Singing songs in harmony

Published by The i paper (15th July, 2019)

Fifteen years ago I travelled to the world’s most astonishing music festival, held in a Tuareg village 55 miles from the fabled city of Timbuktu in northern Mali. It was an amazing adventure, spending three days driving from the capital Bamako with one cassette tape of music on the car stereo. But worth every second to spend time sitting in a tent shielded from the Saharan sun as I talked over tea and biscuits with the late guitar legend Ali Farka Touré, then enjoying an evening of stunning music before lying around a campfire listening to Tinariwen strumming away until dawn.

It was a cathartic experience, which ultimately inspired me to stop editing papers and return to writing by reminding me why I became a journalist. I met some people who remain close friends to this day – among them Damon Albarn, who had pitched up with his partner. We drank warm beer together, then afterwards drove back fast sliding over desert sands as we discussed the state of the world before spending a couple of days in Bamako. This planted the seeds of an idea that later blossomed into something wondrous called Africa Express, fuelled by dismay over celebrity concerts claiming to save that continent while sidelining the voices of its own artists.

Africa Express is now a globally-known music project. It has invited Western artists to countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Mali; staged concerts lasting up to seven hours from Liverpool to Lagos, taken a train filled with musicians around Britain for the Olympics and reformed a Syrian orchestra. Now it has released its fifth album, 18 tracks recorded over just a week in Johannesburg. As a music fan it has been thrilling for me to work over the years with great artists such as Baaba Maal, Blur, Oumou Sangaré and Paul Weller. And as a journalist it is refreshing to briefly depart the cynical worlds of media and politics to spend time with hundreds of musicians from dozens of countries united by their openness to fresh thinking.

The concept crystallised when we invited some artists on a mystery music trip to Mali in 2006. Silky-voiced global star Salif Keita invited us to his home and studio complex, where he sang three songs then invited others to perform. So Martha Wainwright played a lovely lament followed by local heroes Amadou and Mariam. Scratch from The Roots did some beat-boxing, then Albarn joined in on a melodica with Jesse Hackett playing a Greek string instrument, the trio making haunting trip-hop. “That was like the greatest ever edition of Later… with Jools Holland,” said Norman Cook as we left. This formed the basis for the next year’s debut public show, a five-hour surprise headline set at Glastonbury’s Park Stage.

Yet while focused on providing space for spontaneous creative collaborations, there has always been a political subtext to this project – and it is one that has never felt more relevant. It has been good to see widespread critical acclaim for EGOLI, the new album. But even better to see recognition of this timely message, spotlighted also with a concert in Walthamstow four months ago on the day Britain was due to leave the European Union. For Africa Express seeks to promote a simple idea that we are stronger when we collaborate together, when we communicate openly and when we accept we all have something to say. It is about breaking down barriers, displayed by artists from different nations, generations and musical genres joining forces in a show of unity.

Yes, it sounds hippyish. But there is a statement of equality and mutual respect made when the exquisite Malian singer Rokia Traoré walks on stage backed by both Paul McCartney and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on bass – or indeed, when the former Beatle is supported by an array of African and Western talent to sing his own tunes. Likewise when Flea and Josh from the Red Hot Chili Peppers join what they called a ‘life-changing’ trip to Ethiopia, then a track named after that nation crops up on their next album and they invite an African star to support a tour. The hope is a few of their fans open not just their ears to the music but their eyes to the reality across Africa – often such a world away from pitiful Western stereotypes.

Music can be a powerful dynamo of change because of its ability to touch people’s souls and the status of famous singers. This has been very true in Africa, where many prominent artists have been highly political – think of Miriam Makeba’s stand against apartheid, Fela Kuti confronting military dictatorship, Baba Maal raising Aids awareness and now Bobi Wine challenging a despot in Uganda. The continent has also given birth to superb artists who get overlooked in the West since consigned to the ‘World Music’ ghetto, which is both arrogant as well as absurd when the South African Spoek Mathambo covers Joy Division, Fela samples crop up endlessly in hip-hop tracks and Nigeria’s afrobeats become wildly popular around the planet.

Africa Express, sparked by those trips to Mali, has turned into an evolving journey. It was joy to spend a week in Johannesburg last year, wandering into huts filled with vibrant sounds and watching the creative energies of artists from three continents teaming up to make fresh music. This is largely an electronic album, unlike previous ones that even included a contemporary classical recording debuted at Tate Modern. Yet the project’s core message remains the same – and it feels like one never more needed at a time when divisions are widening in society, walls are being erected and the nasty virus of nationalism rages through democracies. We are stronger together, not riven apart into silos.

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