The Very Best, before we delve too deeply in to their psyche, are an interesting collaboration between Radioclit, a London based DJ project, and a singer from Malawi, Esau Mwamwaya. It's important to note that this is not a straight African release then, and this partnership involves parties with vested interests in such a wide ranging mix of styles and genres that you'd forgive them for producing a release that touched base with various wide-reaching sounds without planting itself in any one camp. It's not quite world music, which is a broad explanation in itself. The record leans heavily on dance and electronic sounds without over-doing them, and a huge dose of African rhythm.
Before this record, The Very Best have garnered positive reports for their upbeat tempo and genuinely happy-feeling music. The temptation upon hearing this is always to dismiss this type of music as shallow, or not worthy of dissection. This may be true in some cases, but The Very Best provide such a diverse range of sound within their chosen field that you're left with records that won't leave you in a hurry, and provide endless hours of entertainment. Their first two mixtapes were exercises in establishing and cementing a sound that worked. The method appeared to be in creating an African touch, or sometimes and African fist, to contemporary Western sounds. The effect was excellent, Esau Mwamwaya has a voice that can lift the lowliest of spirits (believe me). Radioclit, despite an unfortunate name, were also quite adept at picking and choosing their way through mountains of music to find the right noise to throw at Mwamwaya to utilise that lovely voice of his. Super Mom, their latest mixtape released last year, provided us with even more brilliance, including Mwamway's excellent interpretation of Runaway (ruined only by a pedestrian performance from Macc Mello). Singing in Chichewa only serves to enhance the music. For us not blessed with the ability to learn multiple languages, it's not a detracting factor, it adds to the overall feel of the track, creating mystery and intrigue.
MTMTMK is certainly no mixtape. This is a thoroughbred, even if there are a few big names to ensure this record is propelled in to the stratosphere (K’naan, Mnek, Bruno Mars, Winston Marshall,
Amadou & Mariam, Baaba Maal). The Very Best have always seemed to be able to dial in huge doses of infectious African rhythm, whether through carefully composed drum sections, expertly manipulated synthesizer, or Mwamway's silky, skillful voice. Adani starts brilliantly, throbbing drums creating a dangerously good pattern that Mwamway gracefully sways in to. At 4:30 the tempo changes, with a section reminiscent of a bass drop breaking the track and the rhythm up, and Mwamway rides it beautifully, providing a contrasting flow with his vocals. It's a wonderful start, you're immediately drawn in to the intrigue and wonder of the sound.
The Very Best appear to employ this push and pull tactic, created and utilised by the language that Mwamway chooses to sing in. When he is singing in Chichewa, the tracks take on a new life of their own. No matter how epic or danceable the production is, the vocals become another instrument that moulds the track in to a darker, more mysterious shape. Come Alive, a simple, uncomplicated song that even employs a piece of minimalist construction, is brilliantly transformed in to a shadowy mystery. The best example is Bantu, a song that relies almoqst entirely on the vocal prowess of it's 3 artists, Mwamway, Amadou & Mariam, and Baaba Maal. Rather than feeling out of place or tacked on, it serves to further solidify the range and capacity that this act is capable of. It's not all throbbing basslines, tribal African drums and rising synth. This is a looming song, propelled forward by vocal performance and a sub continent section in the middle that utilises either a skillfully played guitar or a sitar. It should by all rights feel like an interlude, both tracks either side of it, especially Yoshua Alikuti, are higher octane pieces. Instead it stands out as an example of the capability of the artists involved.
If you're looking for happines, MTMTMK has it in spades. The best track on the record is the eye-catching Kondaine, which utilises an interesting 8-bit feeling electronic riff before Mwamway slides gracefully in with a spot of English, 'You walkin on water, you walkin on air', his infectious mood impossible to resist. It settles in to a lovely rhythm, exploding further in to life whenever the synth riff slips in. Motorcycle moves along relentlessly, it bursts out of the confines of the beat created with a hi-hat section that reminds of fast paced hip-hop and Mwamway's voice which finds an even higher level than what you're expecting. Even the comparatively slow Rudeboy grows and grows, as layers of sounds are gently added to create an epic sounding train-track flow. It's another spirit lifting event, The Very Best seem to have perfectly crafted the track list of this release. Just when you're languishing slightly, you're hit with another dose of prozac in the form of a synth party and you're good to go again.
Rudeboy gives way to the brilliant We Go. The perfect closer, it feels exactly like the track they play right on 6am, as the club asks patrons to leave after one more, and you're hoping for something epic. You get it. The English helps slightly, 'nothing lasts forever anyway, the sky could fall down any day, as long as I've got you here with me, we ok, we ok!'. Its beautiful! It's so uplifting in a time of sadness, and sonically it perfectly captures that positive emotion of things aren't great right now, things are about to get worse, but we're ok, and we'll be ok and better in the future. It's a stunner to leave us on, and is a credit not only to Mwamway but the experience and skill of the DJ duo Radioclit who I'm sure have been in that 6am situation more than once in their lives. They've crafted the perfect song to leave on.
9/10. Really excellent music. Borrowing from such a wide range of musical wells creates a deeeper sound, but not over-using those genres ensures the record remains fresh and interesting right the way through. The skill of the production team coupled with the effortless ability of Esau Mwamwaya ensures that this isn't a one listen wonder. You'll keep coming back for more I guarantee it.
Best Tracks: Adani, Kondaine, Bantu, We Go