It’s been a long, strange trip for Johan Hugo and Esau Mwamwaya, the Swedish-Malawian duo behind The Very Best’s exuberant global pop. One which crosses continents as well as musical genres. It’s also a trip, according to Johan, with no end in sight. “We’re constantly evolving,” he says with a laugh. “Not just in the sense that we’re trying to change our sound. But we're constantly on a new journey which colours the music we make.”
The pair began that journey back in 2006 in Hackney, east London, where Esau was managing a junk shop. Johan, then half of club duo Radioclit with French DJ Etienne Tron, lived up the road and hearing that Esau had been a successful drummer in Malawi arranged for him to play a percussion session. But after hearing him sing it became clear there was only going to be one way forward for their creative partnership – and that was with Esau’s voice taking the lead.
“For me The Very Best is Esau’s voice,” says Johan. “Everything else is secondary, in a way. So much of his personality comes through in his singing. He’s such a positive person and I always get that feeling when I listen to him sing. It’s what I love about The Very Best and why I’ve always liked working with him so much.”
The first fruit of their collaboration was a 15-track mixtape, Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are The Very Best (2008), swiftly followed by triumphant debut album Warm Heart of Africa (2009) which featured contributions from MIA and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig and was widely acclaimed as a breakthrough in next-generation Afropop.
For Johan and Esau, however, this was just the beginning. So when Etienne opted to disband Radioclit and return to Paris in 2010 following a year out on the road, the duo pushed out another free mixtape Super Mom (2011) before unleashing their second full-length album MTMTMK (2012) – a super-charged collection which may have attracted comparisons to Paul Simon’s Graceland but was actually a brilliant fusion of contemporary styles, hooking Esau’s mellifluous voice up to euphoric rave riffs, hands-in-the-air trance and distinctively African electro beats.
Even though Johan and Esau were at this point living on separate continents (due to UK visa issues Esau moved back to Malawi in 2008), there was no slowing of their creative drive. So in October 2013 following a performance at Malawi’s Lake of Stars festival, Johan stayed on in the capital Lilongwe to record some demos for what is their most ambitious and richly textured album to date, Makes A King. Initial sessions were promising, but to really move ahead Johan felt they needed a change of scene.
“When we were ready to get into writing and production we wanted to get away from Lilongwe and city life,” he says. “We found a house about five hours drive from the capital in a village called M'dala Chikowa. It was an amazing experience recording there, especially because the community is half Christian, half Muslim. In a world often divided between the West and the ‘other’ it was amazing to see people living in peace and harmony despite differences in religion and culture.”
Living and working in M'dala Chikowa, where Johan and Esau had rented a house near the shore of Lake Malawi and set up a basic studio with just a few microphones, speakers and a laptop, also fed into the new record. Hearing that they were in town, local choirs and musicians would often turn up and perform for them, intrusions welcomed by the band who were keen to incorporate a new variety of acoustic and live instruments into their sound.
“This time we really wanted to make a record that could be played by a band,” says Johan. “Something really organic, so there’s not as many electronic instruments on Makes A King. Most of it was recorded outdoors – if you listen closely to some of the songs you can hear the waves coming in on the shore.”
As well as the sounds of the lake (chirping crickets and laughing children also feature), Johan and Esau again drew on a wide circle of contributors and guest artists. Local Malawian band Jerere can be heard sharing a joke with Esau on the infectious “Bilimankhwe” while anthemic single “Hear Me” is anchored by bass from Vampire Weekend’s Chris Baio and Senegalese superstar Baaba Maal adds his trademark vocal power to “Umasiye”. Yet whether tapping into a vibrant house groove (“Sweka”) or summoning lilting pop harmonies (“Mwana Wanga”), Makes A King remains a southern African album at its heart, with Esau not afraid to reference Malawi’s recent issues with endemic poverty and political corruption.
“The songs are pretty diverse in terms of what’s being said,” admits Johan. “But it does get harder to ignore problems in the world. ‘Hear Me’ was a very personal song for Esau as he wanted to express his frustrations about the lack of progress in Malawi since independence from colonial rule. We’ve always felt our purpose in music is to be a positive force and Esau's voice touches people without going too deep into political issues. So Makes A King is about celebrating the positive and the negative in life – and striving to stay happy through it all.”
After the sessions in Malawi were finished, Johan returned to London to mix the record and add some finishing touches, including Chris Baio’s bass parts for “Hear Me” and “Let Go”.
He also started to map out the next phase of The Very Best’s extraordinary journey – taking Makes A King’s Afro-inspired party on the road, the new album’s songs enhanced by new collaborators, Malawian band Mafilika. “We knew we wanted to expand the live show for this new album and have a proper band, not just session players,” says Johan. “So much about The Very Best is vocal melodies and harmonies, and playing alongside Mafilika will really let us showcase that.”
He also hopes to bring the experience to the UK, something finally possible now that Esau’s visa issues have been resolved. “It feels amazing to think about playing UK shows after so many years of Esau not being able to tour here,” says Johan. “After all, our whole project began in east London. Hopefully 2015 will see us come full circle – back home to where it all started!”