This year I’ve enlisted some writers from beyond the PopMatters universe to compile our best-of list: Cliff Furnald, founder and editor of Rootsworld, the online world music magazine, and two regular Rootsworld contributors, Lee Blackstone and Michael Stone. Michal Shapiro is a New York-based videographer who regularly covers international acts. She contributes not album reviews but videos of three memorable performances from the past year.
Our album picks cover Brazil, Cuba, Cyprus, Gaza, Italy, Mali, Romania, Occitania (southern France), Estonia, and Canada. They demonstrate world music’s “glocality” ― though rooted in particular local idioms (southern Italian pizzica; Cypriot folk music), the recordings also incorporate elements from other traditions and genres (Subcarpaţi’s mix of hiphop, techno, and Romanian folk.) Politics figure strongly in a number of the selections (the “electronic intifada” of the Palestinian collective, Checkpoint 303; the protest songs of Italy’s Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino).
Michal Shapiro’s camera captured New York appearances by Tunisian vocalist Emel Mathlouthi at GlobalFEST 2015 and the Guinean-Canadian duo Fula Flute, at the Jazz Journalists Association Awards 2015 held at the Blue Note jazz club. From Budapest, Shapiro brings us Belem, the folk-fusion duo of Didier Laloy and Kathy Adam, at the WOMEX festival.
Furnald, Stone, and Blackstone each have chosen three albums; my pick rounds out our top ten. The list is in alphabetical order according to the performer’s name, followed by links to Shapiro’s videos.—George de Stefano
Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino
The past year was a landmark one for Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (aka CGS), a band from the Salento peninsula of Italy’s southern Puglia region. The road-tested ensemble has attracted a devoted following far beyond their home base, thrilling audiences throughout Italy, Europe, North America, and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) with their up-to-date take on pizzica tarantata, a centuries-old folk form that originally was a ritual healing music. The band was founded in 1975 by singer-songwriter Daniele Durante and his cousin Rina; Daniele’s son Mauro, a virtuoso violinist and percussionist, heads the current edition. Quaranta (40) acknowledges the band’s history while the American folk/world music producer Ian Brennan leads them in some new directions. There’s less pizzica than on its predecessor, Pizzica Indiavolata and more contemporary folk music and folk-derived material; there even are Appalachian echoes (“Pu e to rodo t’orio”). Just as noteworthy is the album’s political stance, with protest songs that take on environmental destruction, unemployment and poverty, and immigration, past and present. With Quaranta, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino has made an outstanding album that feels both of the moment and timeless.—George de Stefano
The Iqrit Files
An electronic Intifada is the logical—perhaps inevitable—product of Gaza’s effective incarceration, where children can distinguish the sounds of different types of tanks, warplanes, mere surveillance drones, and those armed with deadly missiles. Yet an unrelenting seven-decade assault on Palestinian identity, livelihood, dignity, and human rights has not quelled the creative spirit. Checkpoint 303 is a popular collective whose The Iqrit Files concerns the 1948 evacuation and destruction of the Palestinian village Iqrit, and descendants’ efforts to return. It combines field recordings, radio broadcast clips, ambient sound, Jawaher Shofani and Wardeh Sbeit’s ritual Upper Galilee singing, and Jihad Sbeit’s poetry, blended with samples, including Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN roll call vote making it international law (“In 1948”); Nelson Mandela’s 1990 prison-release interview (“A’ataba”); a 1980 Bob Marley interview (“I Climbed the Top of the Mountain”); a military checkpoint’s menacing sounds (“Road to Jerusalem”); and demonstrators’ chanting return to Iqrit to bury their dead: “They do not accept us living there, but we are still allowed to die there.”—Michael Stone
A decade after the stunning Les Vivants, Dupain return with Sòrga, an album inspired by a book of poetry published in 1958 by the Parisian and Occitan scholar, Maxence Bernheim de Villers. Lead singer Sam Karpienia has always rooted the band in Occitan, a southern European (southern France, Monaco, and smaller parts of Italy and Spain) linguistic culture dating back to the Middle Ages. Dupain’s sound is built around Karpienia (vocals and mandolin), Pierre-Laurent Bertolino (hurdy-gurdy), Gurvant Le Gac (flutes), Emmanuel Reymond (bass), and Francois Rossi (drums). Arabic and other Mediterranean influences mix with Dupain’s reading of Bernheim’s poetry, the flutes lacing themselves around dense hurdy-gurdy drones. The sound is both complex and spacious. “La Sòrga” and “Vagant Trepaire” show Dupain’s ability to settle into a groove while highlighting Occitanian expressiveness. Sòrga is dizzyingly spiritual, acoustic music, played with real passion.—Lee Blackstone
Guitarist Don Rooke has been the driving force behind bands that almost no one has heard of since the Henrys were conceived in Toronto in 1990. This despite critical acclaim for almost every project he has laid hand upon string to create. His primary tool is a kona resonator guitar that lends so much of the music a warm, humane feel, whether it is strummed, plucked, hammered or slid upon. Although the Henrys are mostly known as an instrumental ensemble that occasionally uses voices (Mary Margaret O’Hara being one of the more noted contributors), Rooke began delving deeper into lyrics in recent years, and Quiet Industry is a project conceived for words. It has a remarkable singer, Gregory Hoskins, to deliver them. Hoskins has a wonderful range and a fragile delivery that makes some of the songs seem like eggshells about to break. With an ensemble of prepared piano, violin, pump organs, bass and drums, Rooke and company find sly humor and anguished poetry in an hommage to folk, blues and jazz sensibilities and at times, a loving satire of pop music. The Henrys are the tycoons of a Quiet Industry that produces sublime tapestries and sturdy widgets of the most elusive kind.—Cliff Furnald
Malian vocalist Kandia Kouyaté spent years in musical exile after a stroke in 2004, but when legendary producer Ibrahima Sylla convinced her the time was ripe to come back to her music, she reluctantly agreed. In spite of Sylla’s death in 2013, in the midst of the recording process, we were graced with her Renascence this year, and it is an epic return to form for the singer who had become known as “La Dangereuse” for the spell she could cast on an audience. Recorded in Africa and Europe, this album highlights all that is potent in both the music of jeliya and in the voice of one of its great jelimuso, offering both traditional landscapes and modern enhancements that bring immediacy to her work in the 21st century.—Cliff Furnald
This Cypriot trio of Antonis Antonious (tzouras, a relative of the bouzouki), Angelos Ionas (guitar), and Demetris Yiasemides (flute and trombone) came out of nowhere in 2013 with a raw, homespun recording called Grippy Grappy. Their mix of humor, politics and musicianship made them an immediate favorite. I feared that their sudden popularity among critics and the music literati might have made their 2015 follow up one of those over-produced, guest-laden, mid-size label affairs that mar many a band’s career. Instead, they came through with Sikoses, an album every bit as political and humorous, and full of the same reckless abandon that made the first recording so compelling. They add a few touches of electronics here and there, some punk and jazz references, but overall, it still has the feel of local street musicians on a mission to make the folk music of Cyprus relevant in the 21st century.—Cliff Furnald