(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Thursday, April 23, 2015

What's cool? The Very Best with Mafilika, "Hear Me"

Roots come together from opposite worlds 

Sometimes, you can travel to the ends of the earth and still find yourself back at home. Esau Mwamwaya was an experienced singer when he left his home in Malawi and moved to London in 1999. A serendipitous meeting led to an unlikely partnership with the production team of Radioclit to form The Very Best. Their electronic production complemented his soulful singing to create an intriguing mixtape that featured some surprising contributions from acts like Santigold and samples from a variety of pop and indie bands.

Fast forward a half decade and The Very Best was centered on Mwamwaya and DJ Johan Hugo. The pair had temporarily relocated back to Lilongwe, Malawi in 2013. They left the capital for village life in M'dala Chikowa to work on their new album in earnest, which edged their sound to away from its electronic foundations to develop a more band-oriented focus. The resulting project, Makes a King, just came out this month. It still ties back to their earlier work, but it's looser and more vibrant.

"Hear Me" is the first single off the new album, and that version features bass work from Chris Baio (Vampire Weekend). The glitchy production adds a brittle quality that emphasizes the fragility of Mwamwaya's voice. It straddles synthpop reminiscent of Tears For Fears along with a deep African heart. While the studio take is pretty nice, this live version, recorded with Malawi Afrojazz band Mafilika, has a more organic feel.

Mafilika mixes in live drums to go with the drum machine beat, which softens the stark edge of the studio recording. Hugo's production touches are still there to maintain the modernity of the song, but the sadness and resignation of the vocals comes through even stronger than before. Listening to the two perspectives side by side, it's easy to hear how the live version taps into the soul of the song as it first entered the world, before the studio production added a veneer of complexity to shade the tune.

Both takes are strong signs that Makes A King is worth digging into to hear how roots from opposite ends of the earth can intertwine.

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