Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit

The Very Best turn in a euphoric snapshot of a country in turmoil

"Makes A King"

Release date: 06 April 2015
The Very Best Makes A King
31 March 2015, 11:30 Written by Phil Gwyn
Being a half Malawian, half Swedish duo, The Very Best’s music is seemingly inevitably couched in hand-wringing postgrad babble which frets over the possibility of cultural imperialism before mercifully concluding that all that really matters is the music itself. But that’s not to say that their nationality is irrelevant; in fact, Makes A King in some ways only serves to reinforce those national stereotypes – on offer here is all the joyousness and grittiness and catharsis that you might expect from Malawian music, mixed with the incisive hooks and glossy production that has become more Swedish than Zlatan Ibrahimovic attacking a pile of tinned surströmming.

That duality is hardly newsworthy; it’s one that has been winning The Very Best enthusiastic followers since their 2008 mix-tape Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best unexpectedly morphed into a debut album, Warm Heart of Africa, which spent 2009 swimming in critical praise. Shorn of one half of Radioclit, Etienne Tron, for 2012’s MTMTMK, things took a noticeably more pointed turn, which was either slightly laboured or politically inspired, depending on what you were reading. Now three years on, it might be expected that the remaining duo of Esau Mwamwaya and Johan Hugo have made another progression, and they don’t disappoint in that respect; where previously there was jubilance and a breezy melange of hip hop and electro, Makes A King intersperses that with something more weathered and frustrated – casting a critical eye on their world amidst the celebrations.

It’s not too much of a stretch to speculate that recording in the remote Malawian village of M’dala Chikowa rather than the capital of Lilongwe might have played a part in this transformation. Replacing the restless energy of their earlier material are introspective asides like the hypnotic simplicity of Mwana Wanga and Nkhondo”’s almost hymnal call to arms, which are both cloaked in the bucolic sounds of a Malawian evening. The remaining half of Radioclit, Johan Hugo, claims that the harmony between the village’s half Christian, half Muslim population also acted as an inspiration, but it’s their own act of cultural reconciliation that comes to define Makes A King, as Esau’s Malawian influences are played out over Hugo’s distinctly European production.

The way that these two distant styles unblinkingly bleed into one another turns out to be one of the most unexpected pleasures of the album. You can almost hear their collective shrug when they make the sharp transition between Sweka”’s Afrobeat indebted house throb to the pastoral lilt of Mwana Wanga, Esau’s impassioned voice uninterrupted aside from some melodic guitars. It feels all the more intimate dropped as it is straight after the sort of undeniably universal track that couldn’t fail to provoke fervent shuffling from Windhoek to Wakefield.

It almost seems like an act of defiance; by placing them in such close proximity, they’re demanding of you an explanation as to why such styles couldn’t co-exist together – and come to think of it, if you went back through the history of house music, and traced back some early influences of pop, well, guess what, you’d probably find that the music cultures of the West and Africa haven’t been hermetically sealed for centuries. What The Very Best are so talented at doing is not only prompting this realisation, but demonstrating the value of that cultural overlap. Consider the pumping bass of Sweka without its distinctly African drums; the almost kaleidoscopic, tempestuous guitars of Let Go without Esau’s lung-bursting Chichewa refrains; the synth haze that hangs over Kanyale without the sort of idiosyncratic percussion that doesn’t come packed on Western software. Again and again, Makes A King alchemises musical styles into something that’s more than the sum of its parts.

But the political edge of Makes A King is far more overt, as well. The haunting, mournful tones of Hear Me make it no surprise to find out that Esau is lamenting the lack of progress in post-independence Malawi, even when lacking the necessary Chichewa skills to translate. The carefree energy that introduced most people to The Very Best on Warm Heart of Africa may seem distant, but the clattering Let Go dispels any notions that they’ve moved entirely on from those soaring, triumphant moments. What Makes A King instead gives us is a remarkably honest portrait; something almost brilliantly schizophrenic and seemingly torn between revelling in the joy of life and confronting the hardship of Malawi’s struggles. There’s no doubt that it’s a more sober affair than their previous work, but as a snapshot of a country in turmoil, it’s a weighty, sometimes euphoric and completely compelling encapsulation of time and place.

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