Africa Express, Egoli review: Damon Albarn takes the back seat to let South African stars of the future shine

Damon Albarn performing in an Africa Express concert in London, March 2019
Damon Albarn performing in an Africa Express concert in London, March 2019 Credit: Redferns

Egoli is a local name for Johannesburg in the Xhosa language, literally translated as “city of gold”. While there is musical gold to be found in this fascinating album, listeners may have to dig 
and sift for it.

Initiated in 2006, Africa Express is a project that facilitates collaborations between African and Western musicians, spotlighting talent that might otherwise struggle to be heard. It has been driven with joyous curiosity and refreshing lack of ego by Blur’s Damon Albarn.

One of the most adventurous figures in modern music, Albarn takes a back seat here, contributing the odd vocal chant but otherwise playing as part of an ensemble. Yet one can discern his eclectic pop tastes in this madly diverse afro-futurist collection that draws on South Africa’s electronic scene, essentially bending Western pop styles into surprising new shapes.

Albarn and his key collaborators (including American art-rock guitarist Nick Zinner) travelled to Johannesburg last year to record the album in just seven days with a huge array of local talent, from inventive electro producer Muzi to traditional mbaqanga harmony singers the Mahotella Queens.

Multi-artist jams are often more fun to participate in than to listen to. Across a baggy 18 tracks, Egoli maintains a sense of purpose, but only comes into sharp focus when a particular artist grabs the reins. Super Furry Animals singer-songwriter Gruff Rhys lends songcraft and melodious melancholy to gorgeous lullaby Absolutely Everything Is Pointing Towards the Light, surely the world’s first Welsh-Xhosa duet (with the soulful Zolani Mahola).

South Africa's Moonchild Sanelly is the album's breakout star Credit: Gallo Images

UK rapper Ghetts brings radio-friendly swagger to No Games, performing with South African singer Moonchild Sanelly, whose eccentricity (particularly on the ear-burning Sizi Freaks) helps make her 
the breakout star of this collection.

In this interconnected age, it is astonishing that Africa (with a population of more than a billion) has yet to produce a truly global pop superstar. Egoli has enough going on to suggest the future is golden.

Egoli is out now from Africa Express Records