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The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa

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Artist: The Very Best

Album: Warm Heart of Africa

Label: Green Owl

Review date: Aug. 24, 2009

The Very Best’s debut LP, Warm Heart of Africa, may make some listeners anxious. Credit The Very Best’s combination of by-the-numbers Euro dance pop and the harmonics of southern Africa. That interaction – between the First and Third Worlds, have and have-nots, beneficiaries and sufferers of colonialism, and whatever other dialectics you have ready to draw from your holster – is likely to render some folks uncomfortable. Here are some of the well-rehearsed and predictable questions to chew our nails over: Do we, or at least we Americans, really like The Very Best for anything more than its Malawian inflections? Isn’t The Very Best, at bottom, a completely safe group that uses Africa as an affect no different than the way some of our young and fashionable wear keffiyahs as mufflers? And isn’t it a bit unseemly that the group uses Esau Mwamwaya’s Chichewan singing to make music that sounds African only to the extent that the trio’s privileged Western audience finds tolerable? And what does that say about us that we don’t just tolerate it, but love it, dance to it, throw our hands in abandon to it? And what about the fact that we have no idea what Mwamwaya is actually saying – that for our purposes what he’s communicating is totally irrelevant because what’s got us going is Radioclit’s funky, skipping staccato beat and the way Mwamwaya’s tenor chants, exhorts and cries in melodious contrast to it? Is it fair to reduce this man, his culture, his nationality to something that just sounds cool? Must globalized pop cheapen a person and his culture so thoroughly?

High anxiety, indeed!

The Very Best stands to be the next subject of hand-wringing following Vampire Weekend, last year’s mainstream model of Africa-samplers. (NB: Its singer, Ezra Koenig, contributes his falsetto to Warm Heart’s title track.) Likely, The Very Best will be somewhat less contentious, as Mwamwaya doesn’t present the same potential problems of appropriation as Vampire Weekend’s Ivy League kwassa kwassa. But there are still opportunities for awkwardness. Take Radioclit’s Johan Karlberg’s description of Mwamwaya as “The African Phil Collins,” a designation that The Very Best’s record label proudly quotes in its press materials. Besides being unfair and off the mark, it smacks of gauche relativism, as if Mwamwaya can be adequately explained as a substitute for an 1980s English pop star famous for making unchallenging, middle-of-the-road, corporate pop. If nothing else, it’s a poor sales pitch. (And if anything is unchallenging, middle-of-the-road, or corporate about The Very Best, it’s probably Radioclit’s neutral, muted production scheme.) But Karlberg’s gaffe gets to the warm heart of our nervousness: the problems of translating foreign sounds in accessible domestic terms, and the mistakes we inevitably make in doing so.

Frankly and unsurprisingly, there’s no easy answer to resolving all of this. Pulling on the threads that The Very Best dangle could lead to questioning all sorts of things about contemporary pop, global consumerism, power dynamics, and so forth – the kind of questioning that takes more time and reflection to answer than is possible here. So allow me to propose something else for our nagging fears and apprehensions: a dodge.

Let’s treat The Very Best and its debut album on their own terms, as pop artists and pop object. By this measure, there’s no reason to fret or fuss. Warm Heart of Africa is a fun album, joyous even. Much credit is due to Mwamwaya. As he proved in last year’s “Tengazako” (his rendition of MIA’s “Paper Planes”), it doesn’t take verbal communication to move people to their feet. There is something amiable and consoling about Mwamwaya’s delivery. He has a tendency to end his phrases with an inflected high note; it’s as if each of his lines were a statement of shared hope – even when such a line is the threat to “take your money!” And this is to say nothing of his swooning vowels, such as on the chorus of the slightly crunked “Julia.” Mwamwaya’s singing is smooth and buoyant; atop Radioclit’s clipped beats, he sails like a schooner broadly tacking across the surf’s chop.

To their credit, Radioclit has fluidly melded African rhythms to the soundscape of the Euro club. The percussive bob of “Nskoto” and the bright African synthpop of “Mfumu” are two of the more successful compositions on Warm Heart. There is a curious lack of bass throughout the album, however, that undermines songs in need of more torque. “Chalo,” for instance, builds asymptotically; the listener spends the entire song waiting for a bass or downbeat to fill it out and bring it to a satisfying crescendo. In fairness, when seeing The Very Best live, this problem did not arise – the bass was loud and clear. But it is oddly quieted on the record, sometimes to detrimental effect. Songs that could have sharper edges are inexplicably dulled, resulting in a thin, tinny sound.

Yet Warm Heart of Africa is a charm, entertaining from start to finish. And like our favorite diversions, it’s best to let it be. To spend minutes pondering the implications of The Very Best is to miss Radioclit and Mwamwaya’s point: that a good, if less than eventful, time can be had by sharing music across peoples and regions. No doubt, how Warm Heart is executed and experienced may raise our suspicions. But maybe, even in the face of all of the questions the album provokes, we should follow the example this trio sets and relax.

By Ben Yaster

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