Because of the lingering guilt over blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, there’s a certain amount of trepidation and uneasiness that accompanies bands like Vampire Weekend, white college students who reappropriate traditional African music for audiences who wouldn’t care about the music of the forgotten continent otherwise. Warm Heart of Africa, the debut album from the Very Best, carries all the pre-packaged white-guilt signifiers — the music was created by two white guys from Britain (Radioclit), the sound fits nicely with all modern purveyors of what passes as afro-pop these days, and it features collabos with indie it-persons (Ezra Koenig of the aforementioned Vampire Weekend and M.I.A.) — but most of the singing is done by the Malawi-born Esa Mwamwaya. All told, there might not be an album more pre-packaged for a discussion of race in indie-rock than Warm Heart of Africa (paging Sasha Frere-Jones).
As if Very Best didn’t already have a perfect sound to get them profiled in the Sunday arts section of the New York Times, they also have a highly bloggable backstory. Mwamwaya met Etienne Tron of Radioclit at a thrift store Mwamwaya was running after Tron was haggling him over the price of a bike. A bike! In a thrift store! After introducing Mwamwaya to the other half of Radioclit (Johan Karlberg), the trio set to work on Warm Heart of Africa and its highly successful promotional mixtape, Esau Mwamway and Radioclit are the Very Best, which featured Mwamwaya doing his thing over tracks from the Free Willy soundtrack and from Ruby Suns and Vampire Weekend and was downloaded more than 200,000 times.
While the mixtape showed off Mwamwaya’s charms, it was still a bit too much of a producer’s record, with many of the thrills coming from Radioclit’s everything-is-good, cannibalization approach to globalized pop. Radioclit stick to warm, bustling, metropolitan sounding beats, and thus Warm Heart of Africa is Mwamwaya’s album; his voice, which can ably jump between wavering emotion and chanting boisterousness, is the central focus of the album’s 13 tracks. There’s barely a weak track here; Mwamwaya makes star turns on the ethereal “Nsokoto,” the glittery “Mfumu,” the martial “Ntende Uli” and the sports-movie closing credits-sounding “Mwazi.”
As for the guest performers: “Rain Dance,” the M.I.A. collaboration, is album’s only true clunker. The beat sounds like it was crafted out of left-over samples from Kala, as does her verse and chorus. For someone who has done more to break geopolitical borders via music, M.I.A. fails to live up to the Very Best’s high bar here. Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend, however, thumbs his nose at the notion of him as an afro-pop opportunist, sounding more than excellent on the indelibly catchy title track.
The hand-wringing over race politics in regards to the Very Best become less important on repeated exposure; Warm Heart of Africa, at its heart, is a sunny, charming little pop record. It represents the globalization of pop; a catchy chorus is a catchy chorus if it’s sung in French, English, Spanish or Chichewa. There may be a language barrier to be dealt with here, but the feelings of the songs here transcend all walls, real or perceived.