Interview: Esau Mwamwaya
Esau Mwamwaya owns a second-hand furniture store in east London. Producers Radioclit used to stop by. Now they make beautiful music together.
Words Danna Hawley
Photography Lee Hooper
“Everything happens for a purpose,” Esau Mwamwaya declares, as a radiant smile spreads across his face. Just minutes earlier, his finished album – an astounding debut featuring the likes of Vampire Weekend, Marina Vello (formerly of Bonde Do Role), Zimbabwe’s Harare Mambo Band and geopolitical phenom M.I.A. – was sent off to his manager. With that same smile lighting up scores of magazine pages and a myriad of tour dates ahead, it’s hard to imagine that, up until recently, Esau’s only musical hustle was playing drums for his north London church.
Esau’s radical journey this last year has been mapped out by the half-French (Etienne Tron), half-Swedish (Johan Karlberg) production/DJ duo Radioclit. They fatefully discovered his extraordinary voice, hidden somewhere among the luck-of-the-draw goods in the second-hand furniture store he owns in east London. “One of the first records that I heard from my dad was Paul Simon’s Graceland, and I loved it,” Johan says. “When Etienne and I started getting into producing, we were really into African rhythms. So when Esau came along, it was perfect – right at the right time.”
Esau Mwamwaya came into the world smack in the middle of 10 children in Malawi, east Africa. He spent his younger days digging through his civil servant father’s expansive record collection, absorbed by Elton John and Dolly Parton classics. “Music is divine,” he says, beaming. “It was my first love.” After keeping a notebook of lyrics in high school, Esau went on to work as a professional musician, hitching up with several esteemed bands as a drummer and back-up singer. In 1999, on a search for “a different kind of life experience”, he decided to make the move to an English-speaking country with one of his sisters. London was their chosen destination. He worked several jobs in the city, until he eventually set up shop in Homerton, Hackney.
A frequent customer of the store, local Radioclitter Etienne had got used to its quirky selection of goods – everything from furniture and appliances to giant plastic sharks and alien lamps – as well as the contagious friendliness of its owner. About a year-and-a-half ago, after purchasing a bike for his girlfriend, Etienne invited Esau to his housewarming party.
“I actually introduced myself to Johan as a drummer,” explains Esau, “and he said that he had a studio that was right by my shop.”
“Esau came to the studio to record some drums,” continues Johan. “I had no idea he was a singer and, all of a sudden, he started singing over these beats!”
Esau: “We were just having fun and trying things out. We didn’t set out to record vocals.”
Johan: “That track became ‘Chalo’. We made a couple of others too and it went from there. Musically and personally, we have such a nice chemistry.”
Esau sings about “life and about love” in his native language of Chichewa, creating songs as beautiful in meaning as they are in euphony. About ‘Chalo’, Esau says: “People are only going to come together if we love one another. If we could achieve that, then everything else would be no problem at all.”
Though his melodic lyrics radiate positivity, he also has divine wisdom to impart, vital lessons to teach. The internet started buzzing at top volume when Esau dropped a euphoric re-take of M.I.A.’s ‘Paper Planes’, her controversial hit that has gunshots popping through the chorus. On ‘Tengazako’, a poetic outrage against gun crimes, Esau spins the bullet-fuelled snap beat into a different direction. “A lot of people nowadays want to live in the fast lane – they want to get everything quick so they attack other people,” he says about the current state of the world. “We don’t know what comes tomorrow, with all the guns, crimes, deaths, wars…”
He also targets another worldwide battle – one that’s too often shielded from Western eyes – on the chant-laced ‘Chilombo’. “There’s always been an AIDS problem in Malawi, just like everywhere in Africa,” he says. “We need to fix it. Since I grew up in Malawi, I know what’s going on over there, and that’s what inspires me to sing about it. I’m part of it.”
The playful ‘Hide And Seek’ is about his upbringing as well, though it’s much more inward looking. It’s a poignant reflection of life’s unpredictability. “When I was young and wasn’t responsible for anything else, I thought that life was easy,” Esau muses. “Having a background with such a big family, there was a special kind of love around us when we were growing up. Now I’m alone, outside of my family, and I see the real world. What I see now is not exactly what I thought it was supposed to be when I was younger. ‘Hide And Seek’ is just my own experience: the way I look at myself and the way I behave – my attitude, my character.”
It’s no wonder he has such a vast landscape of self-reflection to explore, considering the life he’s led from the time he left his family until now. His hope is to perform at the popular Lake of Stars festival in Malawi this summer, which would mark his first homecoming since leaving with his sister nine years ago. While the rest of his family anxiously awaits their return, he keeps a tight bond with his London-based sister, and Mwamwaya blood still manages to pump through his album: his sister’s 11-year-old twin daughters sing harmonies on one track, and her husband plays guitar on another.
Though his soaring, wondrous vocals seem to wrap perfectly around the most unlikely electronic creations, it wasn’t until Esau met Radioclit that he felt ready to share his voice. And it happened that the two gravitated towards each other just as the Western world rotated its interest towards Africa. African music has always had a striking influence in the West, but more so recently than ever: traditional sounds like soukous and Bozambo are filtering through pop music, and the booty-clapping kuduro beat is invading Western clubs. Esau not only gives traditional African hymns and harmonies a pop platform, but also gives the vague concept of ‘world music’ a face, and a glowing one at that. His smile is his defining characteristic – sunshine itself embodied – and his unassuming manner suggests he doesn’t realise he has every chance of re-writing Western pop rules… in a language outside of English.
“A full-page essay in my language would maybe be a quarter page in English,” he laughs. “It’s very hard for me to translate. Each word has a lot of weight.”
Similarly, Esau’s potential weight is immeasurable; only time will tell what else destiny has in store.
As for the furniture store, Johan says, “You need to call to catch him in the shop, because he’s not around that often anymore.”
“I’ve got somebody there working there now,” concludes Esau. “I’m getting a little busy with other things.”