When Johan Hugo and Esau Mwamwaya were in Malawi recording “MTMTMK,” their second album as the group the Very Best, they would take new tracks out to play at clubs in the capital city of Lilongwe to see how dancers responded to their big beats and catchy Afro-pop hooks.
“Young people in Malawi listen to a lot of Western dance music and hip-hop, but also a lot of new African music, which is quite poppy and dancy and hard,” Hugo says. So, the aim was to gauge the reactions of “all the younger, future-thinking African musicians who have their eyes on what’s happening in club music.”
Testing songs with a club crowd helped shape “MTMTMK,” which blends European, American and African musical traditions. “We wanted to make an up-tempo record, something people could dance to at festivals and clubs,” Hugo says.
Malawi is home to Mwamwaya, who, until recently, lived in London. He was working at a secondhand store when he met Hugo, a producer from Sweden. The two, along with Frenchman Etienne Tron, formed the Very Best in 2008, releasing a series of free mixtapes that captured the interest of indie mega groups including Mumford & Sons and Vampire Weekend.
The Very Best’s first album, 2009’s “Warm Heart of Africa,” “was done under real pressure because Esau was working so hard for this lady who owned the junk store,” Hugo says. “So, we would only have a few hours here and there to write and record.”
He and Mwamwaya (Tron has since left the group) say the constraints of life in Malawi were similarly influential to “MTMTMK.” “Every day, you have the electricity cut for four or five or six hours,” Hugo says. “But we thrive when it’s not so organized. We work best under [crappy] conditions.”
The duo also recorded in New York and Sweden but scrapped most of the music from those sessions. Having distractions like Malawi’s blackouts prevented them from overthinking the music, which can be complex in its production but direct in its melodies and English/Chichewa lyrics.
“We really try to go without thinking as much as possible and just roll with it,” Hugo says. “Less thinking is a lot better for the creative process.”
“We OK,” the burbling first single from “MTMTMK,” features Somali-Canadian rapper K’naan, and was co-written by American R&B superstar Bruno Mars — something the band didn’t realize until after recording it. “[Mars] was very generous in the way he dealt with it,” Johan Hugo says. “We’re obviously not a band that has a massive amount of money.”