[11 December 2008]
Has this been a flat 12 months, or has it felt that way to me alone? Good albums have come out, but the year as a whole has felt phlegmatic and still, as if it’s waiting for something that hasn’t happened yet.
Maybe I’m still anticipating some of those albums that I never got around to hearing. Analog Africa’s African Scream Contest must have been mislaid somewhere in the mail, while Asphalt-Tango’s latest Sounds from a Bygone Age retrospective, the Gabi Lunca disc, sailed past in the distance and vanished. I’ve heard Lunca on other recordings, and I can probably live without her, but there were tracks by T.P. Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo on African Scream, and that’s a group worth listening to.
Someone on a message board is advising us all to pay attention to Stelios Petrakis. Someone else loves DeVotchKa. A third person swears by Sevval Sam. There’s a lot out there, and it’s when I’m trying to write these lists that I become most aware how little of it I’ve listened to. There are a few albums that I’ve left off this list for reasons of balance. I reluctantly disqualified Jayme Stone and Mansa Sissoko’s Africa to Appalachia because I didn’t want to swamp the list with Africa-Other Continent collaborations. In fact most of the albums I reviewed this year came from African musicians. I could have made a whole list out of them and the list would have been pretty good, but then it wouldn’t be much of a world music list, true?
Multicultural fusion albums are common. Ones as good as this are rare. Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara get some help from Salah Dawson Miller on percussion, but really the entire powerful, unflagging, inventive, expressive thing rides on their two instruments, the ritti fiddle and the blues-rock guitar. It’s an improv duet with the power of a buzzsaw. When you listen to how much they’ve done and reflect on what little they’ve done it with then the whole thing seems miraculous, like watching scarves and marvels pulled out of thin air. I’ve been waiting since May for some other album to come along and unseat Soul Science from its number-one-of-2008 spot in my mind. Nothing has.
When Andy Palacio died in January it felt as if Garifuna music’s hope for international recognition had been snuffed out. Umalali relights it. Harsh, melancholy, and tough, these recordings of Central American musicians sound like a blues album from an alternative universe. The music moves to a tripping gallop that seems to be taking place inside some other beat that we never hear; the voices are bitey, amused, sad, unforgiving. If I had to pick an exciting development in international music this year (something apart from qualities particular to music itself) then the renewed forward surge of the Garifuna would be it.
3Some musicians who work from ragas let the shimmering openness of the source music slide into softness and mush. Debashish Bhattacharya doesn’t. He upholds his side of the bargain, he changes the music yet he respects it. His compositions move through different areas of India, taking in music from the south and west, even incorporating aspects of Afro-Americana, but in the end they always point back to the raga. His library of selfmade slide guitars sings like a set of sitars. A joyful brother helps out on tabla.
4Is Rabih Abou-Khalil the most restless oud-playing musical collaborator in Europe? The man doesn’t stay still. One moment he’s teaming up with growling Sardinians, the next thing you know it’s an Albanian with a duduk, the next it’s German jazz pianists. For this album it was a Portuguese singer named Ricardo Ribeiro, a performer whose repertoire before this only encompassed straight fado. Here he fits himself seamlessly into Abou-Khalil’s experimental ensemble, vibrating his voice next to the racing oud and the puttering tuba. The result is vaguely Andalucian but specifically unplaceable, a robust set of songs that sound like roots music from a place you think you should know but of course don’t, because it only exists inside the musicians’ heads. A unique and successful experiment, one that probably won’t be repeated because by this time next year Abou-Khalil will be off with a nose-flute specialist, or an albino savant who plays hip-hop zither with her teeth.
Quebecoise folk music has never sounded cleaner. Each stroke clips its way clearly out of the fiddle, each foot-tap trots out of the speakers with the precision of toenails being snipped: that swift click. The voices are less sharp than the instruments, more human, friable. They give songs such as “La Piaster des Etats” an undercurrent of longing that the fiddle accentuates. Dans les Airs is honest as polished floorboards, everything exposed to your judgment, the looped grain of the wood shining through. There’s a quality of earthy clarity that you can only get in folk bands like this, and these Canadians nail it.
Ethiopian trad-popular music, with its vibrating, unearthly voices, its luring saxophones, its twisty tang, has been carrying out a stealth infiltration of the English-speaking world for several years now, courtesy of Gigi Shibabaw, the enormous Ethiopiques, and other projects such as last year’s Bole 2 Harlem, and this year’s new release from the co-founder of the Abyssinia Band. A Town Called Addis takes the trend in a fresh direction by combining Ethiopian music with dub. The first time I encountered it I thought it was clumsy and pushy. Afterwards I realized that the Ethiopian sinuosity and the dub weren’t fighting but rather bouncing off one another, taking joy in themselves. What I had mistaken for pushiness was an excited gladness. An innovation that goes off like a kid in a bouncy castle.
This album is Concha Buika’s voice. Without her, it would be a pretty good but probably unremarked-on bit of mildly flamenco-sounding ranchera Latin American crossovery thing with suggestions of R&B and a Ricky Martin moment near the end. Buika’s voice is growly, husky, frayed, dirty. It glides into its emotions naturally, through bales of dry straw, reaching passion without straining for it. Allegedly there’s a mutual love-argue thing going between this Guinean-Spaniard and Mexico’s Chavela Vargas, who has been filling the post of a mentor. Who would spar with a famously dramatic and quick-tempered old star such as Vargas? A woman who sounds like this, that’s who. A rare find.
The Rough Guide to Australian Aboriginal Music made it into this list for two reasons. One, international compilations of Australian Aboriginal music are rare enough to be remarkable in themselves. Two, this one is actually very good. It acknowledges the didjeridu—the one Aboriginal instrument that everyone knows—and goes beyond it, knocking preconceptions aside. The listener is introduced to Aboriginal a cappella singing, to protest singer-songwriters, to teens rapping shyly about personal responsibility and less shyly about fish. Not every track is a winner, and the near-complete absence of women is galling, but congratulations to World Music Network for devoting time and ambition to one of the less lucrative areas of the global music grid.
9This album does a deft job of taking music that people will recognize as Central Asian—throat singing, horsey gallops, the upright creak of the morin khuur horsehead fiddle—and compressing it into concise tracks with choruses and verses, songs that a foreign listener can go away singing. The band’s lynchpin, Ilchi, spent time in a Beijing punk band before rediscovering his inner Inner Mongolian. A few Westernized touches blend well with the Mongolianness. An acoustic guitar on “Five Heroes” draws parallels between the Asian horseman sweeping across the steppes and the American cowboy on the plains. “Four Seasons” gives us a taste of something epic. An intelligent modernization of traditions, an opener of new ears.
En Este Camino starts boldly, proceeds boldly, and ends boldly, a vivid splash of a Mexican folk-festival album with a playful party kick and a more serious social-protest side hidden in the Spanish lyrics. The accordion romps, the percussion is snappy. The hooks stick. In fact the one that runs through the first song seems so deceptively simple that it reminds me of the hand-slapping games children play in playgrounds: a pair of girls smacking their hands together in patterns. The whole album is like that. It has a veneer of simplicity with something a little tricksier going on underneath. That smidge of teasing tricksiness is enough to snag you.