Beneath a big top perched on Wanstead Flats in east London, a heaving mass of Nigerian, Ethiopian, Malian, Lebanese and South African musicians roll on and off stage.
Africa Express, a pan-continental group including African and British artists, are playing to a crowd of mainly east Londoners on a cold Friday night.
It’s a defiant display of multiculturalism on March 29 – the day Britain was meant to leave the European Union – organised by Damon Albarn as a two-finger salute to the orchestrators of Brexit. Albarn, now 51, wears many hats: observational, poetical frontman of Blur, the brains behind the virtual rock band Gorillaz and the frontman of his so-called supergroup The Good, The Bad and The Queen.
Tonight he fills almost all these roles as Blur make a surprise three-song appearance after The Good, The Bad and The Queen take to the stage.
“We’re in a period now where everything is make-believe,” he tells the crowd during a rare silence. “It’s like Danny Dyer said. It’s all a great mad riddle.”
Not since Blur’s seminal album Parklife has Albarn turned his eye to the British condition with such raw focus. Angered and saddened by Brexit, he has explored the British condition in a record entitled Merrie Land, released late last year.
Alongside former bassist for The Clash Paul Simonon, The Verve’s Simon Tong and acclaimed Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, he might have created the first great Brexit record.
It’s five days earlier when I sit down with Albarn and Simonon as the band begin rehearsals in Acton, west London.
Albarn starts to discuss the record. But it’s hard to escape the shadow of Brexit. “My biggest problem with the referendum was that it very clearly gave licence to some rather unpleasant views being publicly aired and tolerated in a way they weren’t beforehand,” Albarn remarks. “We see that everywhere, it’s not just this country.”
“It’s self-imposed division,” Simonon, a decade or so older than Albarn at 63, adds.
“But there was also an element that was simmering – that people were dissatisfied with the way things are.”
Albarn is quick to rubbish claims Merrie Land is only about Brexit. “It’s an exploration of Englishness at the moment,” he says. When Albarn began to explore Englishness as the frontman of Blur, the debate was less charged.
This changed with Britain’s 2016 decision to leave the EU, and the fierce public debates that preceded that vote.
Unsurprisingly, Albarn backs a second referendum and is no fan of Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage. “They talk about the voice of the people – or the will of the people. But clearly things have changed. I don’t know what the big issue is, other than utter fear that they are going to lose.”
While Merrie Land explores British concepts, Albarn hopes it is not seen by his “European cousins” as niche. “It’s a European record as well. Everyone in Europe is clearly sick to death of our idiocy here. They’re very, very aware of it. Some of these songs, I would image, resonate abroad.”
The seed of the album was planted during a week of studio sessions between Albarn and Allen, the famed Nigerian drummer lauded for his work with Afrobeat originator Fela Kuti.
It grew, unexpectedly, into a project exploring Britain’s heart of darkness. Written between 2017 and 2018, Albarn took “pilgrimages”, as Simonon describes them, to towns and city such as St Albans, Banbury and Southend. These fed into Albarn’s reluctant farewell letter to Europe. While Albarn knows Merrie Land is unlikely to stop the machinations of Parliament and the slow onset of political paralysis, what he knows it can offer is a stark warning.
“This record, it’s an emotional reaction to all of that. It’s not offering any answers,” he says. “It’s definitely part of a bigger warning that should be erected everywhere.”
The Good, The Bad and The Queen play Sheffield Octagon, April 15.
Merrie Land is out now.