Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Africa Express and other Collaborations

I had tickets for 2 very different, but in some ways similar, events this week. Rodge Glass is an author/ editor who has been based in Glasgow for several years. Known for his recent books "Bring Me the Head of Ryan Giggs" and his biography of Glasgow institution Alasdair Gray, he is moving back to Manchester which was an excuse for an evening in the Old Hairdresser's in Renfield Lane, hosted by "Rodge", to raise money for a Middle Eat charity under the title "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peaceniks, Love and Understanding". It featured musicians playing short sets, alternating with writers performing readings. There was a fantastic collection of local worthies at the event such as the above mentioned Alasdair Gray, Ewan Morrison (author of the excellent Tales From The Mall), Kirstin Innes, Allan Wilson. Music was supplied by Beerjacket, Rick Redbeard (off of The Phantom Band), Paul Carlin (off of Dananananakroyd), a full bloodied performance by Adam Stafford and the evening finished off beautifully by Emma Pollock (off of The Delgados). Star turn for me was author Alan Bissett (author of Pack Men, The Incredible Adam Spark) who performed an exert from his one man play "The Red Hourglass". I went straight home and bought a ticket for the full thing which after a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe he is doing at The Arches in November. It finished off the evening nicely to win the raffle and get a pile of books and cds from some of the above. All there was left for me to do was to fight my way through the lighting trucks and curious gawpers to find my car on the Glasgow streets getting used by a crew filming "The Fast and the Furious 6". Thankfully they'd decided my car wasn't what the film needed in it and it had been left in peace. (That's my brother's birthday present sorted!).

On a grander scale this Tuesday night was another evening of artists jamming and collaborating, this time under Damon Albarn's supervising eye as he brought his Africa Express thing to Glasgow for the first time. Africa Express has being rumbling on for 6 years now under Damon Albarn's beady eye, but with funding as part of the cultural Olympiad this year Africa Express now literally has a train taking them between towns on a short UK tour which will end in London in a few days time. The sell-out show last night in Glasgow went on for the best part of 4 hours over 2 stages in The Arches tunnels beneath Central Station and with DJs taking the stage playing on for another couple of hours afterwards apparently (I was in bed by then).

Damon Albarn with Afel Bocoumb
It kicked off with Malian singer Afel Bocoumb, joined by Damon for a couple of songs and then he was off. That was the way the rest of the night went. There was no main conducter or stage presence, no headline act directing traffic, but one or two songs by a collection of people, then off, 5-10 minutes of the crew changing things around, then one or two songs from the next mob. This was a shame as it made it all a bit episodic but is inevitable with so many musicians involved. Longer sets were then taking place on the second stage. When I've seen some of these African musicians before they mananged to convey a much more natural coming and going of collaborations on stage within a standard show. Carl Barat was up next with Rizzle Kicks and others doing a bouncy version of his Libertines song "Don't Look Back Into the Sun", going into the Rizzle Kicks' own "Down With the Trumpets". If at times the Western musicians felt a bit B-list, it was African musical royalty all the way. Bassekou Kouyate playing Ngoni alongside the silky voice and broad smile of Fatoumata Diawara and then Amadou playing guitar whilst John McLure of Reverend and the Makers sang the Clash’s "Train in Vain".
Bassekou Kouyate and Fatoumata Diawara
Things I wasn't expecting? I found hearing the rap and hip hop artists live conveyed the energy and
spontanaiety of the various MC's such as whilst singing Dead Prez's "It's Bigger Than Hip Hop", and earlier Baltimore's Rye Rye were more impressive than any recorded rap/ hip hop stuff which never really grabs me and Baaba Maal, who I've never really listened too until now, oozed charisma when he was briefly on stage.

The problem at times wasn't the quality of the music on show, but the quantity. Some people I'd been looking forward to seeing were off again before you knew it. With no ringmaster or supervising stage presence to introduce people you had to try to guess who they were at times, and with 80 musicians advertised it was beyond me who I was watching at points in the show despite doing a bit of homework before going. "Was that big guy with the beard playing guitar at the back of the stage Romeo Stodart from the Magic Numbers?", "Which one is Jack Steadman?", "Rokia Traore, she's the one with the shaved head who sang on the Gorillaz song and Mim Sulemain the one with crazy hair, yes?" Damon flitted distractedly on and off stage, avoiding being the star turn and trying to let the music tell its own story. In a lot of ways having so many performers dilutes the individual talents and risks being less than the sum of its seperate parts. Being so spoilt for choice I looked at the line-ups for the various venues and grumbled about the ones I wouldn't see who weren't coming to Glasgow (eg Gruff Rhys is always an entertaining performer and Nneka I've bought tickets for before at King Tuts and never seen as she cancelled, you lucky Cardiff and Bristol people). One highlight that I need to try to track down to hear more of was Jupiter and Okwess International mixing African drums with Hammond organ sounds, making a funk-filled noise that wasn't upstaged when they were joined on stage by 3 bagpipers "Mull of Kintyre" style. Its not often that a Scottish crowd gives it a nonchalant "oh yeah, that'll be bagpipes" but in a night when everything but the kitchen sink was being thrown at the audience they just got the same warm applause everyone else was given.
 
Jupiter & Okwess International at The Arches, Glasgow
It is clear that the musicians are having a lot of fun, and there was no evidence of egos clashing as the bonhomie built up on board their train seemed to carry onto the stage, but the good natured feel of musicians and crowd meant it simmered along all night without quite coming to the boil. There are a few acts I've pencilled in to seek out their music as the bits on show were tantalisingly brief for some. However it felt like the kind of night that would have benefited from a programme of notes, but maybe that just reveals my personality. At the end of the night after 4 hours I was leaving the venue wanting more, and that surely is the point of it.

(And they're still filming Fast and Furious on the Glasgow streets at night down here.)
 

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