Well here we are. The Union Jack stockings did not need to go on the mantelpiece last night and Father Brexit has delayed his visit down the chimney. Another Brexit Day event has been more reliable, however: tonight, as scheduled, Damon Albarn will open the flaps of a big top in east London and welcome musicians from countries including Mali, Portugal, South Africa, Lesotho, Ghana and Wales for the latest installment of his Africa Express concerts.
The shows, which have run sporadically since 2006 and are known for their epic length and cast lists, have featured British giants such as Paul McCartney, Paul Weller and Johnny Marr playing live with African musicians of similarly lofty stature including Baaba Maal, Oumou Sangaré and Fatoumata Diawara. They gigged around the UK on a converted train as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and were last seen at the Roskilde festival in Denmark in 2015, where Albarn had to be dragged from the stage at 4am.
This one will star Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice, Gruff Rhys from Super Furry Animals, Mali’s Rokia Traoré and Moonchild Sanelly from South Africa among many more. Recorded music is often part of the picture too. An EP, Molo, recorded in Johannesburg, has just been released, with an album to follow in the summer.
The choice of date for this new celebration of international collaboration was no accident, says the man behind Blur, Gorillaz and his recently revived supergroup, The Good, The Bad & The Queen: “It seems to me that the principle of getting everyone together in the same room and talking is the most important thing. Music can do what politics can’t do. Politics can’t make people laugh and cry in a good way. It’s become such an emotional thing and it needs to be wrestled back to the professionals of the emotional forum – musicians and singers.”
Of the musicians talking about Brexit, Albarn, 51, has been one of the loudest. At the Brit Awards in February last year, he accepted the British Group prize for Gorillaz, announcing at the podium: “I’ve got one thing to say and it’s about this country. It’s a lovely place and it’s part of a beautiful world. Don’t let it become isolated.” Later he admitted that he was “refreshed”, but he hasn’t changed his mind when we meet in his recording studio, an unassuming building a stone’s throw from the Westway.
“The Leave campaign included quite grotesque misinformation. You can’t decide such a close-run race when the horse has had steroids!” he says, thumping the table and getting louder as he speaks. “The pragmatic thing to do, if it was a horse, is let the steroids clear out of its system, let it run around the paddock and eat some nice grasss on bucolic summer days, then return and run the race again, steroid-free. I would accept it either way if it was a fair race.”
He has called Merrie Land, released last November and the first album from The Good, The Bad & The Queen for 11 years, “a reluctant goodbye letter” to the European Union, and said it was born on the morning after the 2016 referendum. “I think that’s overdramatising it,” he says today, but it’s clear he set about writing the 11 songs with a view to capturing Britishness in words and music – not the modern Britain of boozy bank holidays and 18-30 jaunts abroad that he depicted on Blur’s biggest album, Parklife, but a melancholy reverie that looks much further back.
Making the comparison with Parklife, Albarn says: “Those songs are more studies of the English, and this is an Englishman’s response to something. A lot of it was satirical, but emotionally it was the same sort of love and…” he searches for the right word. “Misunderstanding.”
There are lyrical references to Shakespeare, Chaucer, the First World War and the Dorset Ooser, a horned wooden head used in local folk rituals. The music mixes waltzing fairground organ with traditional recorders and the dubby bass of Paul Simonon. The veteran of The Clash, 63, completes the group with Verve guitarist Simon Tong, 46, and 78-year-old Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen.
Simonon joins in for this interview, dressed like a sharp rock and roller with jeans, white T-shirt, slicked back hair and a gap between his teeth. While Albarn dominates, talking the loudest from beneath his flat cap, the bassist flicks through a photography book and interjects occasionally. He credits both his and Albarn’s parents with influencing them towards music careers that have long incorporated sounds from across the globe.
“Our parents were very similar in some ways. Yours were artists,” he says to Albarn, “and mine were beatniks. They were open-minded people. Where I grew up [in London] you were exposed to all these other types of music and cultures. You don’t realise it’s because you live in a deprived area full of bomb sites and these people are living here because it’s really cheap. You just assume the whole world is like that. What an amazing experience I had growing up in that environment.”
Albarn will be going back to his roots today, playing the Africa Express gig close to his Leytonstone primary school. At upcoming London gigs with The Good, The Bad & The Queen at the Palladium and Somerset House, however, he’ll be trying to tap into something broader than his personal experience of England. There are music hall influences in the songs, in the stage backdrop of Blackpool Pier which Simonon painted, and in the ventriloquist’s dummy which appears on the album cover and which Albarn has tried to use at recent gigs.
“When Damon and I first properly met, we had this instant connection of both liking the music hall,” explains Simonon. “It’s a tradition that was picked up by The Kinks and Madness and Ian Dury, and we’re a part of that.” Much of the album was conceived in a dance studio near Blackpool Tower, with seagulls seeming to hover in time to the music outside the sash windows.
I ask about the significance of the dummy, named Tommy, thinking I’ll get some wise words about the metaphor of people not having a voice. Instead the poor chap seems to be killed off before my eyes.
“I want to have this conversation. I want to do it but I don’t feel a hundred per cent like I’ve got it,” says Albarn to the bassist about his ventriloquism routine.
“No, you’re busy doing other stuff on stage,” Simonon replies.
“So maybe I shouldn’t do it.”
“Well that’s a relief. So everyone’s just been humouring me then?”
That’s the last we’ll see of him. Albarn’s a little prickly at other points too. I attempt a poor joke about him having increased political influence since he got an OBE in 2016, and get a five minute monologue about why he felt it was acceptable to accept the honour. It’s because he was made a “local king” of the village of Kirina around the same time, given the honorary name “Makenjan Kanisoko”, and felt the Malian ceremony was the same thing as accepting the OBE.
“It felt very different but in essence you’re still humbling yourself to something that carries a huge vessel of people, some of them very rotten and some of them really rather wonderful. So going to the Palace was part of that same process and I felt I wouldn’t have been able to live with the hypocrisy if I hadn’t. And I had a really nice day, william was absolutely charming and that was the beginning and end of it. But no, it doesn’t give you an in with government.”
So they’re under no illusions that the Merrie Land album or the Africa Express show will change anything politically, but wanted to make these statements anyway. “Change is maybe more of a long-term thing. The vibrations are much slower,” says Albarn. All the same, on what was supposed to be a historic day, I can’t think of a more inspiring place to be than his circus tent in Leytonstone.
Africa Express: The Circus takes place tonight on Wanstead Flats, E11, as part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019 (wfculture19.co.uk)
The Molo EP is out now on Africa Express Records.
The Good, The Bad & The Queen play Apr 19, Palladium, W1 (london-palladium.co.uk) and Jul 17, Somerset House, WC2 (somersethouse.org.uk/music)