The video for “Yoshua Alikuti” is completely effing brilliant, a nearly scene-to-scene recreation—down to the text font—of Lil Wayne’s vid for “A Milli.” Wayne shot his in L.A., and a posse shadows him as he swaggers around the set of his next single’s video, “Got Money.” Birdman shows up and tosses him the keys to a new Rolls, a gift for his record sales. In “Yoshua,” the first single from the Very Best’s MTMTMK, Esau Mwamwaya and Johan Hugo are in Nairobi. Es jumps on a beatdown-looking clunker, and his stroll-with-crew starts when he emerges from a shanty, rather than an air-conditioned tour bus. Wayne pauses to graze the food services spread; Es grabs some street-cooked bread from a vendor. In L.A., Weez sips a censored drink, presumably something laced; in Kenya, Es is handed a glass-bottled orange soda—which they censor, too—while sitting in the barber’s chair.
It’s a very smart nod to what the Very Best are doing. Yes, they’re into hip-hop and Lil Wayne like anybody else is, and they create their own flavor of urban music. But theirs has a completely different perspective, one that’s not so big on pomp and bombast. It’s more about melody and heart, and it transcends language in a way that African music never really has for American audiences.
See, Es is from Malawi, a nation of nearly 16 million people packed into about 45,000 square miles of southeast Africa—about the size of Pennsylvania. It’s one of the must underdeveloped nations in the world. There’s a ton of poverty, death and HIV/AIDS. And yet the sun rises on Malawi, “the warm heart of Africa,” every day the way that it does here in Philadelphia. We can get down with music that emerges out of such struggle, yet is full of such hope. That’s one of the things Es has in his voice: hope, alongside faith, determination, joy and sadness. It’s a voice that sings in Chichewa, but it doesn’t matter because with Radioclit’s production support, it’s been given the perfect vehicle.
“So many people were telling us that the Very Best wouldn’t go anywhere because Esau didn’t sing in English. We obviously didn’t listen,” says Hugo, the Swedish remaining half of Radioclit present on their July-released sophomore.
As the story goes, Hugo and a Frenchman named Etienne Tron ran a studio in East London that was close to Esau’s shop; Tron liked to shop there for treasures. They found out he could play some drums and invited him to a house party. They got him into the studio, and when they heard his voice, they knew they’d found something in its exuberant, euphoric warmth.
Hugo says he’s always been fascinated by street music. He and Tron used to run a nightclub that celebrated everything from dabke in the Middle East to rockabilly from Brazil. For their debut, they pulled in M.I.A. and Ezra Koenig from Vampire Weekend. On MTMTMK, they got help in songwriting from Bruno Mars and Taio Cruz and featured vocals from Amadou & Mariam, K’Naan, Baba Maal and Mo Laudi. “We try not to go looking for features, but let them happen organically,” says Hugo. “Even the fact that Taio Cruz and Bruno Mars both co-wrote on the album, it just comes down to beautiful timing.”
Their product can surely be taken everywhere—from clubs and house parties to boomboxes on the street. “We really wanted to make an album that was going to sound great on a big stage,” Hugo says. “We wanted to be able to play on a festival stage right before Coldplay and still not sound small. I’m not sure if we accomplished that, but I think tracks like ‘We Ok’ and ‘Come Alive’ come close to that epic stage show that we wanted to do.”
The Very Best’s show at Johnny Brenda’s this Sunday night—their first Philadelphia visit since their seven-date tour that concluded at JB’s in 2009— won’t be opening for Coldplay per se, but they’re pumped to be back on the road and showing off what they’ve been working on. They’re bringing a new band, and their heady mix of smile-inducing dance music will be like church at JB’s. It’ll heal souls. Spirits will be lifted. Conversions will be ignited.
“We got Seye—he sings on ‘Kondaine’—singing and playing guitar; he’s crazy good,” says Hugo, “and we got Magnate Sow from Senegal, who’s an amazing percussionist. So it’s more than just a DJ, dancers and Esau.” They start a 14-date, 18-day race through America that starts in D.C. on the 10th and ends in California on the 28th. “We’re just so excited to come out on the road again. It’s been two years since we toured in America,” Hugo confesses. “Now we have a new album that was made for playing live, so we’re very ready to come and do shows.”
True to most trends in indie rock, tribalism and the use of African sounds has inspired some acts and been considered tired by others. Some don’t particularly embrace the phrases “African music” or “world music.” Who would? The idea of world music as a singular genre means that now anyone who fuses African sounds, like the ones made famous by Paul Simon’s Graceland, can’t get reviewed without the mention of Animal Collective and Vampire Weekend—not that there isn’t loads of inspiration for music with rhythm that’s born in Africa, and Hugo’s the first to admit it. “The melodies are super-beautiful, and the drum beats are crazier than anywhere else.”
Still, the Very Best rises above language and defies notions of genre-tagged African music. “The Very Best is a band like any others,” says Hugo. “We make music that we like, and we never think of ourselves as this African thing. It’s just me and Esau making music.”
The Very Best perform Sun., Aug. 12, 8pm. $13. With Grandchildren. Johnny Brenda’s, 1201 N. Frankford Ave. johnnybrendas.com