'It's always felt like a journey on an African train," says Baaba Maal of his involvement with the organisation known as Africa Express. "You set off without any sense of expectation whatsoever," he continues, speaking down a crackly line en route to a gig of his own in Mauritania, "but along the way you meet some amazing people."
The Senegalese singer has long been one of African music's superstars, and in a career stretching back to the late 80s (he is now 58), he has worked with a host of musicians from the rest of the world. But the Africa Express project especially seems to have galvanised him, so much so that this autumn, he is prepared to spend a week on board a real train, travelling across the UK, in the company of several dozen acts.
Damon Albarn, who helped found the enterprise, says: "It's just going to be so much fun – we'll be rehearsing on the train and playing all over the country. It's crazy, but you have to try something different."
(And he adds, his head still in his current project, Dr Dee, "it should be a bit like a Mummers play.")
Before then, the Africa Express Soundsystem – an offshoot band – headline the Great Escape festival in Brighton this Saturday, further evidence that what started as a well-meaning pipedream has now, over the course of more than five years, developed serious momentum. The gig features several emerging African stars such as Spoek Mathambo – the South African originator of what he describes as "township tech" – and Ghanaian rapper M3nsa, alongside the likes of Noisettes vocalist Shingai Shoniwa, who is British but of Zimbabwean descent. The train metaphor is re-employed by M3nsa: "It feels like we're picking up super-talented artists at every stop – each bringing something special for a party going on in the last caboose!"
The origins of Africa Express lie in a trip Albarn made to Mali in 2002 and his subsequent dismay at the glaring absence of African acts at the Live 8 concerts in July 2005 (Hyde Park saw Youssou N'Dour singing his part on 7 Seconds when Dido covered the old Neneh Cherry hit, but that was it). In the aftermath, the then Blur frontman and a small group of promoters, managers and likeminded individuals considered how to foster a new dialogue between some of western pop's more open-eared acts and their counterparts in Africa.
First came another trip to Bamako in Mali, bringing Fatboy Slim, Martha Wainwright, Jamie T and Martina Topley Bird to jam with the likes of the blind duo Amadou and Mariam and the ngoni player Bassekou Kouyate. Following a session at the house of the great singer Salif Keita, the journalist Ian Birrell, another founder of the enterprise, remembers Fatboy saying: "That was like the greatest ever edition of Later ... with Jools."
Suitably inspired, a pub gig in Brixton followed, with Albarn's new band the Good, the Bad and the Queen making their debut alongside Amadou and Mariam. Then came an epic gig at Glastonbury in 2007, an unannounced five-hour spectacular on the Park Stage, involving Baaba Maal and Somalian rapper K'Naan alongside the Specials' Terry Hall, Billy Bragg, Hard-Fi and many more. Further shows followed, including a mind-boggling nine-hour marathon involving 134 artists in Liverpool, a gig that opened the Electric Proms in London, a gig in front of 25,000 people in central Paris and another on a beach in northern Spain with an audience twice that size. Typical of these Africa Express gigs was one performance at that last show when Algerian star Rachid Taha was joined on stage for a cover of the Clash's Rock the Casbah by Mick Jones – ex of the Clash – and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones, among others.
There have also been trips with further handfuls of western acts to Africa: on his return from Kinshasha in Congo with Africa Express, Robert del Naja of Massive Attack said: "Everything about Africa is normally preceded by clichés ... until you go there and realise the energy and beauty of the people. It's there in the music, and once you hear it, you're never the same again."
Such enterprises have inspired ideas and collaborations that lie outside of Africa Express – Amadou and Mariam's hook up with acts like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, for instance; while anyone wondering about a track called Ethiopia on the latest Re Hot Chili Peppers' album should know that Flea and Josh Klinghoffer from the group traveled there with Africa Express – and now the Soundsystem offshoot.
Rather than a full sprawling gig involving a cast of several dozen, the Soundsystem shows are tighter, with Brighton's falling under the musical direction of Gorillaz keyboard player Jesse Hackett. But an impressive cast, including Senegalese kora player Diabel Cissokho and Africa Express aficionado Reverend and the Makers' John McClure, and soul singer Terri Walker will also feature.
McClure played the first Africa Express gig at Glastonbury, one result of which was that he invited the n'goni player Bassekou Kouyate to play on one of his albums,and he describes the liberating effect it had on him: "There's a real stigma attached to world music, and even that term is one I find really problematic. But when Damon Albarn first talked to me, it was on a really geezerish level, for want of a better word. It encouraged me to see these guys from Africa simply as musicians; everyone's there as equals at the shows."
Spoek Mathambo dismisses the idea that Africa Express might serve a didactic role. "I'm not interested in any mission," he bristles. But he says that the music he makes couldn't be further from the "trad" sounds of what many still think of as African music – and the club-focused Soundsystem shows illustrate the several mutant strains of techno and huge amounts of hip-hop that Africa encompasses.
"It goes without saying," agrees M3nsa. "There's so much good music coming out of the continent. There always has been. And a lot of it is actually the source of what we call pop music right now."
For Ian Birrell, "part of what we'd always hope to show was that Africa isn't a continent that needs our pity: six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are there. It's more like we need their help these days."
Or in Albarn's more poetic formulation: "African music is the future of music ... that's what you're hearing here, the future."
It is the artistic opportunities that most excite those who'll embark on the actual Africa Express train in the autumn, when – as part of the London 2012 festival – more than 100 musicians will tour the UK by rail, stopping to play impromptu gigs in schools, factories, homes and local clubs. The itinerary takes in Bradford and Leeds, Middlesborough, Glasgow, Carlisle – where the station master has given permission for a gig to take place on the platform – Manchester, Cardiff and Bristol, before a show in London.
There is precedent: in 1970, the Festival Express crossed Canada with acts including the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and the Band; in 1978, Stiff records hired a train emblazoned with the label's logo for their "Be Stiff" tour, featuring acts such as Wreckless Eric; while Manu Chao did much the same for a jaunt across Colombia in 1993, with a train that carried his band and a fire-breathing dragon and an ice museum as well. But the scale of the Africa Express trip is something else. "It's the sheer number of musicians that makes this so crazy," says Lauren Roth de Wolf, the logistical brains of the operation, "coupled with the fact that it turns out that it's ridiculously complex to hire a train" in this country. (In the end, despite the likes of pop impresario and locomotive enthusiast Pete Waterman showing an interest, they are working with freight haulage specialists Direct Rail Services).
Nonetheless, the promise is of household names from Africa and the west. In fact, Albarn has even invited his old nemesis to join the fun, saying recently that Noel Gallagher "should come on the Africa Express train in September. That'd be a nice chance to collaborate.''
"The gigs are special," says Baaba Maal, "but so are those moments hanging around a hotel lobby, when you can share your own perspectives on the music business, and share your own rhythms and melodies."
One last question: why would a superstar want to put himself through the pain of an extended British rail journey in the dog-days of summer?
"I know!" he laughs. "Normally I'm used to a bit of comfort when I travel. But sometimes," he concludes, "it's good to test yourself – it's good to be uncomfortable some times, to be a human being."
The Africa Express Soundystem headlines the Great Escape Festival in Brighton on 12 May. The Africa Express train will depart Euston for a week-long journey on 1 September, with the Guardian as its media partner.