[11 December 2006]
Music stores used to have trouble stocking foreign-language music because they didn’t know where to put it. As a result they often didn’t bother with it at all. The “world music” tag cops flak, but it has made life much less frustrating for anyone who wants to know about pop music in Iran or find out what Asha Bhosle has been up to recently.
Albums from West Africa, India, and Latin America have been doing well, as usual, but it’s the Balkan folk that falls into a sort of umbrella-ish subgenre nicknamed Gypsy music that has really been going from strength to strength this year. There’s been a flood of Gypsy releases, running the gamut from straight brass band (Boban Markovic’s The Promise) to indie (The Way the Wind Blows, a collaboration between Jeremy Barnes from Neutral Milk Hotel and Romania’s Fanfare Ciocărlia) to soundtracks (Borat) and there is no reason why it should stop at that. It seems infinitely flexible.
The worst and best thing about world music is that there’s so much of it. I look at the number of albums that have been released this year and compare it with the number I’ve listened to and come away feeling that I haven’t heard anything at all. So if you’re staring at this list thinking, “Why didn’t she include album something-something? It’s absolutely brilliant”, then that’s possibly because I haven’t looked into it yet. Albums that I might have put here if I’d managed to get hold of them include Toumani Diabaté‘s Boulevard de l’Independence; the new field recordings from Topic; the Tropicália compilation; the Zanzibar taarab CDs from Buda; and Andrew Weintraub’s six-disc recording of a wayang golek performance, which was released recently by Music of the Earth.
1We’re ending the year several musicians shorter than we began it. Ioan Ivancea from Fanfare Ciocărlia died in October and the old raï queen Cheikha Remitti died in May, but it was Ali Farka Touré who hit the mainstream headlines when bone cancer killed him in March. He was known for a twangy guitar-with-creaky-voice style that reminded people of the blues; and his popularity helped other Malian musicians receive some international recognition in his wake. Boubacar Traoré was one. Yet you couldn’t call him an elder statesman, exactly. He was more of a Cincinnatus who drops in, makes an impression, then goes back to the farm and refuses to budge again until he feels like it. Savane was released after he was dead. On the CD he sounds as if he’s in good shape, which is both reassuring and sad at the same time. He goes to the number one spot in memoriam. Looking around, I get the impression that every other world music best-of 2006 list is going to have Savane at number one as well, which makes me feel very unoriginal, but in this case I think the unoriginal choice is also the right one.
2Kyrgyz music is some of the best on the planet and we don’t get to hear it often enough. It’s sad and it’s thrilling, and if that combination of singing and komuz hits me at just the right moment then it can pull my heart out by the roots and go sauntering off with it. In a just world, Kyrgyz musicians would have taken off at the same velocity as their Roma cohorts in the Balkans, but their music has one great disadvantage: namely, you can’t dance to it. Dance gives non-western music a leg-up over the language barrier. Danceable music means that CD covers can be decorated with enticing quotes from critics, like, “You won’t be able to sit still!” and “It will make you shake your booty!” Mountain Music of Kyrgyzstan will not make you shake your booty, and if it does then I want to know how, especially if you’re doing it while Rysbek Jumabaev is reciting bardic extracts from the Manas. I could go on about this disc for a while, but suffice it to say that it’s being put out by the same people who brought us the excellent Silk Road compilation in 2002; and Tengir-Too do their country justice.
3Asphalt-Tango’s Sounds from a Bygone Age has been one of the outstanding reissue series of the year, although Alula’s Analogue Africa is looking good as well with retrospectives from the Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and the terrific Green Arrows. Puceanu and her cousins the Gores were lautari who used to perform at weddings and other functions in Bucharest. The songs on Vol. 2 were recorded during the 1960s and the original LPs were released only locally by the state-owned label, Electrecord, so as far as a western audience is concerned this is fresh material. Puceanu lets her voice go in dignified swoops, with a little smile lurking about the edges, while violins and a cymbalom spring friskily around her. Sounds from a Bygone Age: Vol. 2 is Romanian urban-trad at its finest, caught before the fall of Communism changed the scene forever.
4Seldom has an album been more honestly named. Natural sounds exactly that. It’s forthright and joyous, and largely a home-made effort, too, with Ferrer composing all of the songs and recording them in his own studio with his daughter singing along beside him. He’s a troubadour who takes the shapes of popular Cuban folk genres and uses them to make sketches of things that tweak his interest—pot parties, old slave tales, a young woman finding her first boyfriend. Natural sounds nothing like Le Fil, but both albums leave you with the impression that they’re the work of independent spirits. Ferrer is robust. He tips his hat to tradition without letting it tie him down; it’s the earth that nourishes his songs, but the songs themselves grow above it. In the stream of Buena Vista-type albums coming from Cuban musicians, Natural stands out as the work of an iconoclast.
5Camille was so lavishly praised for Le Fil that I can’t shake off the feeling I’m jumping on a bandwagon by recommending her, but the praise seems justified. This album is very good. Her overlapping tapestries of blurts and whispers and farty mouth-noises sound like the work of a woman who gets a huge kick out of her own body, not in the sense that she wants to wear a bikini and show off a greyhound stomach, but in the sense that she’s thrilled by the noises her bit of human real estate can make, even the squelchy ones. As in so much good chanson the voice is the prime mover of each song. It reminds us that there is character in every breath we take, even when we’re not using it to make words. Listen to Le Fil and you might feel as if the singer is pulling you into her mouth so that you and she can sit in happy rapture and get an intimate idea of the ways her tonsils waggle.
6When it came to choosing a Scandinavian album I hummed and hawed between Artology and Hoven Droven’s live Jumping at the Cedar. JPP won because its massed fiddle playing is second to none and Jumping has a saxophone that annoys me. See how subjective this list is? The members of JPP have been fiddling for well over a decade now, long enough for them to have turned into figureheads of the Finnish folk scene, but success hasn’t made them lazy. Their fiddles are as zingy as ever, and the surface serenity of their work is a cover for networks of slithering complexity. If you like your Scandinavian folk music harder and faster and louder and overall rockier then look out for Hoven Droven, but otherwise go with this.
7My resident layman is indifferent to a lot of the music on this list, but when I told him that I was going to include Kal, his face perked up and he said, “Good choice.” The Ristic brothers made this album because they say—or, rather, Dragan, the more articulate brother, says—they were distressed by the way young Serbian Roma were ignoring their traditional instruments and turning to Euro-keyboards and westernized electro-pop. They wanted to show people that you could hold onto your folk music and yet sound modern. In buzzword parlance, they wanted to make the old melodies accessible. Their album blends folk with everything from hip-hop to tango. If you’re looking for one disc that sums up the direction that Gypsy Music has been taking and is steered not by outsiders but by the Roma themselves, then this is it.
8Tráfico is a brassy bit of scruff. This is the second time that the Belgian collective has visited Brazil, and, again, they’re collaborating with firm-voiced Dona Cila do Coco, who turns up on the front cover, in sunglasses, on a motorcycle. Their songs have the appearance of something rambunctious and baggy, but you know that the hand of intelligent control has to be working in the background, tightening the music and giving it shape, or else the sheer amount of input from different directions would make the album come apart at the seams.
9The Rough Guides go though their highs and lows and this is a high. It leans heavily on the old big-band music that the label loves, but also finds time for hip-hop, pop, and taarab. Like Radio Thailand, it has an inclusive spirit, and this time the musicians got paid. Saida Karoli demonstrates an astonishing warble, Ikhwani Safaa Musical Club gets to show us what a band sounds like when it’s 100 years old, and Nia Safi and Imani Ngoma Group tumble around, waving seagulls. Of some of the other Rough Guides that have come out this year: the intelligent Rough Guide to Iran is rolling with acoustic strings; West African Gold delivers exactly what the title suggests; and the second edition of South Africa is possibly stronger than the first but I’m starting to think that Lucky Dube is slipping these compilers bribes under the table because they’ve used him more than once before on other albums, and in this new South Africa he turns up twice. Planet Rock is enjoyable but if they’re going to anthologise Yat-Kha then they should look at the earlier albums rather than Re-covers.
10Its packaging shouts exotic freakshow! and its musicians are not always granted the luxury of a name, but Sublime Frequencies storms in where richer labels fear to tread. It’s the world music section’s Robert Crumb: crass, adventurous, and necessary. Radio Thailand is a two-disc collage of sounds, some musical, some not, recorded from radio stations in different parts of Thailand over the years between 1989 and 2004. News reports come and go in scraps; singers blurt out a few lines and then vanish; monks chant unidentified sutras. It’s an antidote to the neater kinds of compilation, the ones that cautiously mete out a dose of this and a spoon of that, and worry about the audience appeal of the country they’ve decided to cover. Sublime Frequencies calls all of the music on this disc “relentlessly mystifying” and “sheer genius” and tosses it at you in a pile. You can take satisfaction in knowing that Starbucks will never, ever stock this one.