Africa Express: The Circus review – Albarn's multi-artist Brexit show has stop-start feel

Damon Albarn

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Wanstead Flats, London
Some great performances - including a surprise look by Blur - are marred by too long watching roadies milling round

Damon Albarn’s Brexit technique was putting. The Africa Categorical co-founder had deliberate to mark the UK lurching out of Europe on 29 March by defiantly staging considered one of his organisation’s wilfully international, multicultural celebrations just down the street from the place he spent his early boyhood years, in Waltham Forest, London’s inaugural borough of tradition for 2019.

The non-events in parliament have changed the storyline, and so Albarn finds himself peering out at a packed crowd inside an enormous prime on the edge of Epping Forest, with Britain still clinging on to membership of the EU. “We’re in a interval now where the whole lot is make-believe,” he remarks, from underneath a blue baseball cap. “It’s like Danny Dyer said – it’s all an incredible mad riddle.”

Since it shaped 14 years in the past, Africa Categorical has all the time been predicated on collaborations between western and African musicians, and they're still the motor of tonight’s multi-artist present. Tunisian Sufi singer Mounir Troudi’s keening vocal augments Django Django’s taut psychedelia on Skies Over Cairo, while Naïny Diabaté of Mali’s Kaladjula Band adds force-of-nature vocals to 1917 by Albarn’s band The Good, The Dangerous And The Queen, from final yr’s Merrie Land, an album that Brexit overhung like a gray shroud.

The problem with tonight’s format is that artists doing one track then exiting provides the night a definite stop-start feel. We spend too long watching roadies milling around. Yet highlights embrace London-based Ethiopian three-piece Krar Collective’s tumbling, insatiable rhythms, and the riotous beats and irresistible delirium of Onipa, whose rogue pressure of griot hip-hop and charismatic front man KOG have the complete marquee beaming.

Delighted cheers inevitably greet the surprise appearance of Blur, who revisit the ruminative Clover Over Dover, a track they haven't performed for 25 years but which now sounds uncannily prescient (“I’m on the white cliffs of Dover/Considering it time and again …”) before a massed-voices croon of Tender and a spontaneous roistering romp by way of Track 2. The evening ends with Albarn seated at the piano, backing the subtle exuberance of Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. “If we simply maintain talking, we will type all this out, right?” he wonders aloud. Everyone seems to be removed from convinced.

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