A Chat with The Cross-Continental Duo's Johan Hugo on the Changing Face of Global Pop
A new advent of global cross-breeding pop is upon us, and it’s a safe bet to say duo The Very Best is at the helm. UK/Swede producer Johan Hugo and Malawi singer Esau Mwamwaya aren’t making global bass or smushing world genres together from a studio in Brooklyn. This anomalous duo has used pure Afro-pop melodies and non-English lyrics, and they’ve succeeded at it. Of course, collaborating with Ezra Koenig and MIA on their debut album Warm Heart of Africa didn’t hurt.
Their second album MTMTMK is coming out on July 17, with two singles “Kondaine” and “Yoshua Alikuti” already circulating the web. The video for the latter was inspired by Lil Wayne’s “A Milli” MV, which has the MC strolling through L.A.’s streets. The Very Best responds with a stroll through the Nairobi, gang-controlled slums, and the difference is palpable, to say the least. Their new album will feature another all-star cameo/writer line-up with K’naan, Baba Maal, Amadou & Mariam, Taio Cruz, Bruno Mars and more.
I spoke with producer Johan Hugo about the new album and its mysterious name, Malawi culture shock, Graceland, and why the term “world music” kinda sucks.
Where are you?
I’m in London. I’ve been in London living for 11 years. We finished the album last year in November in Malawi, so I‘ve been back most of the time. We went to Kenya to shoot the three videos. I’m going to Malawi on Tuesday to see Esau for a few days because we’re scoring a soundtrack at the moment.
A score for…
It’s for a documentary called Tough Bond. Its about street kids in Kenya addicted to glue from the glue factory there called Tough Bond. It’s by the same people who did the “Yoshua Alikuti” video and “Kondaine” video that just came out.
What is the hardest to adjust to when you go to Malawi? How about when you come back to London?
The hardest thing to adjust to going out there is probably food. Or the lack of food. You don’t just pop out and get some food somewhere. You end up having a small breakfast, and then you don’t eat all day, and then you come back to the house and have some home-cooked food that’s very simple as well. There’s something called sima, it’s like mashed potato. It’s kind of the staple carbohydrate. You eat with your hands. It’s nice. But the fact that you go from Western food to African food and very little of it, it’s the biggest kind of thing to get used to.
Coming home normally the weirdest part is stepping into clean smells. Nothing smells nothing sounds. It’s strange coming back. Everything feels very sterile in a way. Especially where you’re in a slum in Malawi, people are burning rubber tires for fuel, so you’ve always got this heavy burned plasticky smell. There’s so much going on all the time. Your senses are overloaded. And you don’t really notice it once you’re there but once you come back everything feels quiet and crisp.
Do you speak the language?
No haven’t been there nearly enough. I can be polite and order a beer and the basic stuff. I’m usually there at least once a year, ranging from week or two. Not enough. You feel like you’re picking up every time you’re there, but you’ve lost it by the next time you’re there.
What does “Yoshua Alikuti” mean?
It means “Where is Joshua?” Basically it refers to the late president of Malawi who died a few months ago. And it’s a wordplay referring to him, because when he came to power they called him Moses because he was supposed to be the savior of Malawi. He did good things first term, but the second term things started going really really bad. A lot of fuel shortages, a lot of protests and riots and things, so this song is referring to him being called Moses, but the person that is actually a savior in the bible in the end is Joshua, so we’re asking where is Joshua? Where is our savior? it’s one of the few political songs that we have done.
The video takes place in Malawi?
It was in Nairobi.
What was the goal of filming the video the way you did, emulating Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”?
The idea of making an African version, a slum version of the ‘A Milli’ video is something we’ve been thinking about for awhile. With the politicalness of this track and with the hardship of the people, the Malawi people, we decided to do it in a slum setting. We’re Lil Wayne fans, but everything that comes with hip-hop, and talking about being from the ghetto, for us it’s a fun way at pointing a finger at it and showing that there is a different world to this as well. It was just something that felt right.
Have you heard about Lil Wayne reacting at all?
No we haven’t Some of his fan pages were tweeting it, but there’s been nothing concrete. I wish he’d jump on a remix!
Your role in the video is kind of funny. You’re the lone white guy sort of hanging out in the background. What was it like for you during the filming?
I was fine. I didn’t actually wanna be in the video but the director was insistent on me playing the bodyguard, but it’s funny looking back because it’s the white bodyguard in the Nairobi slum, [laughs] but the shooting was amazing. It was pretty crazy. It’s not your average place to shoot. It was only doable because the directors have been working there for three years, they knew the local people and the gangster-controlled area, and these gangs were our helpers. It’s not the place you can normally go to, but there were super nice people. It felt like a great adventure the whole time.
You guys are just a duo now?
Basically Esau the singer, and me and Etienne [Tron] were Radioclit, but we split Radioclit up a little while ago toward the end of the campaign of Warm Heart of Africa. But essentially nothing has changed much, because it was me and Esau always touring and me and Esau actually making the music for The Very Best even though Etienne was part of the band. We had very different responsibilities. For me and Esau it never felt any different.
What does your album title MTMTMK mean?
I can’t say it! I think there’s gonna be competition leading up to the album release for suggestions. I can’t talk about it, sorry. We’re not allowed to say what it means before the album comes out. Once you see the title you’ll know. There’s another title that is the real title that it’s the abbreviation for, but we’re not allowed to say it and we’re not allowed to call it that. So you’ll see.
What initially got you interested in African inspired music?
Eh, I mean, I don’t know. I’ve been asked to write this little article in the Times in the UK about Paul Simon’s Graceland, because we’re playing these shows in London this summer. We’re playing the whole album. The first memory of listening to African music was listening to Graceland on a Christmas eve with my dad. When I was 5. It was one of my really prominent childhood music memories. It wasn’t that I was looking at African music, but when I rediscovered that album in my teen years, I realized it’s just something i have a lot of love for — the melodies, harmonies. I guess when Radioclit was doing a lot of dance music, you realize some of the most amazing music in the world comes out of very poor places, and also when you get heavy into dance music, and start tracing dance music back, you sooner or later end up in Africa. So all these things in combination sparked our interest properly in 2004.
What is the region that really gets your music?
You know what, I think the West gets us more than anywhere in Africa still. But we have good support, Malawi is picking up as well. But, people are confused. Weirdly enough when we started The Very Best and we were about to release the Warm Heart of Africa we thought ‘this is going to be hard, peeple aren’t going to understand what he’s saying,’ and we haven’t become the biggest band, but we’ve done pretty well for the fact that we have a singer that doesn’t sing in English. Surprisingly, America is by far our biggest market. I noticed that in terms of Facebook and Twitter and Soundcloud. It’s quite spread out at the same time. But definitely West more than Africa at the moment.
Do you feel like the west’s interest has a lot to do with the Vampire Weekend and MIA collaborations?
Yeah I definitely think that we gained some MIA and Vampire Weekend fans. But I really wouldn’t know.
What do you expect to get out of the new collaborations with K’Naan, Amadou and Mariam, and Baba Maal?
These were things just naturally happened. We did a remix for Amadou and Mariam and Baba Maal, and it’s definitely the weirdest thing we’ve ever done. It’s a trippy Doors track or something. But K’naan is someone I’ve worked with on and off for years. There were some weird collaborations on the album, the Bruno Mars track, we had a track with Taio Cruz — we didn’t wanna come out and do the same thing. I’m sure some people would think it’s quite obvious that we’d work with Amadou and Mariam or K’naan. But there’s definitely some writers involved in the album that are not talked about as much and are more surprising! I think musically the new album has taken a giant leap forward.
Do you hate the term ‘world music’?
It’s nothing that makes any sense. It has never made sense. It doesn’t make sense now, but people need to put things in boxes. For someone in Brazil, Swedish music would be world music. The fact that we call it world music it’s strange. I did this talk for the Guardian recently and I sat down with these older journalists. We were talking about the guy who coined the term, Ian Burrell. In the early 80s they were sitting in the pub trying to figure out what to call it. He was even saying it was a dated term. But it is what it is.
For the last album they put us in the pop section, and I think it’s still better to be in a subcategory, unless you’re going to chart in the pop category — not that it really makes a difference. But for this one I wanted to be in the World Music section. Looking at something like the Grammys, there aren’t a lot of people in the world music categories, so I really wanted to penetrate that. But, I wouldn’t say I even have an album that truly classifies as “world music.”
You seem to be respected by global bass artists, with the Nadastrom remix.
Yeah you know. I guess we somewhat fit in global pop , especially when we started. We like pop music.
It’s hard to find a good melody these days but you guys go for it with these unpretentious, beautiful melodies. Is it something you just really value when you’re composing?
Yeah I’m addicted to melody. There’s some completely unmelodious music that can be super rhythm-driven and I will fall in love with it too. But there’s just something about melody — if there’s an amazing melody, you get this crazy feeling. For me, it’s super important, especially for The Very Best. Esau is a genius in melody, I was trying to play catchup with him on this album and trying to evolve my production skills to be able to push him even further. I agree, I miss melody in a lot of music.