[1 December 2011]
“It’s been a good year,” said Dave, mentioning albums by established names like Tinariwen, Natacha Atlas, Mamadou Diabate. I agreed, thinking of the Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo reunion, and considering, too, the nameless Ethiopians recorded by Olivia Wyatt for Staring Into the Sun and the Scots from Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree, these people who were documented once on short notice before stepping back quietly into their lives of private singing. A mass of albums at the end of the year can remind you of infinity, or of endings. New faces have arrived. Two Kyrgyz men recorded 40 minutes of mouth harp. After five years of online posting, Awesome Tapes from Africa released a physical album. Finders Keepers in the UK had its warehouse burned down by rioters, and musicians rallied to help. A short while before the disaster, the label had resurrected a 1976 film soundtrack from Czechoslovakia. That nation has been demolished too. The disc is a relic twice over.
There’s energy surging everywhere around music, this human-made fight to find an approximation of the inexpressible. If we ever find, it then of course there will be no more albums…
So this is a celebration of failure. David Maine and Deanne Sole
(Note: The Best World Music of 2011 list is arranged in alphabetical order.)
Ahluwalia enlisted some high-octane help for this album, including desert blues stalwarts Tinariwen and Terakaft, and put together a masala of a record that includes tunes made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, among others. Somehow, everything works, probably because the musicians are simultaneously respectful of the material yet also fully committed to it. Also vital: Ahluwalia’s voice, which is husky and expressive and acts as the glue binding these disparate elements together. Three different versions of “Mustt Mustt” are a bit excessive and detract from the album overall, but evocative tunes like “Raqaba” and the Terakaft-accompanied “Rabba Ru” make up for this.
This is billed as a collection of “lullabies” inspired by Ali’s recent motherhood, but fear not: a kid’s album this ain’t. Persian-born Ali delivers a strong set of tunes featuring her trademark vocals, swooping and soaring through a set of Middle Eastern gyrations, with plenty of echoey, exotic instrumentation—oud, dembir, santour—to spice up the proceedings. If the arrangements are a little quieter than her recent work with Niyaz, they are no less lovely for all that, as the haunting opening to “Nani Desem? attests. The instrumentation is muscular enough too, with plenty of percussive oomph on the likes of “Shrin” and “Dandani”. It’s hard to imagine “Nami Nami” or “Lai Lai” being used as lullabies, unless you want the kid dancing all night—which would be no bad thing, of course.
Turkish “psychobelly dance” outfit Baba Zula bursts out of the gate with Gecekondu, combining traditional instrumentation (saz, darbuka, various forms of percussion) with studio effects like wah-wah and distortion before blanketing everything, vocals included, with buckets of reverb. If “world music” equals “traditional music”, then scratch this from the list. But if it means “traditionally inflected music dragged squalling and howling into the 21st century”, then this record deserves to be heard by anyone even remotely interested in the outer limits of the genre. Vocals by Murat Ertel and Elena Hristova provide listeners plenty to hang onto, but it’s the hyperkinetic stringed instruments and slow, swampy bass-and-drums that give the album its flair. Plus, you can belly dance to it! What’s not to like?
Kef opens with pastoral wistfulness, yowls off into the opposite, yawls back again, shouts, laughs, screams, refuses to settle down, and keeps returning to Aram Bajakian’s Armenian background, which is his anchor and his yardstick. Kef—the migrant American-Armenian dances the album is named after—have a reputation for sweet cheese and nostalgia, but Kef the album is different. Pastoralism floats back again. He gets rid of it. It asserts itself. He slews away from home but he can’t leave it, he won’t leave it, he loves it too much, he wants to punch it up—get some shriek in there! The musicians hammer and saw and sweat over this vision. The sweat is punk, but the expert playing isn’t, nor is the essential gentleness he shows towards his roots. Kef is a spiky cradle but a cradle nonetheless.
Rough-chopped, brutal, both booming and secretive, so dedicated to its own flow-and-dam aesthetic that it’s willing to risk being mistaken for hysteria or chaos, all whipped-up high-pitched fluttering Indian vocals, sitar drone, loops, passionate outcries, weird exclamations…this is Amrita Kaur Dang’s first album, the aftermath of a college education in music. It was released free online in the first half of the year, but the hard copy is either 12 or 15 dollars, depending on your choice of format. I undervalued it when it came out, I think, and when I listened to it again recently for this article I sat and wondered why I hadn’t been more surprised, more impressed.
Gurdjieff (d.1949) was an Armenian-born mystic and the solo piano pieces he co-composed with the Russian pianist Thomas de Hartmann had Armenian roots. Eskenian has bared those roots, turned the piano compositions into compositions for a group, and executed the results on Armenian folk instruments—everything very strong, very delicate, a cobweb ache with the subtle tensile power of the region’s brilliant liturgical music. The musicians of Taraf De Haïdouks tried something a little bit similar years ago, repossessing classical numbers (Béla Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances”, Aram Khachaturian’s “Lezghinka”) that’d been inspired by their Romany traditions, but the experiment was only half-successful. The journey from one cosmos to the other made them wobble. In the hands of the Ensemble, it’s more or less perfect.
With a combined age of something over 300 years, the Jolly Boys know a thing or two about how to make music. This album, their first with singer Albert Minott, is a masterful set of covers (plus a couple originals) that signals the guys’ unwillingness to go gently into that good night of retirement. Metaphorically flipping the bird at anyone who thinks they’re too outdated to keep up with the cool kids, the mento stalwarts put their unique spin on Iggy Pop (“Nightclubbin’”), Lou Reed (“Perfect Day”), the Rolling Stones (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), and even Bobby Fuller by way of the Clash (“I Fought the Law”). A cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” is a highlight, but the record as a whole exudes such freshness and crusty energy that it’s a joy throughout. Think early reggae without the Rastafarian references and you’ll be close the overall vibe. A terrific album for chilling out on a sunny afternoon, partying late at night, driving cross country, or just about any other time.
A Malian singer in Paris performing Euro-Mandinka trad-popular with kora, etc., is not going to win awards for originality in this post-Salif Keita world unless she does something radical. Mamani doesn’t, but, ow, this is a great flavour of the established idea—it might be just an ice cream, but it’s an exceptional ice cream, a really dense delicious ice cream, an ice cream you’d be proud to go out with. You call your friends over to the truck—hey, try this ice cream! Long ago a former backup singer for Salif Keita, she rocks out like she’s in one of his large-scale live shows, taking a big, storming style and laying her voice on like pepper. French native Nicolas Repac backs her up with everything he’s got.
The latest in a long line of hereditary sarod players from central India, Amjad Ali Khan received a come-here invite from the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and together they made this concerto, an alert collaboration based around a series of ragas. The east and west classical registers meet and glimpse one another, borrowing ideas, knitting them up, and passing them regularly back ‘n’ forth for evaluation. Samaagam is a slow-burning album, full of detail and pattern—so detailed, in fact, that it seems slower than it actually is, in the way that an intricate picture slows time down when you stop and try to take in every part.
A reflective album from a couple of virtuosos, Sissoko and Segal offer a set of kora and cello duets that manage to bring the nuances of each instrument to the fore without either player overpowering the other. Occasional flourishes of balafon and vocals add variety, but this record focuses squarely on the two maestros. As well it should: the thrumming “Oscarine” shows how perfectly suited these instruments are, at least in the hands of these musicians. Other standout tracks include the balafon-inflected “Houdesti,” while “Regret—A Kader Barry” enjoys the expressive contributions of vocalist Awa Sanagho. Forget the urgent dance rhythms of Afro-pop: this is contemplative music ideal for staring out the window at the rain.
Vieux here proves himself a worthy successor to his father, Malian guitar god Ali Farka Touré, by doing the unthinkable: surpassing him. Forget Dave Matthews and the other guests, even though Derek Trucks’ chicken-scratch guitar on “Aigna” is an early highlight. What matters here is Vieux’s expressive singing and even more expressive guitar playing on both electric and acoustic instruments. There are instrumental workouts and on-target vocals, songs both downtempo and fast, longer tunes with multiple sections, all of it recorded with impeccable balance and precision. Africa has produced its share of terrific guitar albums in recent years (see Lobi Traore, directly below), but The Secret transcends that description to simply be a record of outstanding music.
“Africa’s Jimi Hendrix” left us with a gift for his last album, a stunner of guitar-centric African rock featuring standout tracks like “Saya” and “Jama”, all building to the ten-minute jam/head-twister “Ya Time”, which was probably the best song I heard all year, period. It’s hard to look past a masterpiece like that, but Bwati Kono isn’t a one-song album; it’s a terrific collection of tunes with a particular song that towers above the others. Traore got his Hendrix nickname through judicious use of guitar effects, and there are plenty of stompers here, but don’t overlook his top-notch songwriting; witness tunes like “Banan Ni” and “Bi Dongo Fa Ko”, which place the technical wizardry in service to simple melody and heartfelt singing. It’s a shame that Traore, who died in 2010, won’t leave us with more music, but no one can deny that he went out on a high note.
The Nagore Shrine in Tamil Nadu, India attracts Muslim pilgrims from all over the subcontinent, and its proximity to Hindu and Christian shrines ensures a vibrant, ecumenical mix of devotees. This record captures the pulsing, hypnotic rhythms of devotion with minimal, but well-placed, studio effects; discreet layers of synth and reverb help smooth some of the rougher edges, lending a dreamy quality to the tracks. With five of its eight tracks clocking in at over six minutes, Nagore Sessions aims for the hypnotic effect brought on by repetitive chanting, and succeeds more often than not. Standout tracks include the mesmerizing “Ya Allah” and “Allahu Allah”, as well as the epic “Mahane Mohabbat” that closes the album. A record to help us remember that devotion to art is, indeed, a form of worship.
In 1951, the U.S. folklorist Alan Lomax brought his microphone to Scotland and aired it around the byres and streets, recording the people there, their singing, their fiddling, their ballads, and their reels, a great mass of roughblooded voices rising forward out of cobble, pub, and grass. Those recordings, somewhere around 250 in all, were released afterwards on a sprawl of themed albums (Scottish Drinking and Pipe Songs, Women at Work in the Western Isles) and this 60th anniversary compilation is a concentration of that sprawl. It hugs the mob. Here are young children in a playground, here is a roaming old Traveller singing in Cant, here is a poet adapting a song to celebrate a revolutionary socialist leader who has earned his respect. The children must be old now, and the Traveller probably dead. The poet died in 2002. But they lived: listen.
Every album is a small sampling of a much larger universe of sound, the band’s universe, the genre’s universe: some other cosmos. It’s an ordinary idea, but one that I often manage to ignore until an album like this forces it into the foreground. I know that the person who made the recordings went to the musicians briefly, lingered, and then left, and it reminds me that I do the same thing at an even greater remove. Sun‘s tip-of-the-iceberg sampling comes from a U.S. filmmaker who travelled from one settlement to another around the Ethiopian countryside, recording different groups of people as she went. Part of the pleasure for me comes from the divergences between tracks, the whooping hypnotic Dirashe panpipes in one song, the growling Habesha singer in another, the variety of hiss, groan, trill, and the heave of physical activity in “Borana Singing Wells”. A core of sameness, but absolute variation.