Last week, the Blur star lured 80 international musicians to the streets where he grew up, for the ultimate jam session
Something strange is going on within the grey stone walls of St John's Church in Leytonstone, east London. It is a bright spring day and outside the noise of traffic passing along the high street mingles with exotic ululations.
Venture in and that hum turns into a funky racket. Behind a door bearing a handwritten sign for a crèche, a group of South African rappers and musicians are cooking up a techno beat with UK art rockers Django Django. Someone plonks away on a battered piano that has probably seen more service playing nursery songs. There's a competing pulse in the cramped vestry, where British punk duo Slaves are bashing out a buzzsaw rocker with African percussionists. In front of the high altar, bathed in stained-glass light, a group of Malian women strike up a groove on a makeshift stage, while British guitarist Tom Excell riffs in their midst and a dazed young priest studies a board plastered with notices about choir practice and jumble sales.
From the adjoining church hall, Turkish-Greek-Bulgarian-Iranian-Israeli ensemble The Turbans jam with a supergroup of indie rock stars: hirsute Warren Ellis from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on electric violin; Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner on a bright red Gretsch guitar; and Ellie Rowsell, frontwoman of Wolf Alice, on bass, eyes bulging with concentration. As the beat grips, one of the Malians wanders in from next door, grabs a microphone and starts to sing. The floorboards creak as dancing breaks out among bystanders.
It is at this moment that Britpop star Damon Albarn walks in. “Who'd have thought you'd ever see such a thing in Leyton, eh?” he cackles, before pushing into the throng. In a hall filled with great musicians from around the world, Albarn is the most famous, leader of two era-defining bands: Britpop darlings Blur and the cartoon ensemble Gorillaz. Over an extraordinarily diverse career, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has recorded 26 albums with a dozen different ensembles. And since 2006, he has been the linchpin in Africa Express, this sprawling, improvisational collaboration between Western and African musicians.
Now 51, Albarn grew up in this neighbourhood, a five-minute walk from the church. “I feel the need to come here sometimes, just to hang out,” he admits. “It was a magical place to grow up.” So proud is the borough of this local boy done good that there is a blue plaque on the Victorian terraced house where he lived until 1977. “At the end of my road was a Pentecostal church, which was a wonderful thing. I could listen to gospel music whenever I rode my bike past. And there was a synagogue at the other end, so it was a road bookmarked by religion.”
It was here that Albarn's love of music was nurtured. “My parents had a pretty eclectic record collection: classical music, Ravi Shankar, experimental music, early Orleans jazz, a lot of spiritual music, Paul Robeson and Mahalia Jackson, stuff like that.”
He started playing guitar aged six, while at George Tomlinson Primary School. “I went to visit this morning,” Albarn tells me. “There's about 450 pupils and they speak 80 languages, isn't that brilliant? I thought it was diverse when I lived here in the Seventies, when it was mainly West Indian and Pakistani. Now it's the whole world. Those kids are the future, and they need to be accommodated in whatever vision we have for our country. That's what this is all about.”
After Waltham Forest was named London's inaugural Borough of Culture, landing a £1.35 million grant, it wasn't long before plans were hatched for their local rock star to bring one of his pet projects home. Which is how more than 80 musicians from all over the world, most of whom had never met, came to take over this corner of London, with just two days to rehearse, for a concert before a crowd of 3,000 in a giant circus tent on a field at the southern tip of Epping Forest.
The co-organisers of Africa Express, journalist Ian Birrell and manager Stephen Budd, wander about with laptops, trying to give some shape to proceedings. “It's hideously expensive to put on, visas are a nightmare and there is always someone stuck in an airport somewhere,” says the unflappable Birrell, smiling. “We won't have a set list till half an hour before the show. You never know what you're gonna get. That is the beauty of it... if your nerves can take it!”
South African singer and producer Muzi, sitting outside in the sunshine, contemplates the imposing 18th-century church. “Is this some Game of Thrones s–––?” he jokes, eyeing a granite cross suspiciously. It is the 27-year-old's first time in London, after collaborating on a new Africa Express album with Albarn in Johannesburg. “It's dope. There are no egos involved, just a lot of people trying to make the best music we possibly can.”
Muzi dismisses any notion that Africa Express might be another manifestation of the “white saviour complex”, an accusation recently thrown by David Lammy MP at the broadcaster Stacey Dooley, when she posted on Instagram pictures of herself holding a local toddler while in Uganda for Comic Relief. “If we are all collaborating on an equal plane to make something beautiful,” says Muzi, “then who is saving who?”
Albarn agrees. “Africa transformed me,” he says. “I found my rhythm there. I have always been confident melodically, but found it really difficult to keep serious time. Rhythm is so fundamental to African music, I had to acquire new skills to keep up.”
Back in the church, it is astonishing to witness collaborations unfold in real time. Although there is a lot of English and French to be heard, there is no common language, and communication is accomplished through gesture and sound, always wreathed in smiles. “Language is no barrier,” says Albarn. “And that is the whole point of music as a metaphor for positive action.”
A political undercurrent bubbles through much of Albarn's conversation. The Africa Express event was scheduled for Friday March 29, the day Britain was long expected to leave the EU. “One good thing about Brexit is that it made a lot of people wake up, me included, and realise we can't take all of this for granted,” says Albarn, now shambling across the concert site, a patch of green a short walk from the church.
“It's amazing what is on your doorstep. This is literally where I used to play when I was a kid. We were allowed to roam free and on a summer's day it is quite idyllic. Of course, there was the odd guy in a surgical tunic jumping out of the bushes, 'cause there was a psychiatric hospital here. It's a supermarket now, which is quite a telling metaphor for Britain's attitude to mental health.”
Albarn is much more of a twinkly hippy than you might imagine from his sometimes bullish stage presence. The sight of music being made appears to fill him with irrepressible joy. When a makeshift band led by Paul Simonon of The Clash soundchecks a version of The Guns of Brixton with regal Malian singer Rokia Traoré on vocals, Albarn breaks off to dash into the giant marquee and dance gleefully in front of the stage. “That is going to go off!” he yells, encouragingly. Traoré smiles down serenely, as if indulging an overexcited child.
“As someone looking from abroad, I can say Brexit is a failure,” says Traoré in halting English. “It is not about whether Europe is a good or bad thing, it's about how Britain can make the best of being part of all these different countries, with different cultures, and so much diversity, with a common organisation and common frontiers. That is the real challenge of history. You can't go back when you should go forward.” Yet she points out that musicians have not joined Africa Express for political reasons. “For us, it is fun to experience something we do every day in different ways. Damon has his causes, but here there are no stars, only music.”
Come the night of the concert, Parliament has voted down Theresa May's EU withdrawal agreement for the third time, and Albarn is in a very good mood. “This event was planned as a bit of a wake, but we have got to keep on talking. Music is a manifestation of human empathy. I truly believe that.”
The show itself proves spirited yet shambolic, as the relaxed spontaneity of rehearsals is replaced by the edgier energy of performance. Albarn unveils a surprise reunion of Blur, with Traoré leading a local gospel choir through Tender, before the Britpop boys explode into Song 2. “This isn't a career,” pants Albarn afterwards. “It's a happening. And happenings can't happen all the time, so make the most of it.”
By the next day, many of these musicians will be on flights to far corners of the globe. “I like the middle ground, because that's where people meet and talk,” says Albarn. “That's what this country is all about, common sense and good people. That's why I'm proud of being English. We are constantly evolving and embracing things. I feel quite optimistic.” He grins. “As long as we keep talking, I think everything's going to be all right.”
Africa Express: The Circus was part of Waltham Forest London Borough of Culture 2019. A new Africa Express EP, Molo, is now available. A full album will follow in the summer