“Down with children’s books!” said Philip Pullman in 2000. He went on to add, “When you say, “This book is for children,” what you are really saying is, “This book is not for grown-ups.” In the same spirit you could say, “Down with world music!” As a category it is both useful and frustrating. It puts CDs on the shelves and prevents people picking them up. It is the other-than category: other-than rock, other-than indie, other-than everything. It is the whole world and nothing definite.
“Neo-colonial,” pouts Manu Chao. He is pushing buttons, neo colonial in his mouth becoming a politer form of racist. Eugene Hütz, a more practical man, tries to keep Gogol Bordello from being categorised as world music because “kids in America don’t go and buy anything out of that section!” Ian Anderson, the editor of fRoots, sighs and for the hundredth time points out that the category is a pragmatic one. It is the most efficient way to gather non-English language music in a place where English-speaking people can find it. It is a symptom of the English language’s global reach and its financial power. The genre didn’t create this imbalance. It is meant to be a weapon against it.
It would flatter us all, musicians and audience, if the shops could support separate sections for different countries or different styles, whole chunks of space given over to fado or benga or Indonesia or Madagascar, but there’s no sign that this is going to happen. If you abolished the genre tomorrow we’d go back to the bad old days when shops, now online as well as off, wouldn’t stock an album like Segu Blue because they didn’t know where to put it. Or the album would not have been offered to them in the first place. Or it would not exist at all. “What would we do with something like that?” the labels would shrug. “We have no idea who would buy it. It is not financially feasible. Stay in Mali, Bassekou Kouyaté. Learn to imitate the blues more slavishly, sing in English, and then we’ll know how to market you.”
For the audience it is a democratising genre. It means that someone who lives in a small town without migrant shops specialising in Pakistani music can still find their way to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Ideally it is a conduit and not a trap. It protects the obscure and the small. It stands in the way of anyone who would say that an album like Sublime Frequencies’ Ethnic Minority Music of Northeast Cambodia doesn’t belong in the same building as the Killers. At the same time it frustrates Chao and Hütz, who don’t want to be held back among the other other-thans. It promotes the idea that music in languages other than English is a fragile and therefore worthless thing, a soggy blossom.
How we get away from this I don’t know. There must be a way. If we could get everyone in a big room and say to them, “Oh now you shall listen to this band and that band, and you shall abandon your prejudices in the face of Bassekou Kouyaté,” then that might do it. But we can’t do that. So we infiltrate slowly. We hope that this section of the music store acts as the thin end of the wedge, gently insinuating Tinariwen onto the shelves, letting it sidle in and sit there innocent, wielding its guitars and its mad hair until one of Hütz’s “kids in America” picks it up and oh, they say, what’s this? Let me listen.
On to this year’s list. I’ve tried to spread things out among the different parts of the world, but we get a preponderance of albums from some places and a dearth of albums from others, so lopsidedness is impossible to avoid. Try Paul Fisher’s Far Side label if you’re looking for East Asian music, and Skinnyfish for Australian Aboriginal CDs.
And as with last year’s list, there are a lot of albums that probably would have made it on here if I’d had a chance to catch up with them. Modest budget, only one pair of ears, etc, etc. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s posthumous In Concert sounds promising from the little I’ve heard of it, ditto the latest albums from Rachid Taha, Caetano Veloso, and Salif Keita’s label Wanda.
On with it.
Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land
(Riverboat; US: 11 Sep 2007; UK: 10 Sep 2007)
Champeta is a genre of Colombian music that looks back firmly to Africa. On the surface that sounds like a case of cultural cringe, and some of the older champeta songs can make you think that it is, but Voodoo Love Inna Champeta Land is champeta grown up, a genuine collaboration between two continents with neither one taking precedence, each wrapping itself around the other in a fantastic mish-mash of old-style guitars and newer-style mixes, a blend of guiro, accordion, singing, and samples, a geographically unplaceable structured splurge that manages to sound utterly natural. An ingenious album.
Multiple songs: MySpace
The Scandinavian folk musicians that NorthSide releases often seem to be aspiring towards purity, with their clear fiddles, their even-handed percussion, their clean-edged voices. The members of Ranarim take that purity and warm it with enthusiasm and intelligence, digging into their regional heritage and finding inspiration in unexpected places: in the seasonal instructions from a 15th-century Swedish farmers’ almanac and the hopeful invocations of ancient Icelandic shepherds. It is the twin harmony of the group’s women that gives Ranarim its extra punch, making it sound a little richer and more complex than a one-singer group like Triakel, and a little more human than a purely instrumental group such as Väsen. Morning Star is an album that rings strong no matter where you prod it.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Sounds from a Bygone Age Vol. 4
(Asphalt-Tango; US: 12 Jun 2007; UK: 7 May 2007)
Sounds from a Bygone Age, Vol. 4 is a comprehensive introduction to a formidable talent. Toni Iordache was a Romanian cymbalom player who gave his instrument the personality of a star actor, the kind who swaggers in and seizes full control of your attention no matter what role they’ve been asked to take on. Can he trot sympathetically next to Gabi Lunca as she smoothes her way through “Grea Mi-E Doamne, Inima”? Yes, he can do that. Can he rip through “Ca La Breaza” like a demon, throwing in doodles of ornamentation at incredible speed? Oh hell yes. If you’ve never thought that the cymbalom was an exciting instrument, then “Ca La Breaza” on its own should convert you. And if you’ve never bothered to think of the cymbalom at all, then Sounds from a Bygone Age, Vol. 4 should give you a reason to get interested.
As the first professional woman musician from the culturally conservative Comoros Islands, Nawal has, you can assume, plenty of determination. It’s this that gives Aman its strength, turning what could have been a dull acoustic drone album into something subtle, supple, lively, and powerful. It’s all lean meat and springy backbone, chants and plucked gambusi lute, with a suggestion of Tibetan Buddhism rising lightly through the occasional chime of a bell. And her voice has the sound of a weathered village elder depositing wisdom calmly in our laps. Aman is a compelling release, independent in all senses of the word.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Erol Josué, a Haitian vodou priest with a taste for the music of Angélique Kidjo, brings religion and afropop together on an album that totally disarmed me the first time I heard it. Seven months later I still get a buzz of pleasure whenever it appears in my field of hearing. Drawing dozens of influences together into a coherent whole, Josué creates his own musical version of a vodou ceremony, beginning with an invitation to Papa Legba and ending with a song that incorporates the sound of a closing door, the portal to the spirit world swinging shut behind us. Musically Régléman is inventive without being ear-grabbingly radical, but it has an understated sincerity and sweetness that is deeply endearing.
Multiple songs: MySpace
Music of Nat Pwe
Folk and Pop Music of Myanmar Vol. 3
(Sublime Frequencies; US: 11 Sep 2007; UK: 11 Sep 2007)
Music of Nat Pwe falls between the extremes of the other two South-East Asian compilations that Sublime Frequencies put out in the second half of this year, not as heavily indebted to English-language rock as Thai Pop Spectacular, and not as brutal and disconcerting as the definitely indigenous Molam. It coos, it whoops, the oboe-thing flies up and down, and everyone enjoys themselves. With so many labels fastening their ears on Africa and South America and so few bothering with anything east of India, Sublime Frequencies’ focus on this part of the world is thrilling and commendable, even if it is driven by a craving for mystic exotica. Myself, I think it’s better to be exotic than barely be there at all. Exoticism is the first step on the way to familiarity. What do you think, you other labels you?
Introducing ... Kenge Kenge
(World Music Network; US: 26 Jun 2007; UK: 16 Jul 2006)
Kenge Kenge started life as a good Kenyan benga pop band, the offshoot of a government body, nothing out of the ordinary. Reinventing itself as a neo-roots outfit that played benga on orutu fiddles and long-honking oporo horns was a stroke of daring. With Introducing … the musicians have made another change, allowing themselves to be recorded through a thin veil of distortion that scrapes at the niceties of the instruments until we’re left with something abrasive and exciting, a rawness that goes well with the squeaky orutu, the pounding percussion, and the singing that throws itself in the air like a cheer. It’s similar to Congotronics, but the focus is on the musicianship rather than the fuzz. Stimulating and clever.
The Roots of Chicha
Psychedelic Cumbias from Peru
(Barbès; US: 25 Sep 2007; UK: Unavailable)
It was either going to be this or Colombia!: The Golden Years of Discos Fuentes. This won out because of its unexpectedness. Roots of Chicha seems to be one of those labours of love that someone works on out of enthusiasm rather than commercial need, trusting that the tastes of the buying public will coincide with theirs. Chicha itself is a cumbia variant from Peru, bright in the way that cumbia is usually bright, but differentiated by a special airiness, a lightness that might have come from the Andean background shared by many of the musicians. Most of the tracks of this on this album have the added bonus of surf guitars, a woozy, jellied wangle that sits well with the brisk cumbia beat. Here is a group of bands that deserved to be brought out of hiding. It gets better, too: the New Yorkers who assembled the compilation have decided to form a chicha group of their own. Their debut LP is due out next March.
Highway to Hassake: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria
(Sublime Frequencies; US: 20 Feb 2006; UK: Available as import)
Highway to Hassake is braying Syrian manpop, a tough zuzz carelessly sandpapered by the medium these songs were taken from, your standard ye olde cassette tape. The percussion is blattering, the woodwind snakey, and even the cheap keyboard in “Don’t Wear Black—Green Suits You Better” has an underground, otherworldly smirk. This unadorned twist of noise lands like a slap in the face. Souleyman opens a small window into another place where life sounds brash and glaring, remorselessly present, like an old colour photograph with overloud bleed around the reds.
(World Village; US: Available as import; UK: 12 Jun 2007)
The flamenco of Son de la Frontera will never have the popular reach of Ojos de Brujo’s trad-hip-hop fusion, but its more austere innovations deserve praise. The guitars are vivid and precise and the singers cry out with the heartfelt anguish of men who have just had someone stand on their toes and may never get over it. Every pause seems filled with thought and weight. Everything is accentuated by the recording’s spare acoustics. Cal is an antidote to auditory overload, an album that puts up one commanding hand and says, simply, “Listen.”
Multiple songs: MySpace