Africa Express meanders but provides plenty of musical highlights

On the stage: Baaba Maal, Bassekou Kouyate and Amadou at previous African Express show
On the stage: Baaba Maal, Bassekou Kouyate and Amadou at previous African Express showMark Allan

Stepping inside The Arches just after proceedings were due to begin, the headline draw from Africa Express – Damon Albarn – was already onstage, gently plucking at his acoustic as Afel Bocoum and another compatriot took centre stage.

It was a fitting start, reminding anybody unawares that this show is in town to showcase a genuine spirit of collaboration - not so much about any individual's standing as it is about the songs that they've refined while on their train journey to Glasgow and around the rest of the country to celebrate the London 2012 Festival.

The list of notable musicians taking part was so large (at least 50 or 60 by my reckoning) that it is impossible within a brief review to even begin to name them all. (Though if you’re so interested, there is a list here.) Groups drifted off and on to the first stage with little introduction, which unfortunately made it hard for the audience to identify what their highlights were – a shame when most of the Africa musicians’ faces would inevitably have been more unfamiliar to the Scottish crowd.

The benefits were pretty clear for this cross-cultural collaboration. The Western artists sampled the delights of another musical culture, which seemed to thrill many of them while onstage.

Meanwhile, it must have been worth it for the African contingent to come here simply to witness the mesmerically awkward dancing on display throughout the night, as gangly Scots attempted in vain to locate their ‘groove’.

After Albarn and co, a throng of musicians – including Temper Trap, Ethiopia’s Krar Collective and Mali’s Boubacar Traoré – thrashed their way through a rendition of The Libertines' Don't Look Back Into The Sun, that band's Carl Barat lending his spiky electric guitar to the mix.

That was followed by another changeover once the number was done, setting the tone for the night - the arrival of a new group for a song or two, followed by a gap of several minutes as the stage was set for the next ensemble. Though it kept things fresh, it also robbed the show of some momentum (even if the DJ’s selection of tunes helped smooth things over a tad), as did some recurring sound problems.

With the musicians conjuring up and jamming on numbers during train rides, it was only to be expected that proceedings would be slightly ragged. However, there were plenty of highlights dotted around the show.

One of those was Rizzle Kicks’ bounding Down With The Trumpets, which was boosted by the presence of the duo themselves alongside Maximo park singer Paul Smith, Reverend and the Maker’s Jon McClure on guitar, Kyla La Grange and Terri Walker, and a brass section to help blast some more energy into proceedings.

Beatboxer Reeps One also impressed soon after, creating hip hop rhythm sections using just his dexterous vocals and a microphone, allowing Baltimore rapper Rye Rye to shine while performing alongside London’s Afrikan Boy and the Krar Collective.

More arrived on stage to complement a scene-stealing appearance by Baltimore rapper Rye Rye, before a detour to Stage Two brought with it Mali-based music driven by some fantastically fluid percussion of Amadou, sedate rhythms just about enough to sooth despite a fair amount of audience chatter.

The smaller stage contrasted nicely, allowing bigger sets from the artists taking part and meaning there was a better flow – while proceedings on Stage 1 were more instantly attention-grabbing. Such was the case when Jupiter & Okwess International were joined by some young pipers for a driving instrumental number.

Jon McClure then introduced Mali’s Amadou Bagayoko (one half of Amadou & Mariam), with Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner also on guitar in amongst other musicians. Performing The Clash’s Train in Vain, singers McClure and Barat then competed for what must have been the highly coveted “most tuneless vocalist of the entire bloody evening” award, both emerging joint winners. Well done chaps!

Things really got going once they left, Amadou and his band on marvellous form, Temper Trap afterwards impressing with an intense instrumental number, Albarn charming the audience alongside The Bots as they did a ramshackle rendition of Intermission from Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish. Baaba Maal and band were also tremendous fun with a rousing African Woman.

It wasn’t perfect by any means, but the African Express’s arrival in Glasgow proved to be very welcome indeed, and even if there was plenty of meandering on the way then the journey was worth it overall.

People who read this story also read