Africa Express: The Circus review – Albarn's multi-artist Brexit show has stop-start feel

Damon Albarn

Groupe / Damon Albarn 397 Views comments

Wanstead Flats, London
Some great performances - including a surprise appearance by Blur - are marred by too long watching roadies milling around

Damon Albarn’s Brexit strategy was striking. The Africa Express co-founder had planned to mark the UK lurching out of Europe on 29 March by defiantly staging one of his organisation’s wilfully international, multicultural celebrations just down the road from where he spent his early boyhood years, in Waltham Forest, London’s inaugural borough of culture for 2019.

The non-events in parliament have changed the storyline, and so Albarn finds himself peering out at a packed crowd inside a big top on the edge of Epping Forest, with Britain still clinging on to membership of the EU. “We’re in a period now where everything is make-believe,” he remarks, from under a blue baseball cap. “It’s like Danny Dyer said – it’s all a great mad riddle.”

Since it formed 14 years ago, Africa Express has always been predicated on collaborations between western and African musicians, and they are still the motor of tonight’s multi-artist show. Tunisian Sufi singer Mounir Troudi’s keening vocal augments Django Django’s taut psychedelia on Skies Over Cairo, while Naïny Diabaté of Mali’s Kaladjula Band adds force-of-nature vocals to 1917 by Albarn’s band The Good, The Bad And The Queen, from last year’s Merrie Land, an album that Brexit overhung like a grey shroud.

The problem with tonight’s format is that artists doing one song then exiting gives the evening a distinct stop-start feel. We spend too long watching roadies milling around. Yet highlights include London-based Ethiopian three-piece Krar Collective’s tumbling, insatiable rhythms, and the riotous beats and irresistible delirium of Onipa, whose rogue strain of griot hip-hop and charismatic front man KOG have the entire marquee beaming.

Delighted cheers inevitably greet the surprise appearance of Blur, who revisit the ruminative Clover Over Dover, a song they have not played for 25 years but which now sounds uncannily prescient (“I’m on the white cliffs of Dover/Thinking it over and over …”) before a massed-voices croon of Tender and a spontaneous roistering romp through Song 2. The evening ends with Albarn seated at the piano, backing the sophisticated exuberance of Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. “If we just keep talking, we can sort all this out, right?” he wonders aloud. Everybody looks far from convinced.

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