The Swedish/Malawian Afro-pop group, The Very Best, have received wide critical acclaim over the past weeks following the release of their third album Makes a King.
Reputable international newspapers and magazines such as Consequence of Sound, Pitchfork, The Guardian, Music OMH and The Telegraph were short of superlatives to describe the album, which was recorded during a four-week camp at Mdala Chikowa at Cape Maclear in Monkey Bay.
According to Consequence of Sound, “Makes a King distils itself into a blurry amalgam without many specifics”.
The Very Best has always been defined by geography—vocalist Esau Mwamwaya hails from Lilongwe and bandmate Johan Hugo is a Swedish producer.
They earned early attention with joyous samples and alterations of Western pop, transforming them into international super-jams.
On their latest, Makes a King, they are aided by guest artists who come with places attached to their names: Senegalese vocalist Baaba Maal, London singer-songwriter Seye and Chris Baio of the oh-so-New York City Vampire Weekend.
Though Mwamwaya sings in Chichewa, the album announcement’s note that he wrote about “Malawi’s recent issues with endemic poverty and political corruption” is palpable in his expressive delivery. When Hugo was tailoring an entire album to upbeat celebrations, consistency wasn’t an issue. Tempering his electronic soundscapes to slower paces and darker tones drags the album.
That said, isolated tracks carry that depth well. The sun sets beautifully over Mwana Wanga, as Mwamwaya’s vocals soar majestically through flocks of delicately finger-picked electric guitar.
Let Go features springy bass and a simple yet hard-hitting guitar mix, the song’s title one of the rare instances of English, couched within similarly cathartic vocals that convey the same message.
Later, Sweka could fill any dance floor across the globe; its house patterns are immediately recognizable even when Mwamwaya’s language isn’t.
The musics of Malawi, Sweden, the UK (Mwamwaya and Hugo are based in London), and America haven’t been entirely separated for hundreds of years. However, there were clearly distinctive features of these traditions that shone differently as the Very Best’s early albums turned, like many facets on a diamond. Makes a King, in comparison, feels a bit one-note, though they can still hit that one note hard.
In a press release, Hugo says the album is about “celebrating the positive and the negative in life – and striving to stay happy through it all.”
Makes a King came was released on April 7 in the United States via Moshi Moshi.
In reviewing the album, The Guardian describes Makes a King as ‘simple, sublime global pop songs’.
“The Swedish-Malawian duo who formed in a Hackney junk shop, the Very Best’s geographical origins underpin their global pop. Their 2009 debut, Warm Heart of Africa, featured MIA and Vampire Weekend. This third album was recorded in a remote Malawian village where the population is half-Christian and half-Muslim, and it hurls together tribal African cries, synths, trip-hop, EDM grooves, an appearance by Senegalese star Baaba Maal (on Umasiye) and the sound of local musicians and chirping crickets.
“It all hinges around Mwamwaya’s haunting but uplifting voice, but the band certainly know their way around a verse and chorus, too. While their lyrics tackle poverty and corruption, tracks such as Mwana Wanga and Mariana are simple, sublime pop songs, and Sweka’s funky guitar and euphoric house groove would rock any dancefloor,” The Guardian writes.
Acclaimed online music magazine Music OHM describe the trans-national project as a more worldly album than their last record, MTMTMK (the initials apparently stand for ‘More to Malawi than Madonna’s kids’) which took their sound in a synth and beats-led direction, but in Makes A King the band use fewer and at times a more traditional sound.
“This is never more apparent than with the acapella Bilimankhwe, in which Mwamwaya teams up with Malawian group Jerere. At the other end of the spectrum are the two songs which feature contributions from rising South London producer Seye, who they also worked with on MTMTMK. Mariana is an infectiously upbeat track that layers vocal harmonies over a house foundation. The Dead and the Dreaming is more striking and subtle, with an irregularly pounding beat and muted vocals, some of which sound as though they might have been lifted in from a dubstep track,” it reads.
It continues: “Lead single Let Go is closer to an indie pop song, with spiky guitars that recall Orange Juice, and something of a Vampire Weekend vibe: it’s no surprise to learn that Vampire Weekend’s bassist Chris Baio plays on the track. Sweka might just be the best song here, with funky organ and percussion grabbing you from the outset. Mwamwaya’s lilting vocals then come in, as does a cantering bass groove and a solid house beat. Classic Afrobeat guitar sounds complete the experience. Kanyale is bold with its tribal beats, and Umasiye is anthemic with powerful contributions from Baaba Maal.”
Music OHM says from their beginnings making mixtapes that sampled M.I.A. and Cannibal Ox, to the solid MTMTMK, The Very Best have always been a uniquely exciting group, playing music that seems to convey the many contemporary strains of African music while adding their own distinctive twist.
“Makes A King takes it up a notch: the same ingredients and patterns are there, but The Very Best now sound much more like a fully operational band, rather than a fortuitous hodgepodge of singing and sampling. But that homemade mash-up feel was always part of their charm – and indeed part of their history – so it’s pleasing to hear that they haven’t completely left it behind.”