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Western pop music, says producer Johan Karlberg, “wouldn’t be the same if we weren’t influenced by African or Middle Eastern music. But if you argue too much about these things, you’re thinking too hard and not listening.”
Karlberg is Swedish, Etienne Tron (his partner in the production duo Radioclit) is French, singer Esau Mwamwaya is Malawian, and all three live in London and work together as the Very Best. On a buzz-generating mixtape last year, the trio collaborated with indie rockers who draw from African pop styles like highlife and soukous (Vampire Weekend and the Ruby Suns) and a pair of alt-minded rappers with world-spanning tastes (M.I.A. and Santigold). Mwamwaya sang in at least four languages. And Radioclit took samples from as diverse sources as Architecture in Helsinki, Hans Zimmer, Cannibal Ox, and the Free Willy theme song.
So the Very Best—which performs tonight at DC9 with Javelin—has heard plenty of arguments about globalization and appropriation and authenticity, and could probably debate them all day. But the more you intellectualize music, Karlberg says, the more meaningless it can become. Life’s too short not to dance.
And not just dance, but smile.
“The Very Best is our sunshine project,” Karlberg, 27, says. “Esau came along at a time when we were a little fed up with darker music and with club music. I’m really happy about it because if you bring something positive to music, people will get that—that’s a really good thing to be able to do with music.”
As Radioclit, Karlberg and Tron make what they call “ghetto-pop,” a gloomy, trance-y blend of U.K grime, American hip-hop (they seem especially taken by Dirty South), and whatever African dance style has their attention at the moment. For a recent mix, Karlberg said, he and Tron explored the Ivorian Coupé-Décalé style.
The new Very Best album, Warm Heart of Africa, is as eclectic as Radioclit but far more upbeat. And unlike their concoctions as Radioclit, Karlberg and Tron’s Very Best beats don’t brood in the foreground, instead allowing room for Mwamwaya’s exuberant, space-filling vocals. “Esau’s almost like a big instrument,” Karlberg says. “So we held back on the production, keeping it really minimal, and he brought out the best out of it.”
“The only thing we didn’t want to do was make a straight African album,” Karlberg says, even though “there’s obviously African music in some of the tracks more than others.” “Nsokoto,” notably, simulates thumb pianos and has a call-and-response chorus, while the title track, featuring Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, samples the Nigerian musician Victor Uwaifo‘s sunny 1966 hit “Guitar Boy and Mamiwater.” Elsewhere on Warm Heart of Africa, there are bottom notes of Caribbean music, synth pop, jungle, and grime, among other styles. The album shares its title with a slogan from a Malawian tourism campaign, but its sound is hardly continent-bound.
The Very Best came together in 2006, not long after Tron walked into the second-hand shop Mwamwaya owned, which happened to sit on the same East London street as Radioclit’s studio. When Karlberg and Tron heard that Mwamwaya had played percussion in a band in Malawi, they invited him to collaborate—and quickly discovered his talents as a vocalist. They recorded the song “Chalo” that day.
For the next two years, “Esau would come in as often as he could, and normally he’d pick up a few beats, write at home, come in and record the song,” Karlberg says. “Most of the tracks were done in a day or two, tops. We had tracks we worked on for several weeks, but usually scrapped them because we felt they were overworked.”
Just as listeners shouldn’t always think too hard about music, Karlberg says, neither should producers. “A lot of the time I work on music, the best things happen very quickly and intuitively,” he says. “A lot of people say ‘If something doesn’t work in an hour, it doesn’t work.'”
The Very Best performs with Javelin at DC9 tonight at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. Photo courtesy of the Very Best’s MySpace page.