As usual, the year came and went with oceans and tundras of music released and not enough time to listen to it all. You will have heard albums that are not on this list, and you will wonder why we have not included them. Why haven’t you reviewed them? Why haven’t you mentioned them? Why don’t you love them as they deserve, these sublime musicians who should be swimming around right this instant in a pool of superlatives? Because they have not crossed our paths yet, possibly. Why do almost all of the albums in your list come from Africa, Europe, and Latin America? For the same reason. The ocean is large, and no net can cover it all.
In 2009, well-known artists reliably produced solid albums, lesser-known artists did things that were often surprising and successful, archives were trawled by enthusiasts, old songs were excavated, polished, and compiled (Honest Jon’s has been outstanding here), and labels both large and small kept moving stubbornly on. French field recording specialists Ocora decided to start a budget series, and Far Side continues to issue traditional music from East Asia in the face of a Western public that votes with its wallet for the stadium sweetness of J-Pop. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu’s Gurrumul, first released in 2008, has been gathering adherents—by now he probably has the widest international profile of any Aboriginal Australian artist since his uncle Mandawuy fronted Yothu Yindi in the late ‘80s/early ‘90s.
The Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa died; so did the Bengali sarod master Ali Akbar Khan; so did Tilahun Gessesse, an Ethiopian singer who can be heard briefly on the Mulatu Astatke compilation below. So did others.
Now back to the living. On with the list.
Ojos De Brujo
(Diquela/Warner Spain; US: Import; UK: 13 Apr 2009)
The so-called jipjop flamenkillo of this Barcelona outfit has proven remarkably consistent, both on record and in live performance. Ojos De Brujo (“Wizard Eyes”) is a working band, not a studio project, and that shows on Aocaná. The instruments weave together in instinctive ways, unrolling this intensely rhythmic music as a tapestry—in this sense drawing from West Africa and India in particular, but also freely incorporating the local colors of flamenco and rumba catalana. The guitars, the keys, and the horns all sound particularly lyrical, as does vocalist La Canillas—even when she’s rapping, oddly enough (check “Dónde te has met ío”). Aocaná is more subdued than the last ODB studio release, Techarí, but quite durable as it turns out.
So Kalmery, like Lamine Fellah of Sarazino, is the product of a nomadic existence. His trail started in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, moved through Kenya, Zaire, and Zambia, then skipped to Europe and landed in Paris. Also, quite spookily like Fellah, his father was the victim of assassination. Kalmery’s music is an urbanized African blend of jazz, soul, and funk; he prefers the term brakka, which combines “bra” (“the start”) with “ka” (“infinity” or “the mind”). It’s hand-clapping, body-swaying, boogie-down music just about all the way through—except for the plodding “Kamitik”, the only piece that falls short. The warm and relaxed vibe of this disc is unusually attractive, effortless-sounding, easy to succumb to.
Los Amigos Invisibles are something of a guilty pleasure. It’s just way too easy to get into the funky jams on Commercial (note the English, not Spanish spelling). There’s no deep social or political message here, no exotic instruments or styles, nothing the least bit academic or intellectual. But that is really the point, after all: just get down! Gózalo ya! The six guys in this Venezuelan band have been playing together for quite some time, and by now they’ve more or less perfected their cheesy, neo-retro take on disco, lounge, and acid jazz. It’s sufficiently offbeat and tongue-in-cheek to avoid the usual pitfalls of the genres. (Just skip the only English-language song on the record, “In Luv with U”, which is entirely forgettable.)
Balkan party music, ripping along at a noisy pace, and with all the showmanship you could ask for. The singer carols and plunges, the trumpets patter like hail on a plastic roof. Everything is briskly aggressive, bright as polished teeth: the taut, tight work of specialists. Forensic in its giddiness. One part of the band comes from north-east Romania, the same place as Fanfare Ciocârlia, and the other from the south, the same place as Taraf de Haïdouks. Brass there, fiddles here. The two groups have cross-pollinated. Traditional music, yes, village music, yes, “folk” music yes, but with a clear commercial goal: it wants to grab your bits in its fist, press your ears back against your skull, and make you pay attention. Reportedly good live too.
No fusions, remixes, remakes here, only a simple idea, one woman with an Irish fiddle, one man with an Irish guitar/bouzouki/mandolin, a little percussion and organ, a few instances of singing from Doyle, the owner of a mid-range burr—together they play jigs, reels, you know the drill—and there you are: an album. But on Double Play the simple idea has been burnished ‘til it shines. This album taps a river of clean, clear energy. The sets sweep along, sometimes engaging in ballerina pirouettes (“John Cahill’s Jig”), sometimes darting aside into hiccoughing switchbacks that yank at your brain, sometimes belting ahead into a quick dance, sometimes slowing down into a lament. John Burr plays the organ and Kenny Malone doles out the percussion, but the album belongs to Carroll and Doyle, whose talents are bound together in mutual empathy.
Ba Cissoko has more or less singlehandedly dominated the world of the electric kora (with or without distortion and wah). The harp/lute has ancient roots in West African culture (as do the families of Cissoko himself and his bandmates), which makes this particular retooling all the more ironic and inspired. The 12 mostly original tracks on Séno are remarkably consistent: the instruments are light and uplifting, the rhythms are deeply intertwined, the pulse is bouncy, and Cissoko’s voice has the right mellow warmth to complement the rest of the action. The melodies per se almost always serve to reinforce the heartbeat of the group, much like the music of Habib Koité. Séno might not be as audacious as the quartet’s second album, Electric Griot Land, but it hits a certain sweet spot and only gets better with age.
New York, Addis, London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975
(Strut; US: 26 Oct 2009; UK: 9 Nov 2009)
Born in Ethiopia, Mulatu Astatke went to the UK to study engineering, ended up studying music instead, continued his studies in the US, then moved back to Ethiopia to spend a few valuable years working on the self-coined mix of Ethiopian and American music he called Ethio-jazz before a coup d’etat sent the country into a confused downward spiral. Ethiopian artistry of every kind was hobbled for years. This compilation covers Astatke’s time abroad and his work before the coup. The playlist has been assembled to show off a) his best work, and b) his range. Here he is in New York, testing out Ethio-Latin-jazz. Here he is at his most experimental, using jazz ideas to deconstruct an Ethiopian melody and rebuild it with American-Ethiopian saxophones. Here he tries out a popular singer. Here he tries something else. Sinuous Ethiopian brilliance runs through the lot. Uncommon music from a restless mind.