Roughly two years ago, M.I.A did well to introduce the globalization of music to the mainstream world. Her Clash/hip-hop/dance hybrid went far to broaden the tastes of the casual listening audience, and probably without them knowing it. Somewhat independently, Afro-beats, highlife and other traditional African sounds emerged in the white-boy consciousness over the last few years, allowing a band like Vampire Weekend to be a chart-topping certainty. In either case, the music has been best received in a Westernized form–M.I.A.’s hip-hop or VW’s pop. It’s African-inspired Western music. Some traditional Africana has made a rise, but still well short of popularity. Even bands like Fool’s Gold, inarguably more traditional than something like M.I.A. and VW, have a straightforward pop sensibility, as awesomely bizarre as it may sound at times. And that’s what makes The Very Best so very rare. It’s only straightforward sensibility–if you can find one–is African. Everything else exists in wild, freewheeling support.
There was a brief ripple fluttering through the Internet last year when their mixtape declared Esau Myamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best. Not coincidentally, the project spawned from a “Paper Planes” remix called “Tengazako,” featured Maya and Santogold on a track and even covered (kind of) VW’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” The mixtape, free to download, was rife with samples ranging from the Beatles to Architecture in Helsinki to Hans Zimmer’s True Romance masterpiece, the oft-dubbed “You’re So Cool.” And indeed it readied us for good things to come.
The Very Best’s official debut, Warm Heart of Africa, certainly makes the “mixtape” seem an apt description for last year’s project, taking off the kid gloves, so to speak. On Warm Heart, there are few (obvious) samples and the few holdovers, “Kada Manja” and “Kamphopo,” are decidedly newer, stronger, bolder, more independent and overall better than their mixtape versions.
With a somewhat traditional start in the pastoral cheer “Yalira” slowly building to the mild, synth-backed “Chalo,” Warm Heart eases into its eccentricity. And its eccentricity is this: analog percussion seamlessly blended with synth; dance perfectly married to pop; hip-hop lightly tether to African folk; vocal harmony experimentation drifting behind vocals; Western-inspired African music. By “Kada Manja,” you’re listening to a Mediterranean dance-influenced, ecstasy-induced club beat with classical strings and one of four languages in which Myamwaya sings being featured. After the record completes itself, the sure-to-be singles–the title track featuring VW’s Ezra Koenig and “Rain Dance” with M.I.A.–seem, well, pedestrian. Even boring. Possibly the least interesting songs on the record. The two other title-track remixes (yes, there are three total), are infinitely more enjoyable, one supplanting Koenig’s middle-pubescent falsetto with highlife horns and another adding rap to the prep-pop tones. It’s not that Koenig and M.I.A.’s contributions are bad standing alone. It’s that the rest of the record is so undeniably fresh, unfamiliar and to this point, unparalleled, that the last thing you want to do is depart to–or maybe arrive at?–such overplayed territory as Vampire Weekend and M.I.A.
In the end, though, Warm Heart of Africa simply exhausts so many sensory and cultural outlets that attempting to describe it seems like an arbitrary and ultimately futile exercise. Because what’s the point in describing something if it’s impossibly described? We tried in vain to explain what it sounds like–and in the ensuing weeks, you’ll read plenty of confident takes that claim to have it pinned down–but the fact is, this is beyond most of us. Writing about music isn’t always like dancing about architecture. But sometimes it is. words/ j crosby