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GROOVES: Grime star Kano reveals why Africa Express is a first-class ride for musicians

Kano (right) Africa Express musicians prepare to leave King’s Cross (left)

Kano (right) Africa Express musicians prepare to leave King’s Cross (left) Picture: Simon Phipps

Published: 6 September, 2012

LOVECAMDEN boards around the borough make much of King’s Cross platform 9¾, where Harry Potter’s Hogwarts Express is said to depart. Just down the road on Sunday, something much more magical, tangible and altogether more tantalising was happening at Euston’s platform 18 where a multitude of musicians, including Damon Albarn, the Temper Trap, Kano, Baaba Maal and Jupiter Bokondji, were preparing to board the Africa Express for a week-long tour of gigs, mint tea and jamming on the move. The train carried more than 80 musicians from all over the world, many loaded with heavy instruments, others happily breaking into an impromptu jam on the sidelines. It ends with a final gig at Granary Square, King’s Cross, on Saturday (Sept 8).

For the first time, musicians forming Africa Express are travelling between gigs on a specially converted train complete with rehearsal rooms, a Moroccan tea room and chill-out spaces to encourage the magic to brew. This is just a taste of what is to come from one of the most exciting events of the musical calendar – a chaotic, unpredictable array of original moments and unforgettable one-off collaborations.
Grime artist and actor Kano travelled with Africa Express to Nigeria and Ethiopia and appeared with the Express at the BBC Electric Proms at Koko in 2008.

Speaking ahead of the train’s departure, he said: “It always looks like, I want to say organised chaos, but sometimes it’s not too organised, it’s just chaos and it’s just exactly how it looks.

“But for me, as an MC, I can just enjoy the night, take it in and jump onstage when I feel, because when I hear something, I just go and rap over a track.

“I think it’s worse for the musicians when they’ve got to plug in and get their stuff sounding right, it’s fun, man, but chaos.”
Earlier in the day, Kano bumped into one of Africa Express’s main orchestrators, Damon Albarn, in Covent Garden.

“He was looking forward to it, geared up for it,” says Kano. “He was like, ‘Shall we do that whole song we done from, I think it was 2007?’, and I was like, ‘I don’t know the lyrics’, and he goes, ‘Nor me’, but he still wants to do it so it’s one of those things, doing something you don’t usually do.”
Albarn has promised many surprises along the way that even the musicians are yet privy to, and Kano says the Blur frontman plays a unique role in the collective.

“You can’t really MD, conduct or produce this, you have to have a certain amount of control but then you have to be loose enough to let it do what it’s supposed to do – that is just be random and weird and great in places, and not so in places, and then dragged out in places.
“But then a fantastic thing happens and you think, ‘wow that should be recorded, this could actually be a song’. Or two artists end up onstage together and think, wow they would never have collaborated together, so you’ve got to let that happen too.

“But Damon he just inspires people, gives them a spark, says you should do something with you or that song you’ve got, you should use the key, the chords from there and then this person can come on with these instruments and do something and they take it from there and elaborate.

“I’ve done the trips to Ethiopia and Nigeria and it’s definitely opened my eyes to a lot of African music I wouldn’t have heard, rappers I wouldn’t have known. Definitely Lagos was very memorable. I just remember how intense it was playing in Fela Kuti’s shrine and Femi Kuti joined us onstage and the crowd just went ballistic, that always sticks in my mind.”

Kano said he’d love to work with Baaba Maal in future, adding: “Baaba Maal, when I saw him I was like, he’s definitely amazing, I wasn’t aware of his stuff, and Amadou and Mariam, I wasn’t aware of their stuff either and when I heard them at Africa Express I was blown away.

“Baaba did a show in London and brought me and Bashy out I think at Royal Festival Hall and we did a little something with him. He definitely stood out to me.”

Kano says he won’t need to pack much for the train as he only needs to bring his voice, adding: “Maybe I’ll just take my iPod. All you need is a phone to take pictures. It’s a bunch of people I guess will never be put together ever again.
“So if you can find a little rehearsal session, even if it doesn’t end up onstage, that’s just going to be gold right there, the little jams you’re never ever going to recreate or no one’s ever going to hear.”

Kano’s freestyle background has made it slightly easier for him to adapt to the shows: “The way I came up as an MC prepared me for a lot of these situations, but the further you move on in your career as an MC the less and less it becomes spontaneous and random so you kind of get rusty on the freestyle front on just doing whatever and just coming up with lyrics off the top of your head, but this definitely takes me back to times when you’d grab a mic,  you don’t know what beats are coming next but you’ve just got to deal with it.”

He added: “And it’s great for artists that usually just do arena tours, doing the same gig every night, in front of 30,000 people.  

“Then they’ve gone to AE and it’s completely different, something maybe they haven’t done for a long time, so they love it too.

“I remember being with Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers. Imagine how that experience feels for him. He plays to 100,000 people all the time and now he’s just picked up his bass and just jamming with a bunch of other guys you don’t even know, but he loves it – because it’s spontaneous, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

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