If “Warm Heart of Africa” sounds like a tourism slogan, well, it’s because it is. It’s a nickname of sorts for the central African nation of Malawi, from which The Very Best singer Esau Mwamwaya originates. Do a Google search for the phrase and you’ll come across a crude Tripod page for Malawi tourism, yet it’s the seventh result that comes up, as The Very Best’s new album has since usurped it with a much more aesthetically pleasing and energetic invitation to experience Malawian culture, albeit through an English dance music filter.
Following up their magnificent 2008 mixtape Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best, the London-based dance fusion trio creates a sunny, joyous world-pop album that firmly establishes them as an unstoppable force in eclectic, electronic music. Certainly, they’re not the only group to have emerged in 2009 with their own series of hedonistic, yet world-weary tropical dance music, but they do it without an obnoxious filter of tape hiss, indie rock pretense or anything that one might feel compelled to call “Glo-fi.” The Very Best may have invited the likes of M.I.A. and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig along to join in the festivities, but this is widescreen, high definition pop music, custom made for people who prefer big-hearted anthems to exclusive, cassette-only niches.
Warm Heart of Africa opens like a sunrise, as “Yalira” slowly unfolds with booming bass drum claps and pizzicato string melodies. It rises and stretches and gets the muscles warmed up before the real workout begins on “Chalo,” its big synthesizers blasting and beaming like lasers over hip-hop beats and beneath Mwamwaya’s infectious vocals. It sounds a lot like he’s singing “did you let go?“, though he most frequently opts for Chichewa over English, so I’m going to assume it’s something else entirely. Ezra Koenig’s deliver on the title track is simply perfect, a fine complement to its dance-friendly beats and crackly guitar samples. Frankly, few singles this year are quite this fun.
Production duo Radioclit (two-thirds of The Very Best) ramp up the bass beats for “Nsokoto,” a fierce banger that layers on the hand percussion and hypnotic bassline. Just a few tracks before the group teams up with M.I.A., they take a page from her analog synth anarchist’s cookbook on “Julia,” a killer 8-bit love song of sorts. There’s a twinkly, romantic ’80s vibe to standout “Mfumu,” children’s vocals and steel drum on “Kamphopo,” violins juxtaposed with synth throbs on “Kada Manja” and, of course, one Maya Araprulgasam on “Rain Dance.”
The Very Best treads vast ground on Warm Heart of Africa, sometimes opting for the slow and meditative course, but largely preferring big and boisterous arrangements over a subtle approach. It’s not necessarily the most traditional of Afropop albums, but it sure is an incredible sounding one. Bring your passport and some sunscreen, the Warm Heart of Africa welcomes you.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.