CD and LP giveaway, details at end of review
The Very Best
Warm Heart of Africa
Green Owl Records
out October 6th
A French producer and a Malawian singer walk into a thrift shop to haggle for a bicycle. Sounds like the beginning of a terrible joke, huh? Instead it’s the beginning of great music, with Esau Mwamwaya playing the singer role, and Johan Hugo and DJ Tron getting the producer credits. The collaboration, under the name “The Very Best,” caught the music world in a rare moment of unpreparedness as last year’s The Very Best Mixtape surprised even the most savvy heads. The tape built steam on word of mouth, leaving a path of excitement, dancing, and top ten lists in its wake. The Very Best Mixtape fused traditional African rhythms and vocal styles with Architecture in Helsinki, Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., Michael Jackson. It was a stunning cross section of popular music, a genre-defying collection of tunes that just made you feel real good.
Rumors of a full length album started to float around those unpredictable interwebs, tempting me like the saucy minx that rumors are. And then, on a rather unassuming Friday in June, it dropped into my lap.
My only regret is that not everyone will get to share their summer with The Very Best. Warm Heart of Africa is an album full of unbridled happiness and bliss, an upbeat and uplifting testament to the power of music. Not being a native speaker of Chichewa, I’m unfortunately completely oblivious to the large majority of the lyrics on the album. I’m pretty sure I have informally translated most of it, though: “Hey! We’re happy! Music is really freakin’ awesome! We made a record, some famous people made it with us, and it’s really really good!”
I was worried that the album might never see the light of day. The release date was impossible to pin down, and very few people seemed to know anything about the disc’s future. Then last week, in a similarly unassuming manner as 2008’s mixtape release, the official digital version of the album was released and the date of October 6th was announced as the North American physical release date. Phew. An album this good shouldn’t sit collecting dust. It belongs on speakers in windows in cities in summertimes. It belongs in cars on roadtrips through cornfields.
The album works in nearly every environment – as background music, as a soundtrack, as the focal point of an afternoon. What it – for me – lacks in lyrical depth, it makes up for in pure fun. The LP’s title is no coincidence. I can’t imagine listening to this record without my mood brightening – it shimmers with warmth brought on by cascading vocal choruses (chori?), sticky sweet strings, and up-tempo percussion.
The trio embraces both their organic and electronic roots throughout Warm Heart of Africa. “Julia,” one of the album’s highlights, features industrial electric pads mixed with Mwamwaya’s incredible voice in a way that defies categorization. “Kamphopo,” the standout track from last year’s mixtape, combines the melody from Architecture In Helsinki’s “Heart It Races,” with steel drums and a kids chorus. M.I.A. tears it up (as usual) on the effusive “Rain Dance,” and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig helps Mwamwaya sing the album’s backbone on “Warm Heart of Africa.”
Not to give short shrift to the Radioclit boys, but it is Mwamwaya’s voice that absolutely carries this album. The record is built on his chops, and with good reason. His vocals provide a spark not often found in Western music – the ability to communicate unbridled passion through voice alone. You can hear his smile as he sings. It’s no surprise that the disc ends with the a cappella chorus of “Zam’dziko,” a track pumped full of Mwamwaya’s pipes. This is Ladysmith Black Mambazo for the next generation, an infusion of African heart into the sometimes sterile and bleak indie music world.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of this album is its consistency. The record has no down points, no lulls. It changes pace, sure. It speeds up, slows down, injects a shot of English here and there. But never does it compel me to hit the skip button. It’s tough to pick out favorites and just as tough to pinpoint a track that doesn’t do something interesting or worthwhile. It’s fun from start to finish and eminently re-listenable. And if that’s not the very best thing you can ask for in an album, it pretty damn close.
85-89 — Outstanding. First-class piece of work in its given genre. This particular artist’s best work to-date. (Rating Scale)
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Chris Barth is a columnist here at Pretty Much Amazing. You can read his more succinct daily posts at his music blog, The Stu Reid Experiment.
To enter to win a copy of The Very Best's Warm Heart of Africa on vinyl or CD format (a total of two winners), leave a comment with your thoughts on the tracks you’ve just sampled, this review, or (if you’ve listened to it) the album. Make sure you leave your name/email address in the provided fields! Entries will be accepted until October 6th