Tuesday, October 13, 2009

It Came From Africa

You couldn't help but feel a little sorry for Vampire Weekend. Here they were, a bunch of 20 year olds from Columbia who listened to a couple Afrobeat records and were inspired to write a crossover pop album, and almost immediately they were cruxified for it. The accusations ranged from the ludicrous ("how dare smart white people play soweto") to the legitimate ("how dare smart white people retread the Talking Heads"), but beyond that the uproar raised a lot of interesting questions around authenticity and artistry, and which music belongs to who. That argument has only gotten more complex as we barrel through the internet age, and artists like M.I.A. and Bande do Role assert their regional identities at the same time as artists like Santigold and Diplo appropriate them.

With this ongoing battle as backdrop, The Very Best have arrived to provide an argument of their own. Formed in London when two DJs walked into a used furniture store and discovered the Malawian owner of the store could actually sing his ass off, they released a mixtape last year that was met with near-universal acclaim. The key to their success is an inversion of a well-worn formula: instead of cross-polinating African textures and rhythms with pop songs, ala Graceland or the aforementioned Vampires, they've lifted all the sounds of modern western music and molded them to fit traditional African song structures. Though the energy and originality of the music speaks for itself, the inclusion of both Ezra Koenig of VW and M.I.A. on their debut LP drives home the point: true music is boundless.


Similar in approach but totally different in genre, the BLK JKS are an indie rock band from Johannesburg that deserve way more ears than they're currently getting. Discovered by Diplo (who else?) on a 2008 trip to South Africa, they remind me either of TVotR covering Rusted Root, or Mars Volta backing up Santana, depending on the song. Which is to say: WTF.

BLK JKS enlisted our old friends the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble for their debut, and, like TVotR before them, the "wall of sound" school of production wails about as often as it wears. When they wail, like on opener "Molalatladi", the Afroelectric storm rains down with unopposible force and everything from the warble in the lead singer's voice to the ska-like guitar flicks seems to pulsate with the same rhythm. But unlike their Brooklyn brethren, BLK JKS haven't yet figured out how to maintain the tension while dialing down the tempo, as "Standby" blandly proves. Still, there seems to be something effortlessly natural about the Prog&Beats combination that the BLK JKS are advancing, and if they're given more time to refine it, they might arrive somewhere neither their home country nor their adopted one could've imagined.



CHIP said...

The Very Best= Amazing. Thanks a lot for posting this.

mynameismatthew said...

TVB is HOT. The lurking shall end soon and posts will start.

Willy said...

I love this site, and especially this band! keep up the great work!