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The Very Best: Afropop Duo Deliver Heartwarming Sophomore LP

Who: Johan Karlberg and Esau Mwamwaya, the two halves of the Very Best, met for the first time at a party in London several years ago. At the time, Mwamwaya was running a secondhand shop not far from his future bandmate’s home. “I remember this guy standing alone at the party when I arrived, looking a bit lost,” the Swedish-born producer says of Mwamwaya that night. “He told me he was a drummer, so I invited him to the studio and he ended up being a singer. But my first memory of him is this big smile, which he always has on his face anyway. He’s always welcoming.”

The duo’s debut full-length, 2009’s Warm Heart of Africa, was the most irresistibly jovial record released that year, with Karlberg’s ultra-buoyant, club-friendly production transported and vaulted even higher by Mwamwaya’s skyward singing voice. “When he came to the studio, we listened to a few things and had a good chat,” Karlberg says. “When he started humming along with one of the beats I played him, I asked him to record it. He asked, ‘Can I do harmony on that?” and then he wanted to do another harmony and another one, and 15 minutes later, he had done this chorus that just sounded amazing. He brought me back to being a kid, listening to Ladysmith Black Mambazo with my parents — that real beautiful, southeast African way of singing and harmonizing. It was one of those rare moments in music when something completely blows your mind. I didn’t expect to find him or a singer like that. I wasn’t expecting to have a project like the Very Best before that day.”

The Return of Bruno: Since that day, Karlberg and Mwamwaya have collaborated often with additional vocalists, bringing on Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig for their debut’s title track, one of the album’s most memorable moments. On this year’s vowel-challenged follow-up, MTMTMK, they’ve joined hands with an equally enticing list of guests, including Baaba Maal and Malian couple Amadou & Mariam. “We OK,” a radio-friendly pat on the back that features an appearance from K’Naan, boasts, unbeknownst to Karlberg, a hook originally penned by Top 40 retro dynamo Bruno Mars. “When it came down to clearing the record and the credits and everything for the album release, that’s when K’Naan told me that Bruno had written the track with him originally,” Karlberg says. “Everything was approved, but I’ve never actually heard any proper feedback from him apart from that he was happy to let us use it. He didn’t want a whole lot of money.”

Lights Out: Having been unhappy with the results of early MTMTMK sessions in both Sweden and New York, the duo decided to write and record side by side in Lilongwe, the isolated Malawian capital that Mwamwaya calls home again. The change of scenery had its advantages and disadvantages. “There are a lot of tiny, tiny studios there that are used by the gospel choirs,” says Karlberg. “The one difficulty is the lack of electricity: It cuts out every day, and some days it’s gone for six hours, so most of the time you need to be pretty on point when things are running. But there’s no Internet connection and very limited phone reception, so no one is bugging you. We really felt like we were being left alone, like we came back to the essence of how we were working on the first record — no label, no nothing. Just having fun, feeling like kids a little bit. Just playing around.”