The Very Best on Hanging with Hyenas and Ezra Koenig
Johan Hugo of the pan-African dance-pop duo explains the band's unique approach
Given that the Very Best are the result of a less-then-immediately-intuitive cultural collaboration between a Malawian singer, Esau Mwamwaya, and a Swedish producer, Johan Hugo, it’s fitting that the M.I.A.-approved band’s second full-length of buoyant world-pop, MTMTMK, out July 17, was the product of some unusual circumstances. We spoke with Hugo, who was calling from his parents’ country home in Sweden, about the making of one of the year’s most smile-inducing albums.
The new album has a lot of collaborators — K’naan, Bruno Mars, Baaba Maal. Were there other collaboration-based albums that you looked to for models?
Not really. The thing that colored the album most was Malawi. The tracks that were a bit more poppy and clubby were done [in Malawi], because of the environment we were in. That was the kind of the music that gets played on the radio and in clubs there. Esau and I would go out on the weekends in-between recording sessions. We would go to the clubs and get the DJs to play our new songs and try them out on the crowds. So the sound of Malawi was a big influence — not particularly Malawian music but more what the kids were listening to out there. And that was everything from American R&B and dance music and hip-hop and a lot of South African dance music as well. West African and Nigerian music, too.
How else did your location affect the music?
Luckily both me and Esau are a bit fanatic with nature and nature films and that was something that was really cool in Malawi as well. A lot of nights when we would drive from the studio there would be hyenas outside. Packs of hyenas would come into the city [Lilongwe] to scavenge at night. They’re massive. They’re so much bigger in real life than I ever imagined, and it was so cool to see them because I’d been there many times before but I’d never seen the hyenas. You would step out onto the street and there would be one just standing there. And for a track like “Rumbae,” the one that Taio Cruz wrote with us, the synths that come in on the hook are us trying to emulate the sound of the hyena. And the studio had a balcony, so we would put Esau outside to sing at night so you could hear these things in the background. All these things add texture. If there’s one thing I love bringing in, it’s nature. I always wanted to be a nature photographer growing up.
How do you determine who will end up collaborating with you? Do you approach people that you want to work with or do they approach you?
Things just kind of happen along the way. People just show up at the right time during the process. That’s how it was with M.I.A. on the first album. She was recording something else with us, and we gave her “Rain Dance,” and she liked it and she sang on it. The only person that we ever really tried to get to get to work with us was Ezra [Koenig] from Vampire Weekend [for 2010’s “Warm Heart of Africa”]. We had talked to him about it for a long time, but they were starting to blow up already so I had to keep bugging him a little bit. Like, asking him to come to the studio when they were passing through London. But, you know, K’Naan, Amadou & Mariam, Baaba Maal — all these people were people I had done something for and they returned the favor because they liked what we were doing.
It’s nice to have talented friends.
Yeah, it’s amazing. It’s super cool. We managed to work with Baaba Maal, who’s one of my favorite artists, and people that I think will be looked back on as real pioneers like M.I.A. and [Vampire Weekend’s] Ezra Koenig. I’m super proud of what we’ve done.