There are moments in music where we’re reminded of its potential. Whether it be Bob Dylan, wailing his poems to an angst-filled room of twenty-somethings, James Brown keeping Boston from burning, or Paul Simon collaborating with Ladysmith Black Mabazo in South Africa at the height of apartheid, music has always served as a platform for cultural cross-over, and boundary pushing. Though these epiphanic moments are few and far between, when I listened to The Very Best’s new effort, MTMTMK, I was reminded once more.
It’s hard to refrain from calling MTMTMK, afro-pop, just because that’s probably the most accurate title for it. Esau Mwamwaya’s voice channels his Malawian roots, but paired with the musical mad science of partner/producer Johan Karlberg (Radioclit), it sounds more like an audible explosion of experimental sound; hard-hitting dance rhythms, hip-hop, dancehall, hi-life and pop, creating something only The Very Best, and the very best, can do.
“Adani,” the album opener, starts out with an all-too-familiar Baltimore club beat, but when Mwamwaya comes in, accompanied by a chorus of call-and-response, the listener is shaken, suddenly uncertain as to whether or not they should dance, sing, cry, or just put their hands in the air. At least that’s how I felt. It’s an emotional thing that happens with this music. I felt the same way with Vampire Weekend-tinged, “Kondaine.” My head was bobbing, but my eyes were filling up for no explainable reason. And on “We OK,” featuring Somali emcee Knaan, a song that’s probably the most “radio-ready,” The Very Best reminds the world that Africa…is okay. That it’s alive and well. That it’s moving, and dancing, and singing just like it always has, with pride woven into the cadence.
A perfect blend of old and new, of Afro and electro, of Graceland and Kala, is what MTMTMK is. Some will argue that it’s a bit more pop than The Very Best’s last album, Warm Heart of Africa, and those people would be correct, as long as they admit that MTMTMK is still a cut above the norm. That it’s fresh, and up, and not only does it make you want to dance, but it makes you want to celebrate. Of course, I don’t have a clue as to what most of these songs are about, but I’m not sure that matters if it evokes something — if it stirs me. Music doesn’t always have to be spoonfed. If I see a piece of art in a gallery — a Motherwell, say — and it moves me, it works. Simply put, tMTMTMK is what music sounds like when it works. Welcome to the exhibit, brought to you by none other than The Very Best.
– Jason Reynolds