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Photos: Joel Mittleman.

The inflatable palm trees weren’t fooling anyone. We weren’t in some tropical oasis. We were in Rock and Roll Hotel. But for 45 minutes The Very Best tried with reckless enthusiasm and its cross-pollinated global pop to transport us somewhere else. Somewhere warm and inviting.

Ninja Sonik Get Low

Esau Mawamwaya emerged to the majestic beat of “Yalira”. All finger snaps, plucked strings, and a solitary booming drum, it’s about as triumphant of an entrance as they come. And Mawamwaya vocally hopscotched all over the thing, his cadence staccato one moment, his voice soaring the next. The Malawian singer grinned ear to ear. Hardly a face in the audience wasn’t reciprocating.

Very Best

The song did what The Very Best’s debut Warm Heart of Africa did most effectively: showcase that God-given mellifluous voice. A song later, however, as DJ Johan Karlberg segued into M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes”, Mawamwaya was flanked by a hype man who did little more than clog songs with disruptive blurting. One would think after over a year of The Very Best taking its show on the road it would realize Mawamwaya is a veritable Judge Dredd of MCs.

Ninja Sonik Sleeeeeeepy

Karlberg too overplayed his role. Beats thumped overwhelmingly, bass muddying the nuances of the songs he and Radioclit partner Etienne Tron first produced. Even amplified with reverb, Mawamwaya struggled to overcome the imposing volume.

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The audience hardly seemed to mind though. It bought wholesale into the wide-eyed ebullience that comes through The Very Best’s mixture Afropop, hip-hop, and dance. When the set tipped its hat to modern indie rock – as on appropriations of Yeasayer’s “Ambling Alp” and Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart It Races” – the under-21 crowd camped in front of the stage went wild, raising their glow sticks in the air.  If only I hadn’t left my glow sticks in my other pair of jeans.

Ninja Sonik TWO MICS!

Opener Ninjasonik gets credit for warming up the Sunday night crowd. In fact, based on the amount of lyrics that could be heard recited in unison with the Brooklyn hip-hop duo, many in attendance were there for more than The Very Best.

Very Best Close Up Again

Ninjasonik can be easily grouped in with the late-80s hip-hop revival spearheaded by The Cool Kids. Both groups use chunky, uncomplicated beats that utilize dated synths and drum machines. Their music is playful and self-aware, as the two are live as well.

Ninja Sonik 1

Some have stuck the label of “hipster rap” on this kind of music, and while that reeks of a certain dismissiveness, it’s a label Ninjasonik appear to invite. Early on they offered something of a mission statement: “We do bars / We don’t clubs /We drink PBRs / And we do drugs.” On the sing-songy “Art School Girls”, the two proclaimed their love for the titular subject, whose “sketches are so rad” and who likes them back “because we’re black.” And then they sampled Matt & Kim. It was a fitting start to a night of music that reveled in its lack of boundaries, cultural or geographic.

Very Best Push Out
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Very Best Hands UpVery Best Mic to Crowd