My first entry from the trip:
This year’s Africa Express was a tour rather than a one off show. A 70’s diesel train was chartered to take more than 80 African and Western musicians across the UK, stopping off for pop up performances in schools, factories, platforms and at a series of special gigs in main cities along the way.
Firstly, I’d like to thank rapper M1 from Dead Prez who I met on board the Africa Express Train who has inspired me to write this piece and maybe to write more things down in the future. I sat with him on the train en route from Manchester to Cardiff, we spoke for a while and exchanged our feelings about the trip and about some previous moments shared on earlier shows. After what only felt like a little while talking, I realised that I might have interrupted his journal that he’d been writing before I sat down to speak with him. I asked him about his word filled book in front of me on the carriage table and he told me that most days he would write down a sort of diary. He said ‘It’s a good way to let out what you’ve done, a sort of closure. Sometimes I look back at what I have written to remember what I have done, sometimes they turn into lyrics and sometimes they just stay in the book for another time’. I asked him if he was happy for me to just sit and think about things whilst he kept writing. We sat there in train silence. His left hand wrestled the pen over the page trying to keep up with his thoughts. I was transfixed by the English countryside melting away like an assortment of different coloured green paints dripping horizontally across the window. This encounter with M1 felt special, because so far the memorable moments that had captured me were really only through music. I think we both just felt at ease and that feeling with an almost complete stranger was good.
Dan and Shingai from Noisettes asked me to join the trip just a couple of days before the Manchester performance and before they could quote Alan Partridge and shout ‘Skirmish’, I agreed. I have been lucky enough to be involved in the Africa Express before in La Coruna, Spain with Noisettes 2 years previously, so if it was anything like that I knew I was in for a treat.
We arrived in Manchester a few days into the tour as we had been busy with Album Promo commitments and got a taxi to that evening’s venue called The Ritz. I was backstage for a few minutes and came across the most amazing juicer with a huge pile of fruit and veg next to it. I chopped ginger, beetroot, carrot, orange, apple and pear and began to juice it all. Shortly afterwards everyone started turning up from the train. They all looked extremely happy, buzzy and also slightly tired, so I decided to offer my new juice making skill. I ended up making juice for about half an hour! I was getting well into it when a small lady appeared whom I recognised. It was Lucy Rose. “yeahhhhhhhh!!!” I said. I offered to make her a juice, I can’t remember if I did or not.
I went downstairs and had some amazing Ethiopian food and sat with Shingai and Africa Boy who I have met before. There were so many people from the music world everywhere I looked. A lady came by that Shingai knew and I was introduced to R&B singer Terri Walker who I had only just listened to that morning. She features on a Michael Olatuja song called ‘little Sister’ that I really like. The song has a great groove by one of my favourite drummers, Troy Miller.
A few minutes later I bumped in to Lucy Rose again who was with Rae Morris. I asked Lucy if she was going to perform a song of her own tonight. She was. I offered to play on the song if she needed a drummer. She did. When she was teaching some African singers the chorus, I saw Dan with his guitar and asked Lucy if she wanted a guitarist to play with her too. She was into the idea. When the girls had learnt the chorus lyrics, which was a little difficult because of the language barrier, Lucy, Dan and I went through the song a couple of times with some instruction from Lucy. I was tapping my sticks on my shoes trying to get the structure nailed in my mind, as I knew this would probably be the only practice we would have. It was. I really loved her song called ‘Scar’ and I was really looking forward to playing it later that night. Lucy introduced me to Jack Steadman from Bombay Bicycle Club who would be playing bass for her that evening. I got a great vibe from him straight away.
That night’s show was immense. The rendition of ‘Hip Hop’ was off the hook with every rapper involved in the tour taking 16 bars to rap. The crowd totally lost it!!
I was jamming on the side of the stage when Jack asked me if I wanted to get up and play cowbell on his song ‘Shuffle’. I got up and jammed some cowbell and had a blast! I’ve loved that tune ever since I came across it online and then bought it straight away.
After more amazing collaborations, it was time for Lucy’s performance. I was slightly apprehensive as it had been about 3 hours since I had first heard the song. I tried to re-call the tempo and chorus in my mind but couldn’t remember it as I had heard so many amazing riffs, songs and solos in between. As soon as I heard Lucy’s guitar intro it came back to me and we all smashed it! She is amazing! It was awesome to think we all just pulled together and made it work. That was really the spirit of the whole week for me. I was totally hyped after this performance and tried to get on stage and play percussion whenever I felt the song needed it…every song!
The last performance of the evening was by Amadou Bagayoko with the rest of the musicians standing on any available space on the stage. I played cowbells that Shingai had leant me a few days earlier. The jam went on over the curfew and no one wanted to stop playing, it was really really fun!!!. It only fell apart after Jupiter’s drummer literally got lifted up by the stage manager and removed from the drum kit. I saw this opportunity to keep the music going so just kept my rhythm going. Everyone started clapping again and stamping their feet whilst leaving the stage. We jammed all the way back stage and then more people started jamming and singing and dancing until the whole backstage was jumping! The energy surrounding us all was incredible!
Later on in the evening a load of us went out to a wicked club with 4 pool tables just off Oldham Street. We ended using all of the tables and everyone got well in to it. I had a game of doubles with Yao (Amadou’s Bass player) against Afrika Boy and Damon Albarn… The game got serious pretty quickly and it became clear this was going to be an epic match. It was close for the whole game and came down to the wire. The pressure was raw and we were all making cheap errors (probably because of the Guinness). There were no colours left on the table, just the black. Damon had the first proper chance shot on the black and missed…phew!! It was my go. I eyed up the shot. I couldn’t believe that I was playing pool with Damon Albarn and I also couldn’t believe there was a chance I might beat him. I took my time and eyed up the shot again. My best option was to aim for the bottom right corner pocket. The people watching around the table hushed with anticipation. I let out a small slightly nervous quarter laugh, breathed in, drew the cue back and then took the shot… one team won and one team lost. We all hugged and shook hands. I’ll leave the result to the people who were there and saw the match… ha ha!
P.S. we won!