Electronic music and traditional Malawian musicians would, on paper, seem highly unorthodox bedfellows. Too often these types of cultural mash-ups and musically disparate pairings feel forced, reeking of desperation to create something new and novel from existing components. While indigenous performers using makeshift electronics to augment traditional instruments (see Konono No. 1, among others) have found critical favor in recent years outside of Africa, truly successful pairings of Western and African styles often lack the intended impact and feel more exploitative, trading on the novelty rather than a meeting of equals.

Fortunately for the members of The Very Best, the sum of their respective parts ultimately works far better than it perhaps should. Possessing an organic quality often lacking in electronic music, Makes a King relies heavily on Esau Mwamwaya’s powerful voice, coupled with local musicians and field recordings, to carry the album. Wrapped in Radioclit’s (Johan Karlberg and Etienne Tron) club-friendly beats, Makes a King manages to toe the line between world beat kitsch and vital African-infused 21st century dance music.

Only on “Sweka” do they risk the former while attempting the latter. With its overly simplistic rhythm and bass figure recalling an early-‘90s Pure Moods compilation track, “Sweka” feels a bit too on-the-nose to be as effective as nearly everything else here. When paired with songs like “Hear Me,” with its slow-build and churning rhythms, it feels more tacked on than essential and tends to drag the rest of the material down ever so slightly.

Elsewhere, “Let Go” offers the most traditional pop structure, featuring a recognizable verse/chorus format replete with a massive hook. It follows their fairly well established template, however manages to tweak the formula just enough to allow the track to stand out from the rest of this pleasantly accessible blend of Malawian musicians and European electronics.

“Mwana Wanga” is a beautiful, guitar-based ballad that shows off the gentler side of Mwamwaya’s voice to devastating effect. Backed by a local choir, the sparseness of the production allows all voices to meld seamlessly into the haunting sound of one polyphonic voice. A welcome respite from the album’s more club-oriented material, “Mwana Wanga” proves to be a solid pop song that doesn’t require an understanding of the language to fully appreciate it.

By employing prominent African musician Baaba Maal, Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio, The Vaccines’ Freddie Cowan and EDM expert Jutty Taylor, The Very Best manage to more seamlessly integrate contemporary Western music styles with more Afro-centric song structures. Rather than relying on an approximation of each style’s practitioners, they go straight to the source of each, ensuring an authentic integration of contrasting styles. It’s a move that helps reaffirm that most basic of notions: music is the universal language.

While this cross-cultural mingling makes for an appealing enough listen, The Very Best rely a bit too heavily on their established formula throughout. Because of this, Makes a King rarely makes a case for greatness. Rather it simply furthers The Very Best’s very particular aesthetic in a manner more enjoyable than revelatory. While there’s much to like here, there’s ultimately little compelling or varying enough from their previous releases for Makes a King to be considered anything other than a lovely distillation of The Very Best’s sound.

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