[17 December 2001]
Best Music of 2001 Lists
Rachid Taha, Made in Medina (Mondo Melodia)
2001 saw a surprising number of US releases from Arab artists, most of them based in France, and amazingly, the fallout from 9-11 hasn’t slowed down the Arabic music onslaught. It was original Franco-Maghrebi rocker Rachid Taha, however, who kicked the most Arab rock’n'roll ass in the 01. Taha has been honing his craft since his days with France’s first indigneous Arab rockers, Carte de Séjour, in the mid-eighties. He released three critically acclaimed albums in the nineties, but Made in Medina is his highest achievement. The opening track, “Barra Barra,” perfectly melds scorching guitar riffs from Steve Hillage (ex-Gong and others) with accompaniment from the mandolute and Arab percussion. Halfway through the song, it picks up a New Orleans beat. Virtually the entire album likewise manages to beautifully incorporate rock (plus blues and southern funk) sensibilities into Taha’s North Africa-based compositions (with the exception of “Ala Jalkoum,” an unfortunate clunker that pairs Taha with Femi Kuti). The production, arrangements and guitar playing of Steve Hillage, who has been working with Taha since the mid-nineties, are simply stellar. Taha’s compositions are consistently powerful and wide-ranging, including a variety of North African styles, and his vocals are wonderfully emotive, strong, and sometimes melodious, sometimes harsh and raspy. The world music triumph of the year.
Fun^Da^Mental, “There Shall Be Love!” (Nation)
Fun^Da^Mental, led by Aki Nawaz (who started his career as the drummer for ur-goth outfit, Southern Death Cult), has been bringing the noise to England since the early nineties. Advocating a left, anti-imperialist and anti-racist platform, Fun^Da^Mental has been at the forefront of progressive, South Asian and Muslim-positive cultural politics for a decade. “There Shall Be Love!” is Fun^Da^Mental’s most accomplished recording to date. A transnational collaboration tour-de-force, featuring the likes of Pakistan’s Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group (nephews of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan), South Africa’s Zamo Mhbuto and comrades, Tuvan group Huun Huur Tu, and classical Indistani artist Ustad Ghulam Hassan Shaggan. The mixes are incredible, the deep funk bass is as low as you can go, the vision expansive. “There Shall Be Love!” blasts open a wide space for South Asian/Muslim culture in England, asserting the undeniability of its presence. Aki is truly the grand master (ustad) of the Asian Massive movement.
Yat-Kha, Aldyn Dashka (Yat-Kha)
Led by Albert Kuvezin, veteran of the celebrated traditional Tuvan group Huun-Huur-Tu, Yat-Kha’s Aldyn Dashka harnesses the other-wordly sounds of Tuvan throat-singing—deep-bass snarls and celestial harmonics—to the energies of punk rock. Emerging from the hinterland of the hinterland (southeastern Siberia), the album presents a breathtaking range of Tuvan vocal styles and blends traditional instruments like the two-stringed igil fiddle with electric guitar. But even more than the wizardly vocals and the tasteful blending of traditional and modern instruments, it is the songs that really matter here. They deal with reindeer herds, horses, green steppes, high mountains, the beauty of Tuvan girls, a comrade of Genghis Khan, and araka, a wine made from fermented milk—the staples of Tuvan life. The songs are rich and varied, eminently hummable. (My 13-year-old son simply loves to sing along.) The punk energy is mostly understated, and when fuzz guitar is present, for instance, it complements and fills out the traditional Tuvan mood rather than sounding blatantly hybrid or juxtapositional. The effect is perhaps analogous to what might happen if George Jones were backed by an alt-country/bluegrass band on acid. A stunning accomplishment.
Natacha Atlas, Ayeshteni (Beggars Banquet)
Natacha Atlas is probably the best-known singer of Arabic music on the World Music scene today. Her work, from the early days with Transglobal Underground to her solo albums, has become increasingly sophisticated and innovative as it has simultaneously turned more and more Egyptian. Ayeshteni is quintessential Egyptian avant-pop. There are gorgeously romantic ballads, sung with deep passion in Arabic and French, with lush and sumptuous arrangements. The dance numbers are hot & funky, combining the grooviest beats from London and Cairo, and allow you to imagine Natacha doing her patented belly dance moves. (But stay away from Natacha’s unfortunate reworking of “I Put a Spell on You.”) The darboukas sizzle, Natacha’s voice emotes like never before, and all Cairo and the world worship at her feet. Truly the grande dame of Arabian funk.
Zohar, Onethreeseven (Mondo Melodia)
Zohar’s leaders Eran Barron Cohen and Andrew Kremer have chalked up impressive resumés as session players and producers in the British acid-jazz and dance scenes. On their first US release, Onethreeseven, they sample vocals from the likes of Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum, Israeli Sephardi star Zehava Ben, celebrated cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, and Mauritanian artists Ou Dimi Mint Abba and Kalifa Ould Eid and give them lush, subtly funky, contemplative, and often danceable musical backings. Their arrangements manage to fuse Middle Eastern instrumental passages with jazz or hip-hop or funk. The vocals are all powerful, intensely emotive and soulful, and although the songs are not all of a religious nature, the overall feel is spiritual. My personal favorites include the title track, which features the Israeli Zehava Ben singing Umm Kalthoum’s well-known song “Inta ‘Umri,” and gives Ben’s voice and the strings of her Arab orchestra a setting of cinematic grandeur and drama. “Angel,” meanwhile, offers up a subtly funky cocktail dance background for the grand vocalisms of Egyptian Umm Kalthoum. What is most remarkable about Onethreeseven is how Zohar manages to demonstrate, through its arrangements, the underlying shared musical culture of Arabs and Middle Eastern Jews. A commonality that cannot be underscored enough as 2001 draws to a close.
Mama Sissoko, Soleil de minuit (Tinder)
Perhaps Mali’s most sought-after session guitarist, Mama Sissoko cut his musical teeth playing with Super Biton de Segou, one of the country’s most important pop bands. Sissoko’s first solo release in the US, Soleil de minuit, features a superb selection of songs. The variety of styles is remarkable, from pop to jazz to funk to Latin, and the lyrical subject matter equally wide-ranging, from praises of Allah (on “Manssane Cisse”) to critiques of France’s racist immigration policies (“Commisariat”). Sissoko’s singing is expressive, roughly silky, and nicely complemented by Toussainte Siané‘s backup vocals. But most important, this is a guitar band, featuring Sissoko on lead, backed by two rhythms. The guitars all work together magically, interlacing intricately and seamlessly. Sissoko’s playing is always outstanding-fluid and sinewy. Check out in particular, “Safiatou,” where he pounds out tasty, lyrical Cuban jazz riffs.
Ali Hassan Kuban, Real Nubian (Piranha)
Ali Hassan Kuban founded the first Nubian musical group to play modern instruments in Cairo in 1956, and was a towering force in Nubian music for over forty years. Kuban’s stable of musicians and singers dominated Cairo’s thriving Nubian wedding scene and cassette market in the seventies and eighties, and in the early nineties, Kuban made the leap to the World Music scene. His concerts consistently drew big crowds in Europe, and he released three acclaimed albums in the West before his death this July, at the age of 72. Real Nubian was completed before his demise, and although Kuban was ailing in recent years and his vocals are somewhat weak, the album swings with the Nubian funk for which he is justifiably famous. Kuban’s songs are rooted in the polyrhythms of Old Nubia, produced by the tar, but are also charmingly eclectic. “Jammal” is a traditional Arab Bedouin song given the Nubian treatment, while “Sanose” is a Japanese folk tune that Kuban heard in a Yokohama taxi, transformed into a Nubian wedding song. The saxes and horns are strong and lilting, the rhythms full of Nubian funk, and three songs feature an added treat—never heard before in Nubian music—of Tadeo Aluart’s harmonica. The instrumental, “Nobana,” penned by Kuban’s brilliant keyboardist, accordionist and bandleader Hassan Meky, is quintessential Nubian soul music, a fitting tribute to the departed master.
Various Artists, Brazilified (Quango)
A compilation of tasteful, contemporary-yet-rooted Brazilian jazz, from recently-revived Quango Records and put together by LA deejay Bruno Guez. A dazzling array of styles is on evidence here, from house to samba to funk to seventies fusion to cuica, but it’s all held together by that light, airy, exquisitely beautiful and sophisticated Brazilian sensibility. Even songs that get deeply funky, like Da Lata’s “Pra Manha” or Mr. Gone’s “Mosquito Coast ‘94-‘96,” nonetheless manage to possess the same effortless elegance that characterizes the best bossa nova or samba. This is nouveau Brazilian music that is deeply rooted in the spirit of Gil, Gilberto (Joao & Astrud), Veloso, Jobim, and all the other giants. This jazz-dance-lounge blend will go down as effortlessly as the most expensive martini.
Maria Kalaniemi & Sven Ahlbäck, Airbow (NorthSide)
Still a cult phenomenon in the US, the Scandinavian roots music scene continues to export energetic, creative, surprising, and gorgeous recordings to our shores. Airbow brings together Maria Kalaniemi from Finland, one of the world’s accomplished accordionists, and Swedish fiddler Sven Ahlbäck, veteran of several Swedish folk groups, for the performance of compositions from both players as well as Finnish and Swedish traditional numbers. While the solo playing of both Ahlbäck on fiddle and Kalaniemi on accordion is virtuosic, the focus is on ensemble playing, on simple yet intricate interplay. Fiddle and violin weave together, in and out, so seamlessly that it is often hard to distinguish one from the other. So effortlessly do Kalaniemi and Ahlbäck play together that it is as if they were breathing from the same lungs. The album is characterized by a kind of restrained elegance, yet emotions run the gamut from from joyful to melancholy, from inspiring dance to eliciting contemplation, and each song is a pure gem. Tak så myket, NorthSide!
Various Artists, Turkish Delights: Beat, Psych & Garage. Ultrarities from Beyond the Sea of Marmara (Grey Past)
Imagine the Nuggets collection, Istanbul stylee. An archaeological recovery of mysterious, weirdly delectable and hitherto virtually unknown pleasures, culled from 45s recorded by Turkish psychedelic garage bands during the sixties and seventies. The Turkish rock scene was first inspired by The Shadows, a British guitar-driven instrumental outfit that was huge internationally (but never really noticed in the US), but it really took off with The Beatles and psychedelia. This wacky assemblage includes covers (including Izmir Özul Karsiyaka Lisesi’s divine version of The Yardbirds’ “Over Under Sideways Down”), psychedelic originals sung in Turkish (Bunalimlar’s “Taz Var Köpek Yok” is a raw gem), and rock remakes of traditional Turkish tunes. This massive assortment (a total of 26 songs) is pure and unadulterated fun from beginning to end, but it is not merely kitsch, for many of the groups demonstrate as much creativity, energy, and musicality as, well, those brilliant American garage groups on Nuggets. Turkish Delights also forces us to revise any stereotypical notions that Turkey is simply a backward “Eastern” and “Islamic” country. This is crossover country, redolent with the aroma of Turkish hashish.