Damon Albarn: 'Africa Express is just there to help spread the joy'

The singer, one of the driving forces behind Africa Express, on his hopes for the tour, which features 80 musicians on one train as it makes a string of stops across the UK

Damon Albarn's creative period didn't end when Blur pressed pause in 2003: it accelerated and diversified. As well as Africa Express, which grew out of a trip to Mali in 2002, Albarn has been centrally involved in Gorillaz, the Good, the Bad and the Queen and the operas Monkey: Journey to the West and Doctor Dee. His most recent musical project is Rocket Juice and the Moon, with Flea and Tony Allen.

When you started Africa Express back in 2006, did you have this train journey in mind? The name seems to anticipate it.

No, and that only occurred to us afterwards, but I'm glad the name is finally manifest. It's a very romantic idea, to go on a cobbled-together trip on a train with an African diner and rehearsal rooms and sliding doors that allow for playing on to platforms, and people meeting and planning concerts for the evening and watching the English countryside pass by. It's a beautiful thing. But it never really works out that way. Because unfortunately the older you get the more you realise that nothing ever works out the way you imagine it. I'm trying not to think about it too much but I'm very excited. It's one of those things that immediately grabs people's attention.

What are you most looking forward to?

Everybody getting on, first of all, and that spirit of adventure when they get off the train to go to schools and factories and to gigs in the evening. We're just really trying to give a sense of that amazing thing that African music has, and to put it in some strange places where it hasn't really germinated. I'm also hoping we can connect with the [African] diaspora in places like Middlesbrough and Manchester. There's an emphasis on London being this great cultural mix but I think it's everywhere.

Any artists you're particularly excited about?

There are some really brilliant Congolese musicians coming who'll be central to the whole thing. They're rhythmic improvisers who will hopefully inspire everybody. Afel Bocoum and his band are coming, and I've invited a few Malians to talk in schools about what's happening in their country, because it's a really rotten, depressing situation that's just being ignored.

What's the philosophy behind Africa Express?

It always struck me that Africa was, in a strange way, a futuristic place and had elements and vibes and spirits that were going to inform the future. Africa Express is an attempt to engage that power outside Africa, and for everyone to benefit from it. And also it's just fantastic fun – that train will be a very joyful train.

Since you started taking an active interest, do you think things have changed for African music?

I think the general perception of African music has vastly improved from what it was – it feels like it's a different place now. In that sense I suppose it [Africa Express] has had some very positive effects, but it isn't really an entity in itself, it doesn't claim ownership of anything. It's not even a message, really. It's just there to help spread the joy.

Contributor

Interview by Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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