Esau Mwamwaya was born in Mzuzu in Malawi, East Africa. He grew up in the capital, Lilongwe, where he played drums in various bands such as Masaka Band. He was a good friend of the legendary Evison Matafale and they played together for several years before he was killed in Malawi police custody in 2003.
In 1999 Esau Mwamwaya moved to London, England has until recently run a second-hand furniture store in Clapton, East London.
Esau's shop was on the same street as Radioclit's old studio, and after the Radioclit boy's bought a bike from Esau they invited him to one of their house warming parties They made friends and started working on music together. Two years later and the project has gotten it's name The Very Best. An album is finished (due 2009).
The Very Best:
Esau Mwamwaya and Radioclit are the Very Best
[Ghettopop/Green Owl; 2008]
Late last year when blogs began to be flooded with takes on the M.I.A.-via-the-Clash "Paper Planes" riddim, two stood out: A remix that improved on the original by papering over some of the song's relative white space with fantastic verses from Bun B and Rich Boy, and "Tengazako" ("Take What's Yours" in Chichewa), a collaboration between European production team Radioclit and Malawian-born, London-based singer Esau Mwamwaya. Since then, Mwamwaya raised his profile the quickest way one can in music blog circles-- via collaborations, covers, and remixes. Continuing their Six Degrees of Indie game, Radioclit and Mwamwaya leaked "Get It Up"-- which featured not only Maya herself, but also Santogold-- "Kamphopo", built on an Architecture in Helsinki track, and covers of the Beatles and Vampire Weekend featuring, respectively, the Ruby Suns and, uh, Vampire Weekend. The refreshing thing, however, was that unlike 95% of the superfluous odds and sods clogging blogspace, these tracks were actually really good.
It's easy to be cynical about this process of easing Western listeners into Esau Mwamwaya's music-- RIYL Vampire Weekend, Ruby Suns, other English-language artists cribbing from African music-- until you hear the music itself, and in particular the whole of he and Radioclit's free mixtape, Are the Very Best. Once you get through the indie-guarded gates, Mwamwaya and Radioclit are open here to everything from South Africa's marabi and kwaito music to Hans Zimmer scores to French and American hip-hop to Michael Jackson-- and in most cases, it's the tracks that lean furthest away from the familiar that work best. The regal "Sister Betina", BLK JKS collaboration "Salota", and Radioclit productions "Funa Funa" and "Kada Manja" are as immediately likable as the rest of the mix. And, frankly, much of the best-known source material here-- "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa", the AiH backdrop on "Kamphopo", the True Romance via Badlands theme on "Chikandi", the loathsome Beatles song "Birthday"-- is either simply a blueprint or sketch for other ideas, or is vastly improved by Mwamwaya's treatments.
Mwamwaya's cultural cross-section is no accident. Although he sings in his native Chichewa, he met Radioclit's Etienne Tron when he sold the producer a used bike in a London junkshop. Despite that, Mwamwaya and Radioclit's talents lie far beyond cultural fusion and curatorial skills: In short, they've created just about the most listenable and flat-out enjoyable record of the year-- and one that happens to dovetail nicely with the urgency for and overdue embrace of morally guided globalism.
Those globalistic tendencies are, unfortunately, born as much from tragedies such as the Mumbai attacks and economic fears as they are the afterglow of Barack Obama's election. (And, sadly, not born out of crises in Darfur, Kenya, Chad, and far too many other places.) But culturally, this century's renewed Western interest in the music of Africa, the Middle East, South America, China, and elsewhere seems largely free of the condescending and touristic tones that it carried in the 1980s. Instead of searching for a supposed antidote for MTV and synth-pop and whatever else got authenticity watchdogs up in arms a quarter-century ago, now it seems as if people are exploring increasing amounts of non-Western music simply because they have increased access to it and are enjoying the hell out of it.
Mwamwaya's fusion, of course, can't be boiled down to Africa vs. the West, a laughably simplistic formula. He's assimilating from a wide range of music both from his home continent-- the clattery, choatic sounds of kuduro or marabi, the refreshing blank space and clean lines of highlife, the deep, loping, patient kwaito-- and around the globe. So The Very Best is far from a primer, but it's not aiming to be an introduction to anything other than the sensibilities and sounds of its creators. It turns out to be wide-ranging, not only in sound but spirit. Mwamwaya plays heart-tugging on the "Birthday" cover and "Funa Funa", gets earnest on "Dinosaur on the Ark", and displays a wicked sense of humor all over the place: An outstanding reworking of M.I.A.'s "Boyz", the tongue-in-cheek cover art, and an extended runout of Michael Jackson's Free Willy theme "Will You Be There" that turns into a reminder that they've given you this mixtape free followed by a plea to look out for (to still "be there" for) Mwamwaya's proper album. In the meantime, consider this freebie an early holiday gift.
- Scott Plagenhoef, December 4, 2008