Soundcheck Critics' Week: World Music Picks for 2009 and the Decade

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This was a phenomenal decade for world music, marked by an explosion in the variety and availability of sounds. Style-wise, it was a decade of blending and innovation: rock, hip-hop, and electronica went global; immigrants and global nomads made sounds with deep and simultaneous connections to multiple places and cultures; and artists and producers used the Internet to collaborate on tracks across vast distances. An endless reservoir of new and creative music from all over the world is now on tap – but you’ll only find a fraction of its wealth on traditional CD releases on in the iTunes or Amazon store. Instead, global music heads turn to MySpace and especially YouTube to hear what’s hot in Recife, Kampala, Abidjan or Kuala Lumpur.

In this context, the term “world music” is close to useless as an artistic category. It had a real value in the 1980s, when it was first coined, and when Western audiences heard for the first time such titanic figures as Salif Keita, Cesaria Evora or Fela Kuti. But it gave labels and the audience tunnel vision, focusing on artists deemed “traditional” (even when they weren’t) to the detriment of new, young and hybrid acts. These days, the playing field is far more level, but the Western market still favors the big names, and when it comes to experimentation, it often goes with its own, rewarding Ry Cooder for convening the Buena Vista Social Club, or today’s indie rockers like Vampire Weekend or The Very Best for their cross-cultural experiments.

And that’s fine: the music is often excellent, and the commercial reality of selling albums or booking concert tours often forces the issue. But the full spectrum of world music is much broader. It extends from Chinese art-rock to Nigerian R&B, Ghanaian hip-life to South African psychedelia, Argentine electro-tango to Algerian châabi, and hip-hop from everywhere – not to mention the children of immigrants here in the United States, who are bringing new ideas, inspiration and techniques to jazz, rock and beyond.

With that said, a year-end list is a consumer guide, and each of my 10 selections – three from 2009, seven from earlier in the decade – is an album that you can easily buy on CD or download from your favorite retailer in the United States. For each one, I’ve listed some other artists or styles that I recommend exploring if you like what you hear.


Three from 2009

1. Buraka Som Sistema - Black Diamond (Fabric, 2009)

Fabulous dance music from Lisbon with roots in Angola. In Luanda, the sound called kuduro is a raucous street music, often with homemade instruments, based on traditional rhythms. In the hands of Buraka, whose key members are Angolans living in Portugal, it’s an rich electronic experience, full of multi-lingual chants, perfect for global clubland.

Buraka Som Sistema - “Sound of Kuduro”

Like it? Start with M.I.A., everyone’s favorite Sri Lankan-Brit-New Yorker agitprop rap queen. She and her friend, producer Diplo, helped bring Buraka to the world stage. Then check out Diplo’s Brazilian baile-funk compilations. But don’t stop there: on YouTube you’ll find great coupé-décalé from Ivory Coast, hip-life from Ghana, and Nigerian rap, among other flavors of party music with global flair.



2. Kailash Kher - Yatra (Cumbancha, 2009)

The first international release from charismatic, soulful Indian singer Kailash Kher -- and not a moment too soon; he's a huge star in India with several albums and contributions to hundreds of Bollywood soundtracks. Kher grew up with Indian classical music and Sufi poetry; His mystically-minded songs deal with love, devotion, intoxication and ecstasy.

VIDEO PICK: Kailash Kher - “Teri Deewani”

Like it? Check out Rabbi Shergill, who works in a similar vein; elsewhere on the Indian scene, Midival Punditz have anchored Delhi electronica for a decade, while New York’s DJ Rekha had a great compilation from her party “Basement Bhangra” two years ago.



3. Otto - Certa manhã acordei de sonhos intranquilos (Nublu, 2009)

The port city of Recife, metropolis of northeast Brazil, is home to mangue beat -- an enchanted blend of rock, electronica and regional rhythms like maracatu. Otto, a leading figure of this scene, makes a version that is melancholy, soaring and elegiac, and his new album is both a great contribution to the genre and a completely personal statement.

VIDEO PICK: Otto - “Bob”

Like it? Mangue beat stretches back to pioneering work from Recife bands Naçao Zumbi and Mundo Livre S/A in the 1990s. For a great introduction, check out the 2007 compilation "What's Happening in Pernambuco," on David Byrne's Luaka Bop label.


Seven from the decade

1. Youssou N'Dour - Egypt (Nonesuch, 2004)

Islam was big this decade, for reasons both tragic and exalted. The world struggled with fundamentalism, but emerged with a richer understanding than ever of Islamic culture. Part of this came through migration and the growth of middle-class Muslim communities in the West. But Youssou N’Dour played his part too. On this amazing album he set aside both his Afropop and global fusion facets to explore Islam’s mystical aspects, as they manifest in Senegal’s Mouride community and beyond. A Cairo orchestra emphasized the connections to the grand tradition of Arab high art. This is N’Dour’s masterpiece.

VIDEO PICK: Youssou N’Dour - “I Bring What I Love” movie trailer (f/ John Schaefer!)

Like it? N’Dour’s “Rokku Mi Rokka” (2007) draws on Senegalese regional rhythms. And in Dakar, where N’Dour is a major arts impresario, the hip-hop scene is one of the world’s strongest: “African Underground: Hip-Hop Senegal” and “African Underground: Depths of Dakar” are great collections on indie label Nomadic Wax.


2. Cafe Tacuba - Cuatro caminos (MCA, 2003)

A great album of rock music that’s also a great album of Mexican music. Rock en español has been around for a while, but never as thriving as this decade; Cafe Tacuba, from Mexico City, finally burst onto the Anglo market with this terrific program of quirky, arty, sometimes jangly, and always exciting confections. They’re also responsible for hands down the most energetic and exciting live performance I saw all decade.

VIDEO PICK: Cafe Tacuba - “Cero y Uno”

Like it? Global rock is in great shape. Among dozens of worthy acts, check out Aterciopelados, from Colombia; French-Algerian punk master Rachid Taha; or Beijing’s Carsick Cars, who’ve clearly listened to a lot of Sonic Youth.



3. Souad Massi - Mesk elil (Wrasse, 2005)

Raised in Algeria and based in Paris, Massi sings gorgeous contemporary songs in Arabic full of melancholy and grace; like any good singer-songwriter, she accompanies herself on guitar, and isn’t afraid of well-placed silences. I dare you not to fall in love with her.

VIDEO PICK: Souad Massi - “Dar Dgedi” live performance

Like it? Algeria’s biggest pop star, Khaled, came back this year with “Liberté,” a purist’s record that shed the cheesy Euro effects in favor of a capella intros and Egyptian strings. But Massi has more in common with today’s nomadic singer-songwriters with feet in many worlds. In a way they’re all daughters of Sade (who makes her much-awaited return in 2010); the current crop includes Nigeria’s Asa, Colombia’s Marta Gomez, Ugandan New Yorker Somi, and in the male camp, Canadian-Rwandan Corneille.


4. Andy Palacio - Watina (Cumbancha, 2007)

This was the roots album of the decade. Palacio, a star in the Belize pop music called punta rock, stepped back to capture the traditional sounds of the Garifuna community, the descendents of displaced slaves taken to Central America’s Caribbean coast. He worked with uncelebrated local musicians to make an exceptionally soulful record and important cultural document. The next year, he suddenly took ill and died, aged only 47.


VIDEO PICK: “A Look Behind the Music of Andy Palacio,” Cumbancha Records

Like it? Palacio’s work continues with “Umalali: The Garifuna Women’s Project” and newcomer Aurelio Martinez. A key elder, Paul Nabor, is still active at almost 80.


5. Kekele - Kinavana (Stern's Africa, 2002)

Congolese soukous and rumba music were less vibrant this decade than earlier. However the supergroup Kekele put together an exceptional acoustic album that reminded us of the deep ties between Congolese and Cuban music – hence the title, Kinavana, which mixes Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo capital, with Havana. Kekele is made of veterans of the Congolese scene, and this album, though retro in orientation, came out fresh and vibrant.

VIDEO PICK: Kakele - “Ba Kristo”

Like it? Cuban rumba had a huge impact not just on Congolese music but all the way up the West African coast, accenting with horns and permeating with swing the esthetic of the good life in the 1960s and 1970s. In this decade, the key Senegalese band Orchestra Baobab re-formed after a twenty-year hiatus, releasing two great records, “Specialist in All Styles” (2002) and “Made in Dakar” (2008). Also check out the brilliant two-CD reissue of hits by Guinea’s great Bembeya Jazz National, “The Syliphone Years.”


6. Ali Farka Touré - Savane (Nonesuch, 2006)

It’s hard to list only one album from Mali, given that country’s outsize role placing incredible music on the global market. But the valedictory album by “desert blues” master Ali Farka Touré, who died just before its release, was especially strong – full of robust guitar and deeply soulful singing even though Touré was suffering from cancer at the time of recording. In fact, it may well have been his best.

VIDEO PICK: Ali Farka Touré - “Savane” with documentary footage

Like it? The “desert blues” genre is abundant, with multiple albums from Tuareg guitar rockers Tinariwen, and the more subtle Niger band Etran Finatawa. Touré’s son Vieux Farka Touré released a fine debut that draws on his father’s legacy but reaches out to reggae and rock. Meanwhile, from the south of Mali, in different styles, Oumou Sangaré (whose new album “Seya” is her best) and Rokia Traoré (with last year’s triumphant “Tchamantché”) stood out among many great women artists. And Toumani Diabaté took the kora, traditionally an accompanying instrument, to center stage, from leading his Symmetric Orchestra to a solo project.


7. Buika - Niña de fuego (WEA, 2008)

With roots in the remote former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea, Concha Buika grew up on the island of Mallorca, a rare black Spaniard, and found herself drawn to flamenco and Gypsy music. She has blossomed into a mature chanteuse of extreme intensity, with that Spanish smoldering fire but also wide-ranging tastes – including Mexican rancheras – that this record displays to perfection.

VIDEO PICK: Buika - “La Falsa Moneda”

Like it? Buika followed with this year’s “El Ultimo Trago,” a program of rancheras dedicated to Mexican icon Chavela Vargas, featuring Chucho Valdes on piano. But Buika’s Gypsy leanings also tie in with the revival of Gypsy styles across southern Europe. In a different but loosely related vein, klezmer, Eastern Europe folk and marching band music are in full blossom.