is this Baaba Maal they are playing with?'” Stodart agrees: “If I read an interview with Johnny Marr saying he likes Bert Jansch, I go out and buy a Jansch album. So this could bring our followers to African music.”
Africa Express may change British music, but the aim is to bring change to Africa too. The Lagos concert will be the first major event AE has staged on the continent, and Femi Kuti predicts “this event will make things happen. Sponsors will come who might want to build concert halls, so that bands can tour in Africa. We need more concerts in Africa and it will show solidarity to the African cause.”