Event Review: Africa Express – The Circus @ The Big Top (London; Friday 29th March 2019)

Blur-Rokia-Traoré-and-London-Community-Gospel-Choir-perform-at-Africa-Express-The-Circus-as-part-of-Waltham-Forest-London-Borough-of-Culture-2019.-Photo-by-Stars-Redmond

 If you have attended any of the previous Africa Express shows, you know they never disappoint your thirst for music. For hours and hours, they stun you with a deluge of quality acts and unexpected collaborations, not only featuring the exceptional artistry of the musicians involved but also their welcoming and open-minded attitude.

The latest chapter of the story, titled The Circus, went on scene in London on 29th March (the date when the UK should have left the EU) to celebrate Waltham Forest and its appointment as Borough of Culture 2019, and to exorcise the Brexit ghost. As happened with its predecessors, Africa Express: The Circus was another triumph of African-scented notes, featuring dozens of artists coming from all over the world only to be part of the Africa Express musical feast and show that an inclusive and welcoming world is possible.

Dobet Gnahore performs at Africa Express: The Circus as part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019. Photo by Brendan Bell

Under the circus-like big top, set up in Leytonstone for the occasion, Leyton born-and-bred Damon Albarn and his stage partners offered a quite unique experience to the 3000-strong audience. It was an experience that maybe was imperfect and at times looking and sounding cobbled together, but still impressive considering the monumental lineup and level of interaction among the protagonists.

For example, you could be moved by Tunisian singer Mounir Troudi and his Sufi-inspired vocalises, elevating themselves over banging electro arrangements played by Django Django, and a moment later, you found yourself dancing to the warm Afro-pop rhythms played by Dobet Gnahoré. Or you could be soothed by Krar Collective’s Ethio-funk, then suddenly start head-banging to Slaves’ frantic beats.

Krar Collective perform at Africa Express: The Circus as part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019. Photo by Brendan Bell

Africa Express: The Circus was indeed a medley of topical moments and highlights, from a rough version of “Guns of Brixton”, enriched by no less than Paul Simonon and his bass, to a dancy Afro-Luso cover of “Psycho Killer” performed by Batida, and from a momentous “Clouds Over Dover” with Blur in full force supported by the London Community Gospel Choir, to an all-female and all-star rendition of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Felt To Be Free” sung by Rokia Traore, Joan As Policewoman, Ellie Rowsell (from Wolf Alice) and Dobet Gnahoré and enriched by the likes of Tony Allen on the drums.

It goes without saying that you can’t make sense of such a huge and all-encompassing show, you can’t ask for perfection on and backstage, and you can’t even pretend to keep track of every single artist performing; all you need to do is lose yourself in the music, acknowledging the almost superhuman organisational effort made by everyone involved.

Rokia Traoré, Joan As Policewoman, Dobet Gnahore and Ellie Rowsell (Wolf Alice) perform at Africa Express: The Circus as part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019. Photo by Brendan Bell

And so, the audience did for 5 hours straight, without a pause (even the incessant set changes were carried out in a twinkling), applauding and fully enjoying every single and one-off song. No matter if they were free-spirited and carefree-sounding (as happened when The Turbans were on stage), soulful and emotional (Georgia), or dancy and energetic (Onipa), every tune on the set list was an essential ingredient, integral to the Africa Express all-embracing cauldron. Because music sounds better if shared.

The Good, The Bad & The Queen and Kaladjula Band perform at Africa Express: The Circus as part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019. Photo by Brendan Bell

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