Sunday, November 11, 2012

Africa Express

In one of its carriages, musicians from different bands and backgrounds jammed together all day long.

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One could hear, for example, Damon Albarn playing with one of the greatest drummers in the world, Nigeria's Tony Allen, and then a young percussionist from Kinshasa, Alberto Mapoto, from Jupiter's band, Okwess International, would join in and kindly ask Allen to move away from the drum kit and let him play.
It seemed almost sacrilegious but then that was the whole spirit of the journey - breaking barriers, opening new spaces.
All the musicians, old and young, world famous or emerging, from Bamako or from Brooklyn, were performing as equals.

On Friday night, Egyptian MC Kareem Rush, from the hip hop trio Arabian Knightz, was relaxing backstage in Bristol, during one of the tour's final concerts, when the organisers invited him to join one of his idols, John Paul Jones, who was, with many other artists, improvising a wonderful version of Led Zeppelin's song Kashmir.
I couldn't believe that this was happening to me. 

Sometimes people spend weeks rehearsing before playing on stage together. 

Here we just do it, the young musician said.
For John Paul Jones himself, this semi-African semi-global new version of Kashmir was "very interesting, it was good".
There is a lot of energy going around and it keeps your mind open. 

Everybody is so happy to be here and to be playing. 

It's just fun, pure music, he told BBC Africa.

Platform fun
The train took the musicians to several cities all over the UK - Milton Keynes, Stoke-on-Trent, Leeds, Middlesbrough, Glasgow, Manchester, Crewe, Cardiff and Bristol - before returning to London.

It was amazing to see the faces of commuters when this weird train would suddenly stop at a station and, out of the blue, all these great musicians would jam together on a platform for a while before moving on.
The artists also took part in many pop-up shows in schools, community centres, parks and other improvised venues.
For many people it was their first encounter with African music. 

In Glasgow, two young girls told us that they had gone to the venue because they wanted to see some of the younger British rap stars were "tremendously moved" by the African music.
When we met them, they were by a noticeboard at the concert's venue, writing down the names of the African musicians they liked.
Every night it's been amazing in different ways. 

It's incredible the talent of these artists. 

It's inspirational the way they come together and are so generous with each other, in the way they perform and share songs and share ideas, Africa Express co-founder Ian Birrell said.
As the train was approaching King's Cross, the artists were exchanging hugs and contact details.
Several of the younger musicians told the BBC that this journey would change their lives. 

Some of them were already making plans for collaborating in records or travelling to Africa together.
The Africa Express may have reached its final destination but the wonderful energy that it has generated will be around for a long time.

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