There was a time when “African music” meant something other than “new indie-chic” and pale indie boys in cardigans and Sperry Topsiders violently clutching copies of “Graceland” like Bibles on Judgment Day. This was a time when African music was a naturally occurring phenomena that filled spaces with joyful noise, pulsing, engaging rhythms and call-and-response camaraderie. This is the time that is revisited on The Very Best’s new album, “The Warm Heart of Africa.”
Founded in 1999 with Malawaian vocalist Esau Mwamwaya fronting the daring production of London-based DJ duo Radioclit, The Very Best released the critically acclaimed mixtape “Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best” in 2008. The mixtape was equally indebted to traditional African musical traditions and their corresponding Western interpretations. The most bizarre example of this, perhaps, was seeing Mwamwaya sing in Chichewa over Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” in a bold, globally-minded move to transcend the African sound and enter the arena of global pop.
“Warm Heart of Africa” continues in a similar vein, but where the mixtape was paying respects to its African influences, “Warm Heart of Africa” re-Westernizes those influences into something entirely independent, eschewing critical pandering for transcendence.
The album opens with “Yalira” (“sound” in Chichewa), a warm hymn of welcome and sweeping promise of the sounds to come. “You are all welcome / Let’s all dance because the fire is burning,” the song begins (in English translation) “Hey London!/ Hey New York! / Hey Paris! / Hey Lilongwe!” This song serves as the album’s thesis: the music is not about the past, its influences, or what critics will think; it’s simply about sound and enjoyment. It has no place—though sung in Chichewa and inspired in part by a variety of African sounds, it’s a product of the world.
“Chalo,” or “World,” continues in a similarly epic fashion, leaving no room for interpretation when it comes to questions about the album’s themes: love, truth, music, and other universals. The topics are sweepingly large, but The Very Best has the musical muscle to match. On the track, Mwamwaya spreads his bracing, multi-tracked vocals across the crisp, rollicking synths of Radioclit that would be equally at home in an ’80s pop hit. The song moves between the peaks of Mwamwaya’s choral cries and the hushed intimacy of the calming and repetitive beat, creating moving dynamics that keep it from becoming repetitive.
The similarly upbeat title-track, “Warm Heart of Africa,” is led by Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend’s “African music”-mimicking lead singer, to surprisingly enjoyable effect. His verse feels forced, as does his delivery, but the melody is like a warm beam of sunshine, elucidating Radioclit’s sparkling guitar jabs and open-air percussion, especially evident in their extensive use of cowbell.
Radioclit unveil their westernized, hip-hop stylings on songs like “Angonde” and “Julia.” On “Angonde,” the sound expands, rolling with thick, pounding drums and a soft, insistently rhythmic, Arabian guitar. Here, Radioclit process Mwamwaya’s rich vocals with a vocoder, electrifying and stiffening his voice to levels well below the T-Pain and Imogen Heap side of the spectrum so he maintains some of his trademark warmth while providing the crisp, electric harmonies. Throughout the track, a lone, hopeful violin pours lethargically beautiful lines over the dense and ambling drums that are intermingled with the percolating, rhythmic noises blissfully simmering below the surface.
“Julia” successfully melds the repetitive synth-hooks and deep drums of modern hip-hop with Mwamwaya’s hundred-voice-harmonies. It is, however, too patterned for its own good and remains one of the less-engaging tracks on the album.
All of these songs, however, pale in comparison to “Mfumu,” or “King,” the best track on the album. The glitchy bells and high-hat dance across the sturdy beat of the kick drum while Mwamwaya performs aural acrobatics high above. Listening to this song is like staring out of the open moon roof in a moving car on a clear night: grand, yet intimate, life-affirming and filled with wonder.
The album breaks most genre-categories. Its aim is the creation of a moving and gorgeous sound, and it succeeds gloriously. This is the “African” music all of the Vampire Weekends have been striving to create for years: unbridled, joyful, lush, and paradoxically cosmic.
Most who try to create an album like this fail for one simple reason: “African music” as we think of it is not necessarily the music of Africa, despite its superficially African qualities. This is joyful music of the world, well-removed from any and all critical and commercial qualms. This is the very best kind of music—music that wants nothing more than to be made and loved.