Afropop band the Very Best holds the universal appeal and stadium-sized glee of a band like U2.
Esau Mwamwaya seems to ease into greatness. His songs and life sound charmed, inevitable even. The son of a civil servant in Malawi, he grew up listening to Dolly Parton and Lionel Ritchie. A month after he started singing for his first band, when he was 22, Mwamwaya picked up the drums even though he hadn’t tried percussion since he was a kid. He never would have formed the Very Best if he hadn’t sold Etienne Tron a £30 bike.
His is the story of a global-era entrepreneur. Mwamwaya immigrated to London in 1999 because he wanted to have a new life experience. After working in a bakery and on a construction site, he now owns the secondhand furniture store where Radioclit member Tron bought the bike. Tron then invited Mwamwaya to his housewarming party, where he met the other half of the Radioclit duo, Johan Karlberg.
Together, the three men produced one of the most popular remixes of the now-overused M.I.A. “Paper Planes” beat. Their blend of South African kwela and traditional Malawian music, reggae, gospel, rock, soul, funk, and hip-hop could have become a distasteful global soup. Instead, it just sounds downright fun.
At a time when many rappers underscore manliness with cynicism, Mwamwaya flexes muscular optimism. His voice echoes with reverb as if singing skyward from a mountaintop. Mwamwaya says his music falls somewhere between secular and sacred, and his gospel-choir-influenced harmonies prove it. Backed by Radioclit’s playful synth textures, Mwamwaya’s singing sounds like a life-affirming Hallelujah, even for those who don’t understand his native language of Chichewa.
Even his ballads radiate warmth. “Angonde” pays homage to Mwamwaya’s ancestors, who, in keeping with Malawi tradition, are buried in the backyard. Despite the heavy subject, he layers and reinforces major chords that span across octaves to stretch toward the sun. His melody leaps, childlike and insistently, until you’re sure to be humming it for the rest of the week.
With Radioclit’s production, the Very Best holds the universal appeal and stadium-sized glee of a band like U2. Their simplest songs have at least six layers of sound. In “Mfumu”, the choir plays counterpoint against synth rock tropes. It’s hard to imagine dancing to The Very Best because the freewheeling joy of these textures overrides any sexiness brought in by the hip-hop beat.
If you were to draw the imports and exports of The Very Best’s musical influences on a map, your picture would look like a bird’s nest. Thought it might be difficult to untangle, the free music trade between Africa and the West is sure to accelerate. Now that Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend and M.I.A. have made guest appearances on “The Warm Heart”, The Very Best have come full circle since remixing M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”. It’s all a part of the open exchange in the Afropop community that gives The Very Best their lush and addictive sound.