Release Date: Jul 17, 2012
Record label: Cooperative
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, International, African Traditions, Afro-Pop, Afro-beat
It might sound lazy to describe a record that sees a Swedish producer holing up in Malawi to make an album with a local singer that's big on sunny harmonies and feel-good factor as a reincarnation of Paul Simon's Graceland, quarter of a century on, but Johan Karlberg has said hearing that record at the age of five changed his life for ever. Since The Very Best's 2009 debut, The Warm Heart of Africa (a pretty big clue to how that one sounded, too, lay in its title), Etienne Tron has left the group, leaving Karlberg and his box of tricks (running Pro Tools and Ableton 8) and Esau Mwamwaya (who is still refused a visa to perform in the UK) to fashion its eclectic but life-affirming followup. MTMTMK is a clubbier offering – even featuring shades of dubstep – but there's also the occasional balafon (a type of wooden xylophone), contributions from Baaba Maal and Amadou and Mariam on Bantu and those shining vocals.
This duo – Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and Swedish-born producer Johan Hugo – are so well-suited to produce hipster accolades, they invite suspicion before you’ve heard a note. But MTMTMK dispels doubts, improving on the debut with bigger hooks – see “Rumbae,” a synth-lashed dance track fun (and dopey) enough to fit into David Guetta’s DJ sets.Listen to 'MTMTMK': .
A slam-bang dance pop album of the first order, MTMTMK is technically an Africa-meets-Western-pop hybrid, because The Very Best is comprised of a Malawian singer who met a Swedish producer in London. (A French producer recently left the group.) But this album feels more seamless than a mashup. If it weren’t for Esau Mwamwaya singing half his lyrics in the Chewa language, several of these songs would slide right into American radio playlists, and they’d frequently be the best songs there.
Led by Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya, with music by English producers Radioclit, this trio suggests it’s time we retired the dusty pre-Internet term ”world music” and call it what it is: globalization pop. Following songs with Vampire Weekend and M.I.A. on 2009’s Warm Heart of Africa, they’ve tapped Senegalese star Baaba Maal, French–South African DJ Mo-Laudi, and Canadian-Somalian rapper K’naan for a fun mix of Africa’s urban grooves, Europe’s club beats, and America’s hip-hop swagger in MTMTMK.
A lot of comparisons to Paul Simon's Graceland are cropping up in reviews of the Very Best's MTMTMK, even though the two albums have completely different contexts, styles, and lyrical aims. An American adult-contemporary pop star conscripting South African musicians in the last days of apartheid is not comparable to a breakout Malawian singer and a Swedish producer fusing Westernized Afro-pop with European dance music in 2012. Nor are the Very Best's direct appeals for sex ("Rumbae") and political change ("Yoshua Alikuti") particularly evocative of Simon's coded flights of imagery.
Three years on from the exuberantly joyful Warm Heart of Africa (and one after the stop-gap grab-bag Super Mom mixtape) the Very Best return with a sophomore album that, without radically altering their distinctive blend of African singing, synthesizer-based pop, and various strains of global dance music, is nevertheless a notably different affair. Recorded in the Malawian capital of Lilongwe, MTMTMK finds the group -- down to a duo after the departure of Etienne Tron -- delving deeper into African music while simultaneously flirting more boldly with clubby, high-gloss electro-pop. It's a shift that's reflected in the album's sizable pool of contributors: instead of indie-friendly luminaries like Ezra Koenig and M.
There are two ways us Westerners approach Africa. Musically speaking, that is, not as in ‘by plane’. There’s the art-rock method, with acts like Vampire Weekend using the continent as the idea equivalent of crude oil, scheduled for immediate import, applying African music’s joyous trappings to New York. Then there are the exporters, acts like Blur who (for ‘Think Tank’) go out there, go native, smoke some frog-blood skunk-juice and do their best to sound authentically ‘African’.
The video for the Very Best's first single, Yoshua Alikuti, from second record MTMTMK is a remake of Lil Wayne's A Milli. Singer Esau Mwamwaya, who lives in Lilongwe, Malawi, saunters, flaneur-like, around the slums of Nairobi, hopping on cars and trailed by associates and bandmate Johan Hugo of London's Radioclit. The Very Best have benefited from the publicity gained by riffing on a video or song by a popular Western artist.
One of the pleasures of the Very Best's debut, 2009's Warm Heart of Africa, was that it sounded little like anything else at the time: Esau Mwamwaya's collaboration with Radioclit produced an irresistibly inclusive album of European pop with kwaito and highlife. Their second still bears that warmth and immediacy – the simple ebullience of Kondaine is a highlight ("We're walking on water/We're walking on air"), as is the dense and swirling Bantu featuring Amadou & Mariam – but the decision to supercharge so many tracks with clubbier beats – in other words, to make them sound a lot more like the rest of the charts – is disappointing. .
Back in 2009, the production duo Radioclit and Malawi-born singer Esau Mwamwaya released the insanely upbeat debut album Warm Heart of Africa under the moniker The Very Best. The British producers and the African vocalist came together in a way that sounded seamless, each half contributing equal and powerful elements to the album. Now down to Mwamwaya and Johan Hugo, the gleefully collaborative experience continues to fulfill that original vision.
Vampire Weekend might have popularized the use of Afropop flourishes to characterize otherwise whitebread pop music, but plenty of other artists have employed the trend in other genres, from Yeasayer’s psych-rock and Tanlines’ tropical electronica to M.I.A. and her dub-infused hip-hop. African-born singer Esau Mwamwaya essentially inverts that phenomenon, his traditional Malawaian sound acting as the core around which various electronic, hip-hop, and other Western-oriented genres are centered.
The debut album by The Very Best, 2009’s ‘Warm Heart Of Africa’ was a massive critical success combining the rich organic sounds of traditional African music with a dazzling array of electronic sounds and influences giving a unique hybrid between two very different styles. For the much anticipated follow up the duo of Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and London based producer Johan Hugo that make up The Very Best ensconced themselves in a makeshift studio in Mwamwaya’s hometown of Lilongwe. In their isolated environment cut off from all distractions, they have crafted an album that sets the ebullient charm of their debut against some altogether deeper and darker sounds while losing none of their bewitching singularity.
THE VERY BEST “MTMTMK”. (Moshi Moshi/Cooperative Music).