The Very Best: A Would-Be Lion Chaser's Backup Plan

Aug 12, 2012
Originally published on August 13, 2012 4:51 pm

How do a Swedish producer and a Malawian singer end up collaborating? The partnership that became The Very Best was sparked several years ago, when Johan Karlberg stopped into a London secondhand store that was run by the Malawi-born Esau Mwamwaya, and the two started talking music. But Karlberg says his interest in African music traces back decades further — beginning with the first time he heard Paul Simon's Graceland.

"I must have been 4 or 5, I think, when it had just come out," Karlberg tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered. "I think more than anything it was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, like the a capella part of it, that really hit home with me.

"It's not like I can say, 'From then on my whole life has been around African music,'" he clarifies. "But still, I grew up wanting to be a nature photographer, so Africa was always close to my heart because my dream was to work in the Serengeti and film lions. I guess subconsciously, the music went with my other dreams. So it doesn't feel like a coincidence or like a strange thing that I'm sitting here with Esau as The Very Best these days. It all looks like this beautiful journey of things working out — just a little bit differently than you would expect."

In the full version of this interview, Karlberg and Mwamwaya discuss political upheaval in Malawi and the making of The Very Best's new album, MTMTMK. Click the audio link on this page to hear more.

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And if you're just tuning in, you're listening to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music. And here's what happens when you take a Swedish club DJ and add a vocalist from the southeastern African country of Malawi.


RAZ: The band is called The Very Best. And the duo behind it, Johan Karlberg and Esau Mwamwaya. And since they got together a few years ago, they've combined the best elements from the European club scene and Malawian pop music.


RAZ: The Very Best's latest record is called "MTMTMK." So how does a musical mash-up like this get started?

JOHAN KARLBERG: It begins with a city like London.

RAZ: As producer Johan Karlberg explained, it was in that international melting pot, the city of London, where he ended up meeting Esau Mwamwaya. Esau was working at a thrift shop when a former bandmate of Johan's happened to strike up a conversation with Esau while haggling over a used bicycle.

KARLBERG: I'd only seen the shop from the outside. And to be honest, it looked pretty horrible, so I never walked in.


RAZ: So how did it go from, you know, knowing that Esau had this shop?

ESAU MWAMWAYA: What happened was he became more than just a, you know, my customer. Like, he became like a friend as well. Sometimes, he could come in there and we'd sit down and talk, you know? And he was kind of, you know, telling me what he does, that he was a producer. And I told him I was a musician, as well, you know?

KARLBERG: We met him at a very good point. We never expected to kind of go down the route where we would try to develop a singer like Esau, but he just showed up.

RAZ: I read that as a kid your dad played Paul Simon's record "Graceland" for you. And that made a huge impression on you.

KARLBERG: Yeah. I mean, it is one of my - these - like, first musical memories. It was a Christmas Eve, actually. I just remember listening. You know, we played it over and over because I wanted to hear it. More than anything, it was Ladysmith Black Mambazo, like the a capella part of it or something that really hit home with me.

You know, it doesn't feel like a coincidence or like a strange thing that I'm sitting here with Esau and The Very Best these days. We all kind of look like it's a beautiful journey of things working out.


RAZ: How do you imagine people listening to the music of The Very Best? Do you imagine them putting it on a - in a club and dancing to it? Do you imagine sitting down and just listening to it headphones on?

KARLBERG: I think the first album was a real listening album. The new album, we made thinking about making a record to be played live. We wanted to be able to stand on a festival stage right before Coldplay went on.


RAZ: I'm speaking with Esau Mwamwaya and Johan Karlberg of the band The Very Best. Their new album is called "MTMTMK." And one of the standout tracks on this record is called "Yoshua Alikuti" or "Where is Joshua?" Now, on its surface, it's the biblical story of Moses and Joshua leading the Israelites to the Promised Land. But in fact, as I've read, this song is a metaphor about Malawi's former president Bingu wa Mutharika.


MWAMWAYA: When he became a president, like, eight years ago, he was really good luck. He kept our peace promise, you know, like in terms of, you know, economy in Malawi and infrastructure and everything. Because of that, people just give him the name Moses, you know?

RAZ: Moses. They called him Moses.

MWAMWAYA: Exactly. Like, he took the Israelites out of Egypt. So what happened is that because he was overpraised, then he - during his second term, things just went out of hand. It's like, the economy went down, and he became like more of a dictator. People were demanding for some changes, you know? We gave him 60 days to make a decision, you know, address the nation. But he died.

RAZ: He died. Yeah.

MWAMWAYA: (Unintelligible) yeah.


RAZ: You sing in the song - and I'm translating, of course, into English - the journey from Egypt was very long. You managed to make us cross the Red Sea. But now, what's wrong?

MWAMWAYA: Exactly. Yeah. That was the question, obviously.

RAZ: The chorus of this song: Where's Joshua, Moses' brother.

MWAMWAYA: Exactly.

RAZ: When is he/she coming? We need salvation. And that she is who?

MWAMWAYA: Basically, in Malawi, we have a female president now.

RAZ: Joyce Banda.

MWAMWAYA: Joyce Banda. But actually, this song was made before Joyce Banda became the president.

RAZ: Before. Huh.

MWAMWAYA: Of course, it's the question of where is Joshua, although she came in, of course, and she's doing quite better now.

RAZ: Was she in your view, or in the view of many Malawians, was she going to be Joshua, the one who was going to take the country to the Promised Land?

MWAMWAYA: The answer is - the question is not answered yet, because I think it's too early. But so far, she's doing quite well. Now, if she keeps up the feat then, you know, we're going to be happy.


RAZ: The record doesn't just deal with political themes. There's often a lot of fun here.


THE VERY BEST: (Singing) The sky could fall down any day. Nothing lasts forever anyway. Long as I got you here with me, we OK, we OK. If by chance all the skies should fall...

RAZ: I read that the song "We OK," is that - was it co-written by Bruno Mars? Is that true?


RAZ: So he actually sat down with you and co-wrote it?




KARLBERG: No, but this is like the madness of working in The Very Best. You know, like, things happen in five different places of the world all at the same time. That track, me and K'NAAN started originally. Then I took that to Malawi, and me and Esau worked on it. And then K'NAAN was working on his own in L.A. on it, and only once it was done did K'NAAN tell me that Bruno Mars had co-written it with him, and Phil Spector, the guy that Bruno works with. I've never met Bruno Mars, and Esau hasn't either. But he was very cool about the whole process.

RAZ: Well, on the song "We OK," you're calling out several African cities by name.


BEST: (Singing) Abuja, we OK. Akra, we OK. Bamako, we OK. In Cairo, we OK.

RAZ: What's the sort of the message you have for those cities?

MWAMWAYA: Actually, it's a party kind of song. You know, it talks about African mentality, you know?

KARLBERG: It is, like you say, it's a very African kind of mentality, because even though so much bad things or whatever you want to call it, life goes on, you know? Like, that kind of feeling of hope, it's like, everything's going to be OK. Even if the stars start falling, you know, we OK. And I really like it for that as well.

You know, like, it's one of these super uplifting songs, I think, that Esau has a real capability of (unintelligible). And the main focus of The Very Best is something positive and, you know, something uplifting and to focus on that and make people feel good.


BEST: (Singing) Yeah. Who say we don't dance no more? Come on, point 'em out.

RAZ: Esau Mwamwaya and Johan Karlberg are the duo known as The Very Best. Their new record is called "MTMTMK." You can hear a few tracks at our website, Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming by.

KARLBERG: Thank you so much for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE OK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.