A truly global sound
There are two ways us Westerners approach Africa. Musically speaking, that is, not as in ‘by plane’. There’s the art-rock method, with acts like Vampire Weekend using the continent as the idea equivalent of crude oil, scheduled for immediate import, applying African music’s joyous trappings to New York. Then there are the exporters, acts like Blur who (for ‘Think Tank’) go out there, go native, smoke some frog-blood skunk-juice and do their best to sound authentically ‘African’. Somewhere in between you have hipster darlings The Very Best. But instead of all the to-ing and fro-ing between continents, all that producers Johan Hugo (Swedish) and Etienne Tron (French) – aka Radioclit – and Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya had to do was meet in the multi-ethnic neighbourhood of Hackney, anchor down in the cultural spice-route of London and set up shop as a high-tech nexus for Afro-Western fusion. Add the internet and hipsterism’s boner for combining African roots music with cutting-edge western production, and BINGO. Optimum conditions. The Very Best are born. Frog-blood skunk-juice optional.
And after the success of their critically acclaimed 2009 debut ‘Warm Heart Of Africa’, Mwamwaya and Hugo (but not the absent Tron) have serious pull for its follow-up, ‘MTMTMK’. They’ve enlisted African heavyweights (star rapper K’naan and producer Mnek) and mega popsters (Bruno Mars and the Mumfords’ Winston Marshall) to make it a world-music event album, and the large-scale end product is like an Afro-futurist, transcontinental world fair that thinks locally but parties globally. And in which autotuned Malawian singer Sonye warbles over reggaeton electro-tech (‘Rudeboy’), while UK bass music turbocharges the South African mbaqanga sound of ‘Mghetto’. “We international/ From Malawi to Tokyo” declares the Somalian Tinchy Stryder, K’naan. One world, baby. Globalisation-pop gold abounds. ‘Yoshua Alikuti’ cuts between Balearic trance and African soul singing, while the coke-y ‘Kondaine’ is the Congo’s famous kwassa kwassa dance rhythm meets wired Eurohouse. Elsewhere, ‘Come Alive’ incorporates Africa’s most futuristic style, Angola’s kuduro.
There’s a slight hitch, though. Without Etienne Tron, Johan Hugo weights ‘MTMTMK’ towards ‘dancier’ electronica, whereas ‘Warm Heart Of Africa’ offered a more even balance between electronics and African trad. Apart from the hymnal, nature-worshipping ‘Bantu’ (featuring Amadou & Mariam) and the lightly strummed ‘Nkango’, ‘MTMTMK’ is all about neon-soaked city raving, and the result is a stiffer, uglier and over-Westernised sound, too reliant on soulless computerisation. It’s like a beautiful savannah where every other oasis sports its own Starbucks. ‘We OK’ is synthy ringtone pop in the Rihanna vein, while bro-stepper ‘Adani’ isn’t exactly your uplifting sunset-on-the-Serengeti-type stuff. When its gurny techno bit kicks in it’s all ‘fuck nature, let’s dance’. But, all things considered, it’ll take more than a MacBook to dampen what’s always defined Afropop: euphoria.