Album Review: The Very Best’s “Warm Heart of Africa”
by Marcus K. Dowling
“I love it when a plan comes together!” – Hannibal, “The A-Team”
The above quote is the exact case when discussing the collaboration from a chance meeting in a second-hand store of French/Swedish DJ and production tandem Radioclit and Malawi born singer Esau Mwamwaya which evolved into The Very Best, especially when describing their debut album Warm Heart of Africa. A potent blend of African rhythms with Western pop and absolutely breathtaking melodies sang by Mwamwaya, this album tries, and at many points succeeds in being “the very best” music you’ll likely hear all year.
In fact, if you’re aware of this collaboration before this read, it’s likely because their mixtape, Radioclit and Esau Mwamwaya are The Very Best was lauded by Pitchfork, Fader and all of the alt pop tastemakers of note as being one of the best collections of music released in all of 2008. The mixtape was more Mwamwaya singing over the dark ghetto pop remixes of Radioclit, and covers of American pop hits (the cover of Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is golden goodness that exposes and embellishes Vampire Weekend’s African influences) in an odd mashup of sounds, rather than what we have in this album. Radioclit toned their influences down considerably, and made a full scale embrace of the Malawaian Mwamwaya’s voluminous African background, touching it up with their brilliance to make great pieces of music. Refreshingly positive, but not in the same vein as the aggressive pop happiness of a Matt and Kim, or trite and juvenile like any great number of radio friendly bubble gum acts, Warm Heart of Africa emotes grand positivity, whether it be of the long drive in the country, sitting in your living room with a stiff drink, or breaking it down on the dance floor on a Saturday night variety. It’s a success because it forces the listener to listen, relax and enjoy. The production of Etienne Tron and Johan Hugo and the vocal quality of Esau Mwamwaya on this album is of such an unquantifiable level of solid that to compare it to any other release of the year is a questionable decision at best.
African artists making the crossover to Western ears have had hit or miss levels of success. However, the earnestness of the sound and the rhythm of the continent, when the musical world is at its most inventive creates superstardom. Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba had widespread success in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the 1980s, Paul Simon, on his Graceland album reinvented himself and was even awarded a Grammy for Album of the Year in 1987 based on the strength of the African rhythms and melodies on the record. However brief those explorations into the far reaching effects African music can have when interjected into Western popular sounds, The Very Best answer literally every question as to the far reaching abilities of African music as true global music on this record, and create a body of work, that when looking at the global history of the African sound is yet another step in the right direction of African music gaining greater respect, credibility and a permanent place at the pop table worldwide.
There’s tinges of 80’s pop, synth rock, dubstep, electro and African hip hop breaks here. However, the album’s greatest success is the blend of Vampire Weekend’s lead singer Ezra Koenig alongside Mwamwaya on the track “Warm Heart of Africa,” a quirky, jangling, hand clapper that inspires nothing but smiles. Truthfully, if alternative rock stations were still an active, necessary and flourishing part of our musical landscape, would already be one of the most popular songs in the universe. It’s pure pop confection, and really defines where The Very Best as a unit are the most sonically successful. “Rain Dance,” featuring M.I.A. is phenomenal, with a drumline that you’re going to hear a lot in the clubs once DJs and producers get into the track, as M.I.A. drops hot bars with a very melodious chorus with an insistent bass that leaves no dance maneuver to the imagination. The bright synths of “Chalo” recall the euro pop MTV ready invasion of the early 1980s as well, while “Julia,” well, every hip hop producer in the world wishes they had synths, bass and hi hats that went THAT hard. Hearing Mwamwaya on the track instead of Mack 10 was a surprise for sure. All of the broad streams of music converge upon the river of beauty that this album becomes.
Warm Heart of Africa may fail commercially because it doesn’t fit. It’s not a comfortable listen for mainstream ears expecting sixteen quirky handclap pop ballads, or the bohemian hip hop listener attracted by “Rain Dance” or “Julia.” Radioclit and Esau Mwamwaya created an intelligent sounding album for intelligent times. As stated above, this collaboration’s success is one of the few things that we can all universally be happy that “internet A & R execs” nailed as excellent. It’s a listen that requires an attuned ear and broad scale appreciation of the gleeful expectation of great pop music, no matter the extraction. It’s brilliance is unquestionable, and, if you close your eyes, relax, and let the rhythms and melodies work their magic, you’ll more than likely agree.
4.5 OUT OF FIVE STARS