There’s a little rumble in the earth. It’s faint now, but it sounds like it’s getting closer. Wait, I can see it now. It’s a train, and it sounds like it’s chugging along to a beat. Damn! That’s a fresh beat choo-choo train! It says Pop Music on the front and it’s got Phil Collins’ face painted on the side. Is that M.I.A. on the train?! Oh snap! Is that Ezra from Vampire Weekend? And Bonde do Role and Santogold??? Wait, stop! Pharrell is tied to the train tracks and he’s screaming! Oh no! I think I’m inside Pharrell’s worst nightmare! And it sounds like SHIMMERING, GLOBAL AFRO-POP.
Well I hope everyone packed their Pumas because we’re all going back to Africa like Marcus Garvey, except darker skinned and with a bigger smile. And it’s about time.
When I imagine a global pop sensation coming to reality, the formula I’d guess would be: entrentched producer with an ear for ‘authentic’ sounds meets up with ‘authentic’ musician with a pop proclivity. Authentic musician does his or her thing, and entrenched producer mashes it up with a dub beat and a rock sample. BOOM. Indie blogs rave, Fader Mag does a cover spread, mixtape drops, Rolling Stone loves it, YouTube views soar, Live Aid 2010 invites roll in, and a global pop sensation is born before the first LP is ever released.
In this case that’s pretty much how it all went down. The Very Best is a collaboration between London producers Radioclit and African singer and drummer Esau Mwamwaya. Mwamwaya owns a used furniture store in London. Etienne Tron, half of Radioclit, bought a used bike from Mwamwaya, chatted music with him a bit, invited him to a housewarming party, and that night they laid down “Chalo,” a song about people loving each other to create a perfect world. BOOM. Check it out:
Download the mixtape (link to zipfile here starting November 1), too. Dubbed the ‘Phil Collins of Africa,’ Esau contributes on drums and vocals, sung mostly in Chichewa and Swahili, which have a little bit of the feel of an African church service with a karaoke machine in the pulpit. You can hear both the gospel – Malawi is a heavily Christian country so music is usually appreciated in church – and the pop, which somehow slipped through the cracks of government censorship and found its way to Mwamwaya before he came to the UK in 1999. Radioclit, Tron and his partner Johan Karlberg, are sort of the Henry Clay and John Randolph of this Back-To-Africa movement. They bring the, well….indie clit rub, with Vampire Weekend, M.I.A., Santogold, Akon, Radiohead, Michael Jackson, Architecture in Helsinki, The Ruby Suns and even Hans Zimmer samples to go along with their beatz. M.I.A., Santogold, Ezra Koenig (of Vampire Weekend) and Akon all actually showed up and laid down original vocals for the project.
All of us, the Pop subconscious, have been waiting for this trip back to Africa. You want to say it started with M.I.A and Arular back in ’04, but really I have to give the initial credit to Sean Paul, who’s dancehall beats raised the bar up when he dropped 4 or 5 or however many singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2002-2003 with Dutty Rock. Everyone was like: Oh yeah, the Caribbean. And that set the gears in motion of the choo choo train that would run over Pharrell’s career.
M.I.A. put out Arular and just like that Pandora’s box was open. We all got in the Third World Democracy groovebox, bumping and grinding to favela beats in London and NY as we gazed across oceans, feeling our bare feet in red clay, bopping to the vibe of a worldwide party even while we sat alone in our bedrooms or cloistered within ipod earbuds on a morning commute.
We were primed. Then we hit the bashment dance party with Damian Marley and Welcome To Jamrock. The beat was so live while we were whinin’ up over Trenchtown that we almost forgot how close we were to the motherland. Damian’s joint was so vivid that we forgot to remember his pops chanting down Babylon so he could see Africa Unite. The old man was political, utopian. He wanted to dream. That was then. The son was political, utopian. He wanted to dance. This was now.
And so on and so forth. It was dancehall, it was bhangra, it was favela funk, it was dirty south. It was dark-skinned, damning, and danceable. But it was never Africa.
All of this leads us to this reality: we’ve got an African guy sampling tracks by indie artists that crib third world sounds. And he’s smiling and asking for peace – basically letting us off the hook for dancing to his stolen music for the past 5 years. London is already feeling African sounds, which means New York is soon to follow. If LA catches on, this thing has no ceiling like Obama in August ’07.
The Very Best will be huge because of Mwamwaya’s smoove Chichewa vocals and his easy smile. You want to have a giggle break just looking at him. Sure, the mixtape will come out, be a huge indie sensation, and the cool kids will keep it to themselves. But just wait until the full-length album of original songs drops next year. It’ll be for you and for me and the en-tire human race, baby. It might be the only thing that can steer this planet away from its collision course towards Apocalypse 2012. I, for one, will organize on the grassroots level for this pied piper of peace. This is my early vote: