Music

The Best World Music of 2009

Deanne Sole & Nils Jacobson

In 2009, well-known artists reliably produced solid albums, lesser-known artists did things that were often surprising and successful, archives were trawled by enthusiasts, old songs were excavated, polished, and compiled, and labels both large and small kept moving stubbornly on.

As usual, the year came and went with oceans and tundras of music released and not enough time to listen to it all. You will have heard albums that are not on this list, and you will wonder why we have not included them. Why haven't you reviewed them? Why haven't you mentioned them? Why don't you love them as they deserve, these sublime musicians who should be swimming around right this instant in a pool of superlatives? Because they have not crossed our paths yet, possibly. Why do almost all of the albums in your list come from Africa, Europe, and Latin America? For the same reason. The ocean is large, and no net can cover it all.

In 2009, well-known artists reliably produced solid albums, lesser-known artists did things that were often surprising and successful, archives were trawled by enthusiasts, old songs were excavated, polished, and compiled (Honest Jon's has been outstanding here), and labels both large and small kept moving stubbornly on. French field recording specialists Ocora decided to start a budget series, and Far Side continues to issue traditional music from East Asia in the face of a Western public that votes with its wallet for the stadium sweetness of J-Pop. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu's Gurrumul, first released in 2008, has been gathering adherents -- by now he probably has the widest international profile of any Aboriginal Australian artist since his uncle Mandawuy fronted Yothu Yindi in the late '80s/early '90s.

The Argentinian singer Mercedes Sosa died; so did the Bengali sarod master Ali Akbar Khan; so did Tilahun Gessesse, an Ethiopian singer who can be heard briefly on the Mulatu Astatke compilation below. So did others.

Now back to the living. On with the list.

 

Artist: Ojos De Brujo

Album: Aocaná

Label: Diquela/Warner Spain

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/o/ojosdebrujo-aocana.jpg

Display Width: 200

US Release Date: Import

UK Release Date: 2009-04-13

Display as: List

List number: 15

The so-called jipjop flamenkillo of this Barcelona outfit has proven remarkably consistent, both on record and in live performance. Ojos De Brujo ("Wizard Eyes") is a working band, not a studio project, and that shows on Aocaná. The instruments weave together in instinctive ways, unrolling this intensely rhythmic music as a tapestry -- in this sense drawing from West Africa and India in particular, but also freely incorporating the local colors of flamenco and rumba catalana. The guitars, the keys, and the horns all sound particularly lyrical, as does vocalist La Canillas -- even when she's rapping, oddly enough (check "Dónde te has met ío"). Aocaná is more subdued than the last ODB studio release, Techarí, but quite durable as it turns out.

 

Artist: So Kalmery

Album: Brakka System

Label: World Village

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/s/sokalmery-brakkasystem.jpg

Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2009-03-01

UK Release Date: 2009-03-02

Display as: List

List number: 14

So Kalmery, like Lamine Fellah of Sarazino, is the product of a nomadic existence. His trail started in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, moved through Kenya, Zaire, and Zambia, then skipped to Europe and landed in Paris. Also, quite spookily like Fellah, his father was the victim of assassination. Kalmery's music is an urbanized African blend of jazz, soul, and funk; he prefers the term brakka, which combines "bra" ("the start") with "ka" ("infinity" or "the mind"). It's hand-clapping, body-swaying, boogie-down music just about all the way through -- except for the plodding "Kamitik", the only piece that falls short. The warm and relaxed vibe of this disc is unusually attractive, effortless-sounding, easy to succumb to.

 

Artist: Los Amigos Invisibles

Album: Commercial

Label: Nacional

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/losamigosinvisibles-commercial.jpg

Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2009-06-09

UK Release Date: 2009-06-09

Display as: List

List number: 13

Los Amigos Invisibles are something of a guilty pleasure. It's just way too easy to get into the funky jams on Commercial (note the English, not Spanish spelling). There's no deep social or political message here, no exotic instruments or styles, nothing the least bit academic or intellectual. But that is really the point, after all: just get down! Gózalo ya! The six guys in this Venezuelan band have been playing together for quite some time, and by now they've more or less perfected their cheesy, neo-retro take on disco, lounge, and acid jazz. It's sufficiently offbeat and tongue-in-cheek to avoid the usual pitfalls of the genres. (Just skip the only English-language song on the record, "In Luv with U", which is entirely forgettable.)

 

Artist: Mahala Rai Banda

Album: Ghetto Blasters

Label: Asphalt Tango

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mahalaraibanda-ghettoblasters.jpg

Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2009-12-08

UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

Display as: List

List number: 12

Balkan party music, ripping along at a noisy pace, and with all the showmanship you could ask for. The singer carols and plunges, the trumpets patter like hail on a plastic roof. Everything is briskly aggressive, bright as polished teeth: the taut, tight work of specialists. Forensic in its giddiness. One part of the band comes from north-east Romania, the same place as Fanfare Ciocârlia, and the other from the south, the same place as Taraf de Haïdouks. Brass there, fiddles here. The two groups have cross-pollinated. Traditional music, yes, village music, yes, "folk" music yes, but with a clear commercial goal: it wants to grab your bits in its fist, press your ears back against your skull, and make you pay attention. Reportedly good live too.

 

Artist: Liz Carroll and John Doyle

Album: Double Play

Label: Compass

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/l/lizcarroll-johndoyle-doubleplay.jpg

Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2009-03-03

UK Release Date: 2009-04-06

Display as: List

List number: 11

No fusions, remixes, remakes here, only a simple idea, one woman with an Irish fiddle, one man with an Irish guitar/bouzouki/mandolin, a little percussion and organ, a few instances of singing from Doyle, the owner of a mid-range burr -- together they play jigs, reels, you know the drill -- and there you are: an album. But on Double Play the simple idea has been burnished 'til it shines. This album taps a river of clean, clear energy. The sets sweep along, sometimes engaging in ballerina pirouettes ("John Cahill's Jig"), sometimes darting aside into hiccoughing switchbacks that yank at your brain, sometimes belting ahead into a quick dance, sometimes slowing down into a lament. John Burr plays the organ and Kenny Malone doles out the percussion, but the album belongs to Carroll and Doyle, whose talents are bound together in mutual empathy.

 

Artist: Ba Cissoko

Album: Séno

Label: Sterns

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/b/bacissoko-seno.jpg

Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2009-05-05

UK Release Date: 2009-03-09

Display as: List

List number: 10

Ba Cissoko has more or less singlehandedly dominated the world of the electric kora (with or without distortion and wah). The harp/lute has ancient roots in West African culture (as do the families of Cissoko himself and his bandmates), which makes this particular retooling all the more ironic and inspired. The 12 mostly original tracks on Séno are remarkably consistent: the instruments are light and uplifting, the rhythms are deeply intertwined, the pulse is bouncy, and Cissoko's voice has the right mellow warmth to complement the rest of the action. The melodies per se almost always serve to reinforce the heartbeat of the group, much like the music of Habib Koité. Séno might not be as audacious as the quartet's second album, Electric Griot Land, but it hits a certain sweet spot and only gets better with age.

 

Artist: Mulatu Astatke

Album: New York, Addis, London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965-1975

Label: Strut

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/m/mulatuastatke-newyorkaddislondon.jpg

Display Width: 200

US Release Date: 2009-10-26

UK Release Date: 2009-11-09

Display as: List

List number: 9

Born in Ethiopia, Mulatu Astatke went to the UK to study engineering, ended up studying music instead, continued his studies in the US, then moved back to Ethiopia to spend a few valuable years working on the self-coined mix of Ethiopian and American music he called Ethio-jazz before a coup d'etat sent the country into a confused downward spiral. Ethiopian artistry of every kind was hobbled for years. This compilation covers Astatke's time abroad and his work before the coup. The playlist has been assembled to show off a) his best work, and b) his range. Here he is in New York, testing out Ethio-Latin-jazz. Here he is at his most experimental, using jazz ideas to deconstruct an Ethiopian melody and rebuild it with American-Ethiopian saxophones. Here he tries out a popular singer. Here he tries something else. Sinuous Ethiopian brilliance runs through the lot. Uncommon music from a restless mind.

 

Next Page
Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.