There are 193 countries on this planet, most producing original music (well, maybe not Vatican City). To choose only ten albums that represent the global sonic output of 2006 was a daunting task. But once I ruled out the entries from Lithuania and Yemen, the whole list fell right into place! Truly, this past year was rich with wonderful music from all over the world. Many of the finest releases broke free from the stylistic binds of their regional music traditions, integrating elements of electronica, jazz, and blues to create new ideas and suggest new avenues for future musicians to explore. World music has evolved greatly from the era of field recordings and canned sitars over rock beats. The ten albums below all help to push this evolution ever forward. Most important, though, these discs all make for excellent listening.
In his earlier years, the late guitarist and singer Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) was inspired by legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker. This stylistic connection is brought to the fore on Savane, Touré‘s final recording. Our first hint is the album cover’s proclamation that he is “The King of the desert blues singers”, a slogan that purposefully mimics the label attached to Robert Johnson (here substituting “desert” for “Delta”). The music, too, is Touré‘s most overtly blues-leaning. With a wailing harmonica and the ripened voice of its leader calling out between melodic licks, the opening track, “Erdi”, could be Lightnin’ Hopkins. “Beto”, meanwhile, pushes forward the hypnotic melodic spirals common to much North African music, while aided by the sultry combo of a female backing vocalist and some restrained bursts of weeping saxophone. The title track slowly struts, as flashes of electric guitar are complimented by mellifluous flourishes of kora. All throughout, Savane pulls off the greatest trick of the album format: It offers plenty of variety, but it also corrals its songs into a unified sound. Although in his last year of life, this final record shows Touré still brimming with vitality. Savane is his wonderful farewell gift.
Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry
Panic in Babylon
(Narnack; US: 22 Aug 2006; UK: 4 Sep 2006; N/A release date: 29 Nov 2004)
So few were exposed to this album—originally distributed in limited quantities in Switzerland in 2004—until 2006 that it belongs on this list. On Panic in Babylon, reggae dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry employs all of the techniques he helped to birth in the 1970s, and adds a few more, as well. This is not strictly a dub album, however. Perry is backed by live musicians and sings his own vocals on every track. Still, at least some aspect of every song is subjected to Perry’s bag of studio trickery, as organic performances are ensnared mid-flight and psychedelicized, only to be seamlessly set back on course a few measures later. Professor Upsetter shows us all how it’s done on the terrific Panic in Babylon.
Le Voyage de Sahar
(ECM; US: 4 Apr 2006; UK: 27 Feb 2006)
Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem is on a jazz label because his music is improvisational, but I would hesitate to pigeonhole it as anything but world music; hence, the appearance here of his seventh album, the gorgeous Le Voyage de Sahar. This is assured and subtle work is Brahem’s most mature release. Mixing his homeland’s flavors with jazz, tango, and other styles, his trio (with piano and accordion) has a sound all its own. Like all ECM discs, the recording feels spacious, but this album is not chilly. Le Voyage de Sahar is appropriately warm for an album meant to evoke the desert of Northern Africa and which, instead, evokes no one place, no one genre, and no one time. A gorgeous album, Sahar simply is.
Finnish collective Värttinä first made waves in the mid-‘90s with Kokko. Miero, the nonet’s latest album of “New Nordic” songs, marks a great return to the world stage. Although Värttinä‘s mini-choir of ethereal harmonies lie at the group’s fore, it’s backed by a full ensemble playing a wide range of instruments, from electric guitar to the fiddle-like jouhikko. Its music, too, varies nicely, from the alt-rockishness of the album’s brooding opener, “Riena/Anathema” to the gentle “Lupaus/The Promise”. On Miero, all of these sounds combine for an excellent album of dark beauty, bittersweet melodies, fascinating vocals, and a magical air.
Congolese supergroup Kékélé, comprised of aging musicians who have all played in many groups over the years, is analogous to Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, playing sweetly old-fashioned rumbas. The liner notes explain that rhythm’s African heritage and, therefore, the shared trans-Atlantic sound. This disc, in feel, is a musical cousin to the awesome BVSC album of 1997. Relaxed, warm, wistful, happy, and inviting, Kinavana is beautiful and fun, as hand drums sway a lilting beat beneath sparkling guitar notes, reedy flute melodies, and the wonderfully worn vocals of the excellent group of singers assembled for these great recordings.
Tangotronica! I don’t know if Astor Piazzolla would have approved, but Paris-based Gotan Project’s second album, Lunatico, is so sexy that even a purist would fall headlong for the sultry vocals of Cristina Villalonga, the group’s corpuscular downtempo beats, and the haunting string and bandoneon playing of the traditional tango quartet Gotan Project took on for these sessions. While some artists might have been content to slide a trance beat under some standard melodies, Lunatico presents a broad range of tempos, feels, and recipes for their signature stylistic mix. Mournful blues sit alongside clubby dance tracks, and all are blended seamlessly into an elegant whole.
Eight years after Diwan, Algerian singer and rai troubadour Rachid Taha has issued its sequel. Although arguably more roots-oriented than his heavily produced 2004 album Tékitoi, Diwan 2 still rocks. Rai is, primarily, an aggressive sound, which is why its early acoustic incarnation translated so well to its dance form in the 1980s. Taha leans toward the older style here, but hits the beat hard, even with the Cairo String Ensemble, who beautifully augment several of the entrancing tunes found here. A sound all its own, rai transcends the sounds of Africa and the nearby Middle Eastern flavors. With Diwan 2, eclectic world pop star Taha proves once again that he transcends all styles.
The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves
(Six Degrees; US: 2 May 2006; UK: 2 May 2006)
The Brazilian CocoRosie? Samba-fied freak-folk? Really, Brazilian musicians have always embraced quirky production, and Cibelle’s haunted, cut-up, serenely twinkling electro-acoustic folk-pop falls right in line with the old Tropicalistas or Tom Zé‘s Dadaism. More so than most of her contemporaries, Cibelle represents a natural evolution in the MPB aesthetic, following from the aforementioned influences on the excellent The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves. The one song that neatly speaks to this new singer’s blending of the old and the new is her cover of “London, London”, a 1971 tune from the legendary Caetano Veloso. Cibelle is joined on that track by Devendra Banhart, the bearded messiah of the current psychedelic folk revolution. Her style is idiosyncratic, but her music is always melodious on the lovely Leaves.
The Desperate Kingdom of Love
(World Village; US: 9 May 2006; UK: 8 May 2006)
As an American, I feel a bit guilty about including on this list an album from the U.S. After all, we’re quite well represented by rock, pop, metal, country, and jazz. Still, that’s not going to stop me from telling you about The Desperate Kingdom of Love, a killer album of blues-fused Cajun music from C.J. Chenier, son of zydeco king Clifton Chenier. Accordionist C.J. has been cutting records for nearly 20 years now, but this new one is a departure, a relatively sober album dedicated to “everyone who suffered in the great hurricane and floods of 2005”. While certainly not a party record, Desperate Kingdom is still quite lively, striking a remarkable balance between the two forms of indigenous American music channeled here by Chenier, and featuring covers of songs by PJ Harvey, Van Morrison, and Hank Williams.
On her seventh album, Belgian-born Natacha Atlas further explores her Middle Eastern and North African heritage while incorporating some of the clubby electronic beats common to her European hometown. Mish Maoul is a tight and polished release, with just enough variety to keep the disc intriguing over the course of its 50-minute-plus playing time. Along this musical journey, Atlas treats us to the qawwali-like opener “Oully”, an English-language socio-political rap on “Feen”, Brazilian rhythms on “Ghanwa Bossanova”, and the spare elegance of the closing track “Yariet”. Even with these many side trips, Mish Maoul is a consistently strong and often hypnotic album that showcases Atlas’s gorgeous voice.