A few years ago, a video called “Winooski, My Town” went semi-viral. Over a bouncy production, a group of young African refugees recorded an infectious Afropop tribute to their hometown. But this “Winooski” isn’t in the singers’ native Somalia or Tanzania. Winooski is in Vermont. The group calls themselves A2VT, and you can see why a recent Afropop Worldwide article felt the need to add a question mark to the end of their headline: “East African Bliss From Vermont?”
As a publicist by day, I can say that “Refugees make Afropop in America’s second-whitest state” is one hell of a pitch. Sure enough, A2VT soon landed on the cover of their local paper and got interviewed on national public radio. But seven years after their first burst of success, the group has risen above being pegged as a feel-good human interest story. They’ve done so simply: by making great music that stands up even if you don’t know the backstory.
Across ten tracks of their new album Twenty Infinity, the duo who go by Jilib (Said Bulle) and Pogi (George Mnyonge) blend English with their native tongues Swahili and Maay Maay to form a Spanglish-style combo they dub “Swahenglish.” (Their longtime producer quipped that when he first met them they were “between languages”). Their collaborators from Vermont’s refugee community hail from Burundi, Mozambique, Congo, Nigeria, and beyond.
The music is informed by the musicians’ story, but isn’t subservient to it. Other than occasional Vermont reference, Twenty Infinity could easily come from a pop group actually based in Africa, a burned CD sold in a street stall in Lagos. “Hilamia” delivers a bumping electronic song written to fill wedding dance floors, while “You Ma Numba 1” delivers a love letter to both a woman and a continent (its music video also does a decent job making Vermont settings pass as Africa). “Wave Your Flag,” one of of our favorite singles of 2019, delivers a feel-good anthem in the vein of their fellow African refugee K’naan’s hit of a similar name. They’re a killer musical group first, a human interest story second.
Actually, maybe bump that down to third. They’re great dancers too.