Esau Mwamwaya has lived in London for 10 years. Until recently, he ran a shop selling second-hand goods in Clapton. In his homeland Malawi he’d played drums for various bands and sang. But London, being the melting pot that it is, brought Mwamwaya together with a French customer called Etienne Tron, who wanted to buy a bicycle. Tron, together with Swede Johan Karlberg, forms production duo Radioclit, and their studio was on the same road as Mwamwaya’s shop. The utter randomness of this encounter perfectly describes why London’s musical output will always excite.
Yet while Europe’s largest city provided for the The Very Best’s formation and recordings, their debut album Warm Heart Of Africa is as global in scope as the varied ancestral homelands of its makers. Born of a mixtape they’d worked on in 2008 that featured input from Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., BLK JKS and Santigold, the result of these disparate backgrounds and influences is music that goes far beyond the traditions of African music. It finds space for strings, a couple of guest stars, some retro synths and even a smattering of gigglesome autotune.
Two tracks will be familiar to anyone who’s heard the mixtape. Kamphopo is relatively unchanged, with a sparse introduction giving way to Caribbean vibes and steel pans. The entrancing Kada Manja also survives, with Mwamwaya’s celebratory vocals bedding a track that ropes in crystalline violin and big phat synths. Like the rest of the album it panders to no genre, mixing and matching in a completely freethinking style at will.
But there are plenty of easy-on-the-ear standouts that go beyond the mixtape tracks’ party vibe. In the main, Radioclit’s pop-rooted synth sounds have been dropped entirely or turned right down, as evidenced in Nsokoto’s minimal electronics embellishing a tribal atmosphere that blends Mwamwaya’s multilayered vocal harmonies with compulsive percussion.
As for those guest stars, the title track features duetting vocals from that Paul Simon– adoring Peter Gabriel of our age, Vampire Weekend’s front man Ezra Koenig, whose Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa was covered on the mixtape. M.I.A.’s ubiquitous Paper Planes and Boyz also made the mixtape, with additional vocals from Mwamwaya, so it’s a fitting endorsement that she pops up on the tribal Rain Dance, turning it into something of an offcut from her similarly globalscoped 2007 album Kala.
Angonde’s autotune sections and processed violin, and the R&B opening of and backing on Julia, underline the trio’s intent; Warm Heart Of Africa is a thoroughly modern album whose makers are completely aware of where they’re from, where they’re going and how to have a lot of fun with whoever they meet along the way. Naming a band The Very Best may seem like posturing, but on the evidence of Warm Heart Of Africa they’re on to something.