An energetic, life-affirming culture-clash of an album.
John Doran 2009-09-09
It’s highly unlikely anyone would have predicted that Paul Simon’s Graceland would become a New York hipster touchstone – but maybe this is why you and I don’t get to hang out at parties with Karen O and the Gossip.
Of course, this landmark 1986 album had significantly different cultural baggage in mid-80s Britain than it does now, across the pond. At home it was sneered at for being coffee-table fare falling between two stools, with people perhaps more interested in what they perceived to be cultural tourism in apartheid-divided South Africa, and whether Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Mbaqanga musicians on the disc were receiving the same rate of pay as their white peers.
What with the UK and the US being two nations divided by a common language, the album has a different place in the pop canon stateside. In the same way that we find it hard to understand hip hop’s fascination with Phil Collins, we’ve generally found it hard to take the album that gave us You Can Call Me Al seriously. But it is the blogeratti’s LP du jour, and has been referenced and talked up by painfully hip bands such as Vampire Weekend (its influence is all over Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa). Interestingly this influence has now spread across the Atlantic to Europe, and it is audible on The Very Best’s debut album, Warm Heart of Africa – albeit in a very different manner.
Instead of trying to seamlessly and respectfully blend modern Western pop music and traditional African choral singing, The Very Best – formed after a chance meeting between Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya and cult European DJ/production team Radiocl** – do everything in their power to joyfully highlight the lack of authenticity to their endeavours.
The result is an energetic culture clash. On Chalo the spirit of 86 is summoned in a monumental slab of stadium synth-rock that might be more comfortable on a Van Halen album. Elsewhere, M.I.A. turns up with a rucksack full of crunk-step on Rain Dance, and the album winds down with a beautiful interpolation of Heart it Races by Architecture in Helsinki, on Kamphopo.
Normally an eyebrow would be raised suspiciously at the sheer gaucheness of a band calling itself The Very Best, but after listening to this life-affirming album, one can't help but acknowledge that they may be on to something.