The Africa Express – 2

A bland, corporate, bland, nanny state-run, apparently inescapable surveillance society. It’s everywhere and if there’s one thing that exemplifies it – it’s probably pop music. The ubiquitous conveyor-belt drone without a tune, without a story. Tweedledee – the singer goes up two notes. Tweedledum – she goes down two notes. Bland offensive nothingness. It makes me want to take out every single irritating loudspeaker within earshot. That would make me an “unusual object”, if not a public nuisance. Pointing out that the public nuisance is actually hanging from the ceiling by the hundredfold will be remarkably unimpressive to the officer charging me with vandalism.

But one can dream.

So is there any escape from this? Looks like there are two options: when you’ve got too much money – or too little. An advert in a national daily (a quality broadsheet of course) advertised “Yoga session at sea”. Apparently you’re being taken offshore and then subjected to yoga. You will have to part with one thousand three hundred pounds for the privilege.

Meanwhile, somewhere in town, one elderly man who can only dream of splashing huge amounts of money on an offshore wellness session stands, completely unconcerned, next to a square piece of street furniture, probably a distribution facility belonging to a power utility. It’s large enough to spread a tabloid on. He reads, roll-up cigarette in mouth and a can of cheap beer in his hand. Another one sits on an bench in the morning when I pass by on my way to the Underground; still there in the afternoon when I return. He may have been there all day; he may not. But he appears to be his own boss, though he’d likely be astonished, not to mention annoyed, to hear anyone professing to envy his lifestyle.

Earlier this month, there was blast of non-blandness criss-crossing the United Kingdom. Aboard a steam train, a relic of a non-bland past (well, ok, people did die like flies of pneumonia), was traveling a motley crew of musicians. Judging by the reviews it must have been a riot. The Africa Express it was called and there were quite a few artists on it that I once interviewed. Baaba Maal for instance, the regal singer from Podor, North Senegal, where I had visited him (briefly) at home early 2010. Or the hugely original Fatoumata Diawara, whom I interviewed for Radio Netherlands and whose debut album (“Fatou”) I cannot recommend high enough.

In a country where corporate chains pretend to sell “authentic food” in places where people are constantly reminded that “we are committed to delivering solutions to our customers for their own safety and security” under a blanket of tuneless pop on a constant loop, the Africa Express went down a blast for those who were there, even when the performances were (reportedly) chaotic at times.

And that’s of course precisely the point. Most lives here and elsewhere are not nearly chaotic enough, most of the time. And it seems as if the majority are fine with that. Being an “unusual object”, I find that frightening. But I cannot possibly imagine someone walking away from the rhythms and the steam and the heat and the sheer musical  genius of The Africa Express – back into the world of cubicles and corporate food stalls and back to “…for your own safety and security…”…

…and not wanting to smash up at least one of those damned droning speakers.

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