Damon Albarn: Damon's world

With three new ventures on the go, not one of them with Blur, Damon Albarn is busier than ever, he tells Ian Burrell
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The Independent Culture

The name of Damon Albarn's latest project is Lif up Yuh Leg an Trample, and he has certainly been lifting up his leg by running up and down Portobello Road, west London, thus combining his fitness regime with a few moments to think through a hectic work schedule.

He arrives at our café rendezvous dripping with sweat and slightly dishevelled, but clearly invigorated by the current state of his career, which has led him to a unique position in British music. Still enjoying the afterglow of the success of Blur's latest album, Think Tank, he is engrossed in three new ventures, none of which involve the band with which he made his name, but all of which have the capacity for influencing and broadening musical taste.

These latest additions to Albarn's CV have seen him sampling bacchanalian pleasures in the Caribbean, and will take him later this month to the backstreets of Lagos and one of the spiritual homes of modern West African music. In between, he has been working with a raft of rappers, and with Shaun Ryder, the impecunious former Happy Monday, in the latest collaboration by Gorillaz, Albarn's cartoon band that is now even more popular than Blur.

The first product of Albarn's latest labours will be Lif up Yuh Leg an Trample, a collection from the cutting-edge artists at the Trinidad and Tobago carnival, one of the wildest parties in the global calendar. Damon was there in February, smeared in coloured mud and swept up in the writhing, human "Soca train", the vast procession that chugs through the streets of Port of Spain to a hybrid Soul-Calypso soundtrack for four days and nights. "You come out of the night into the carnival dawn as a multicoloured beast," recalls the Blur frontman. "The only context I have for soca is the Notting Hill Carnival, which, as a long-term resident, I have been to for many years. If you live round here, you do get at least a glimpse of what it's like. But Trinidad enveloped our lives for four days - it was nothing but carnival."

Albarn went to Trinidad with Alan Scholefield and Mark Ainley, his partners in the Honest Jon's record label, and owners of the Notting Hill record shop of the same name, through which he is raising the profile of artists from Africa to Iceland, often in collaborations with his own work. In this instance, he has helped to put a spotlight on artists such as Denise Belfon, Dawg E Slaughter, and his personal favourite Timmy (whose "Bumpa Catch a Fire" prompted a singalong from the West Indies cricket captain Brian Lara, when given a promo of the CD on Sunday).

As a musician, Albarn was taken aback by the extraordinary work rate of the soca artists during the period of the carnival. "One of the things I found fascinating was that they have a week to make an impact with these tunes, then they get top billing at all the carnivals for the rest of the year. If they don't make the impact in that week, it's going to be a lean year for them. They are working their asses off," he says.

Scholefield recalls that Shurwayne Winchester, the winner of the "Road March" competition for the most-played Soca tune on the final day of the festival (known as Mardi Gras), worked himself to exhaustion. "He sang his track for eight or 10 hours. We saw him at one in the morning and he was working his socks off, but he had flu for three days because he had been working all week. The next day, in the paper, he was being interviewed from bed, totally overwhelmed."

The Honest Jon's party based themselves in a flat above a funeral parlour, which could have been convenient given that a multiple murder - apparently linked to drugs - occurred across the street at the end of their stay.

Albarn says: "All I know is that I went to Trinidad and I really enjoyed it, I really felt it. I'm looking forward to this year's Notting Hill Carnival because I will know more of the tunes. I am going to go mental when I hear Timmy - it won't just be a passing sound at the carnival, it will mean something to me."

He compares the partying in Trinidad to the outpouring of steam from a pressure cooker: "In Trinidad, there's quite a strong government control over things, and there's a week when everyone's allowed a certain freedom that would not necessarily exist for the rest of the year," he says. "The whole nature of the music in the soca train is that everyone gets on and moves in a direction of unity."

The album is an extension of an earlier Honest Jon's project, London Is the Place for Me, which highlighted the forerunners to the modern Soca scene, the calypso singers, such as the legendary Lord Kitchener, who came to Britain from the Caribbean in the Fifties.

Lif up Yuh Leg an Trample is timed to mark the 40th anniversary of Notting Hill Carnival this year, and the 30th birthday of the Honest Jon's record shop. Soca lyrics traditional broach all manner of subjects, from current affairs to sleeping around, and Albarn and Scholefield hope that the album will provide listeners with a greater depth of understanding of carnival than the perennial Notting Hill image of a fat lady kissing a policeman.

Damon says: "The British media has enormous preconceptions about it. If you are going to take carnival seriously - and I don't think it necessarily expects to be taken seriously - it is an expression... music is there to remind people of their origins and to lead the way forward to their future."

The origins of the music are largely African and, according to Albarn, the Honest Jon's record label has grown "laterally" over the last two years, with Nigeria being the common link to many of its projects. He highlights the connections in African and Caribbean music ("all the musicians that went over on scholarships to Cuba from West Africa"), while Scholefield points out that "in the Fifties, London was a home for musicians from West Africa and Trinidad playing calypsos"). "One thing leads to another," says Albarn. "The lovely thing about Honest Jon's is that we have a completely open remit. In the next year, the truly eclectic nature of the label will be to the fore."

The Nigerian connection is largely the result of Albarn's friendship with Tony Allen, the Paris-based Nigerian musician who was formerly the drummer for Fela Kuti. "We are going to have quite a few Nigeria-related records in the near future," says Albarn. "That whole thing initially came from when I wrote a song called "Music Is My Radar" for Blur, and there was a line in it about Tony Allen. Someone played that to Allen and he got in contact with me and said, 'Do you want to guest on one of the tunes on my Home Cooking album?', which I did and we got on really well. We decided to embark on what has now become quite an epic project, and which rolls into Lagos in under two weeks' time."

The Blur frontman previously recorded Mali Music, another Honest Jon's release on which he worked with local musicians such as Afel Bocoum and Toumani Diabate. "The two albums are unrelated," he says. "But what I'm doing with Tony is informed enormously by the time I've spent in Mali over the years. For example, some of the lines that I have written, playing them to musicians the last time I was in Lagos, they immediately recognised them as cousins of the lines they play. It's a bizarre way around, that an Englishman goes to Mali, goes back to Britain and then goes to Nigeria and passes on something that was already there anyway, but the question had not been posed for a while."

Some of the tracks for the Nigeria project are said by Scholefield to be "fleshed out" versions of tunes recorded on Albarn's album of first-cut demos, Democrazy (a phrase he borrowed from Fela Kuti).

Damon appears frustrated that Britain can be reluctant to open its ears to music that is unfamiliar - particularly from Africa - whereas francophone connections have helped to make Paris a vibrant market for international artists. "The dialogue between West Africa and France is still ongoing, whereas in this country... well, in Nigeria at the moment I think we are awakening a whole department of the British Council that has been waiting for a phone call for the last 40 years," he says. "It's like, 'What? We can actually do something other than exploit their natural resources?'."

Albarn and Scholefield are hoping to do a little to expand British musical tastes. Albarn says: "There's no master plan at all. But we do find that the more you get about and the more you listen with intent to what people are actually saying and playing, the more you find the connections that are really valuable."

Damon, who himself was exposed to global music by his parents, maintains that he has "in some ways, some ongoing dialogue with youth culture", and would like younger people in Britain to take a greater interest in world music, but says that at the moment, it just isn't there. "It really is a shame, considering how unbelievably diverse this country is."

He was clearly disappointed by NME's treatment of his work in Mali, after he agreed to allow the music magazine to accompany him to West Africa for a performance at the Institut National des Arts in Bamako. The article concentrated on band tensions, lack of local interest and Albarn's demeanour, rather than the Malian musical talent he wanted to highlight. "I took the NME to Mali when we were rehearsing, and I was just devastated by the impression that they gave at the end. I'm trying to open this up for people like myself, when I was younger, and they are just putting the kibosh on it and trying to relate it in context to The Strokes," he says. "The NME doesn't go to Africa very often, and I was really excited about the whole idea. At the end, I felt absolutely... does it mean that musicians' adventures around the world are destined to remain in the broadsheets and in the travel sections of magazines, and the kids never have access to this and are perpetually force-fed crap?"

Then there is Gorillaz. The next album from the secretive band, which performs live behind a screen showing animated visuals, and is fronted by Murdoc, a cartoon character with green teeth, will probably be ready by the start of next year. It will feature a track with Ryder, produced by the underground New York hip-hop producer DJ Dangermouse, who famously fused The Beatles' "White Album" with rapper Jay-Z's The Black Album to make The Grey Album, which became a hit through internet downloads.

The Gorillaz project will also feature tracks from the daisy-age rappers De La Soul, the leading British rhymer Roots Manuva, and the Isle of Wight band The Bees. "It's going well; it's getting there. I'm very happy with it at the moment," Albarn says, somewhat hesitantly, before adding mischievously: "They're definitely coming back, no question about that. But then again, you know, I'm not the band, I'm just helping with the music."

And with that, he lif's up his leg and jogs off back to work.

'Lif Up Yuh Leg an Trample' is out on Honest Jon's on 26 July