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AFRICA EXPRESS' EGOLI: A new musical language.

A new album from Africa Express, called Egoli, is a joyous collaboration of various musical styles and traditions, both African and Western. In a polarised world, this collaborative work is a breath of fresh air, writes Beverly Andrews.

Africa Express, founded in 2006 to promote the concept of musical collaboration that breaks down geographical, genre and generational barriers, has generated a series of musical adventures that have won praise from artists and audiences worldwide. It has included shows in Africa, in Britain and in Europe.

These shows have included a train tour around the United Kingdom as part of the 2012 Olympic festivities, playing the New Shrine in Lagos, performing to 50,000 people on a beach in Spain, staging the first show in front of Paris's Hotel de Ville, reforming a 50-strong Syrian orchestra and recording the only African version of Terry Riley's 'Contemporary Classic In C'.

Africa Express has sought from its inception to be a musical collaboration including both African and English artists, playing in equal partnership with each other.

The inaugural event of Africa Express saw former Blur front-man Damon Albarn and journalist Ian Birrell take a group of Western musicians including Fatboy Slim, Martha Wainwright, and Jamie T to perform at the Festival au Desert in the Sahara, just outside Timbuktu. The purpose of the journey was to use music as a way to facilitate a cultural dialogue.

Subsequent performances by Africa Express saw Western and African musicians just turning up spontaneously at various cities throughout England, and playing at venues which were within walking distance of the train station--whether that was a community centre or women's shelter. They would then board the next train and travel to the next city, hence their name, Africa Express.

It was felt that these spontaneous, equal collaborations would facilitate a more mutual musical understanding between the artists. It was also hoped that Africa Express would be an important antidote to events such as Live Aid, which on the one hand successfully helped to raise much-needed money for famine-stricken Ethiopia, but which involved almost no African musicians. Some of the African artists who have collaborated with Africa Express in the past have included the legendary Baaba Maal.

This summer sees the release of their new album, called Egoli, a beautiful 18-track work featuring musicians from various parts of Africa in a joyful celebration of African futurism.

Completed in just seven days in South Africa, the entire piece is infused with fresh and joyful sounds and features some of South Africa's most innovative musicians, working alongside founder member Damon Albarn.

They include BCUC, Blk Jks, Blue May, DJ Spoko, Dominowe, FAKA, Georgia, Ghetts, Gruff Rhys, Infamous Boiz, Mahotella Queens, Moonchild Sanelly, Morena Leraba, Mr Jukes, Muzi, Nick Zinner, Nonku Phiri, Otim Alpha, Phuzekhemisi, Pote, Radio 123, Remi Kabaka, Sho Madjozi, Sibot, Zola 7 and Zolani Mahola.

HF Eclectic background

The artists' various backgrounds are as eclectic as the music they produce. BCUC is a band which hails from Soweto and which draws inspiration from indigenous South African music. Many of the songs they sing are ritual hymns, or shebeen songs or music traditionally sung in churches. These are infused with traditional rap as well as a rock and roll attitude. Their music is timeless and traditional with a ritualistic feel. It resonates very much with the spirituality, the history and the future of their people.

The stylised BLK JKS (pronounced Blackjacks), occupy a very different musical landscape, as a South African indie rock band from Johannesburg. They were formed nine years ago, when a young Mcata and his friend Lindani Buthelezi found an old guitar and began to teach themselves to play.

Their debut album, called After Robots, will be out this September and it's a joyful fusion of sunny upbeat South African tunes, sitting alongside music many critics compare to Sonic Youth. They practise a charming inclusiveness in their music, singing in both English and Zulu.

Although their music occupies two hitherto separate spheres, that of indie pop alongside that of traditional South African music, they as a band have a mission and although audiences at their early concerts were predominately White, that appears now to have finally changed. As Mcata points out, they are now "getting blacker", perhaps a reflection of a new South Africa.

Another of the artists featured on Egoli is Marvin 'DJ Spoko' Ramalepe, a legendary electronic music producer who was born in Limpopo, and grew up in Atteriageville, Pretoria, honing his love for music as part of the hip-hop crew GBE.

DJ Spoko went on to create and enrich various musical styles that swept through South Africa and eventually the world, including Sgubhu Sa Pitori, Direkere and most famously, Bacardi House and Shangaan Electro.

Marvin put his city on the map and redefined South African house music through monumental songs such as 'Mugwanti', 'Township Funk' and 'Cucumba', alongside colleagues such as Mujava. He moved to further push the envelope by fusing his style of production with Maskandi and rock as part of the collective, Fantasma.

Marvin enjoyed global acclaim and was at the beginning of a promising touring career when he was struck by illness. Never one to give up, he pursued his love of music until the very last days of his life. There is a touching tribute to Marvin on the Africa Express website.

Breathtakingly beautiful

From London you have Pote, an acclaimed electronic artist whose music merges sounds from around the world.

Finally you have the extraordinary Damon Albarn himself, whose career has seen him go from frontman for the hugely popular British band Blur, to the more experimental Gorillaz, before he became the writer of acclaimed operas, including his debut, Monkey: Journey to the West, performed in Mandarin. The piece debuted at Manchester's International Festival before going on to be produced at London s Royal Opera House.

These are just a handful of all the artists appearing on this beautiful album, which is being released this summer on Africa Express Records. When you listen to Egoli you are immediately struck by its musical generosity in making space for all the various voices present. Something which could have sounded like a discordant clash of musical styles turns out to be breathtakingly beautiful, pointing to an entirely new musical language. The added bonus is that all the proceeds from the sale of the CD will go to charities with a focus on Africa.

At a time of such great political polarisation, particularly in both America and Great Britain, a country struggling under the long shadow of Brexit, Egoli is a breath of fresh air which points to a place where different cultures can in fact find common ground.

Caption: L: Africa Express at Roskilde Festival in 2015. Artists included Songhoy Blues (c)

Caption: Right: Founder Damon Albarn (l) with BCUC

Caption: Below, l to r: Egoli performers Muzi, Pote, Otim Alpha, Boizl, Ghetts, Dominowe, Boiz2

Caption: Bottom: Otim (l) and Moonchild Sannelly

Caption: Top: An early live performance by Africa Express featuring Amadou (1), Baaba Maal (c) and Fatoumata Diawara (r). Above: Gruff Rhys (1) with Otim Alpha
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Title Annotation:Arts / Music
Author:Andrews, Beverly
Publication:New African
Date:Aug 1, 2019
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