All photos: Jenny Greenley
Afro/European soul-house explosion The Very Best prove that the best made plans require the simplest standards of execution. Now a duo comprised of ex-Radioclit producer Johan Hugo and Malawian vocalist Esau Mwamyaya, the tandem brought their bright and unique blend to Washington, DC’s Rock and Roll Hotel on Friday night. 2010′s Warm Heart of Africa should be the hipster generation’s Legend. Bob Marley’s posthumous greatest hits album was the populist hallmark disc of any reggae adopting teen of the 90s. By comparison, The Very Best’s debut album’s whimsical yet well executed blend of global styles would fit for any globally-minded 90s child. Trunk-rattling hip hop, dubstep, and yes, even digeridoos, plus a plethora of dance-friendly rhythms created the most unique of ear worming notions. On recent 2012 release MTMTMK, those get bigger, louder and adopt a further expanse of booty-shaking grooves.
The Very Best’s live performance has an extraordinarily warm and international vibe. It’s a bashment party meets tribal celebration, exactly the space where a Euro-African combination should meet for optimal success. Bashment is a UK party scene, a dancehall meets house underground vibe where sweat dripping off the walls is the norm, dirty rhythms meeting with dirty minds for a wildly exciting time. Blending that with organic African sounds only invites something heavier into the party, and it’s really quite the scene. Having DC’s afro-house and Latin-tropical friendly Sol Power All Stars and The Very Best’s frequent UK Afro-folk co-conspirator Seye on the billing made perfect sense, and added to the idea that this wasn’t a performance as much as it was a unique party unto itself.
Seye’s a tall, strikingly handsome, dark-skinned Londoner with a self-effacing earnestness and disarming grace. With a Los Angeles Dodgers fitted cap sitting askew upon a blond-dyed tuft of hair and a batik print meets western outfit, he appeared stylishly awkward yet entirely comfortable. Weaving his way through an opening set of folky guitar ballads and tales of love lost and his European home, his awe-inspiring set inspired a female in the audience to come on-stage. While dancing to his guitar driven takes on John Mayer and a number of other cover tunes along with his own material, she began to undress him! Yes, there was young Seye, onstage, sheepishly grinning while having his shirt unbuttoned by a possibly inebriated yet totally awestruck fanatic. It was quite the scene, and spoke volumes as to the potential success for his career as a performer.
The Very Best are justly named. Esau Mwamwaya assumes the microphone like a princely figure, his bow-legged gait and sway in time to the riddims being dropped by Johann Hugo-as-DJ making you already aware that it’s time to get your hips in motion. When he opens his mouth, it’s an accented falsetto that spills forth, exactly what you were expecting but so much more. In American pop’s history, Paul Simon is the most familiar modern voice over these grooves. If an extra-cool hipster, you’re aware of a deeper notion of what this music organically sounds like, but The Very Best represent what this music CAN sound like. The difference in semantics is the difference that causes the titanic wave of hands and whole room dance party that erupted on Friday night. “Julia’s” Mack-10 meets Miriam Makeba style funk hit like a sledgehammer, while Seye’s less accented pop vocal added a layer of smoothness on numerous tracks that made the room feel like a rippling wave of emotion. First encore “Yoshua Alikuti’s” seductive riddim hit deep and strong, and Mwamwaya’s vocal over Hugo’s house production lent a deep house champion sound.
When sensual grooves collide with a willing crowd, it allows for a magical and appreciative vibe. On Friday night, the Rock and Roll Hotel was turned into a basement in a Malawian village, and a crowd in DC was swept there then returned safely home by a groove that flew high into the air, yet was heavy enough to land in our hips, in our feet, and most importantly in our souls. The Very Best are a unique band that occupy a unique space and provide a uniquely great time.