The Best World Music of 2009

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

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US Release Date: Import

UK Release Date: 2009-04-13

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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

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US Release Date: 2009-03-01

UK Release Date: 2009-03-02

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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

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US Release Date: 2009-06-09

UK Release Date: 2009-06-09

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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

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US Release Date: 2009-12-08

UK Release Date: 2009-10-05

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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

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US Release Date: 2009-03-03

UK Release Date: 2009-04-06

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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

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US Release Date: 2009-05-05

UK Release Date: 2009-03-09

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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

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US Release Date: 2009-10-26

UK Release Date: 2009-11-09

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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.

 

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Artist: Tinariwen

Album: Imidiwan: Companions

Label: Independiente

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US Release Date: Import

UK Release Date: 2009-10-19

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List number: 8

This group of Touareg musicians first drew European attention in 2001 at Mali’s first Festival in the Desert, which was as much a camel derby as the birth of a movement. Four records down the line comes Imidiwan, another steaming load of desert blues, recorded at home in Tessalit, Mali. The electric guitars and voices patiently, assertively roll forward, riffing along, calling and responding, teasing color out of blue notes. Guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, who plays lead on about half the tracks, makes it all sound effortless — but this is a carefully crafted collective effort. Be sure to check out the short bundled film, which helps illuminate the people and the motion behind this exceptionally enlightened recording.

 

Artist: Various Artists

Album: Legends of Benin

Label: Analog Africa

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US Release Date: 2009-06-23

UK Release Date: 2009-06-15

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List number: 7

Analog Africa had two Benin releases in 2009, this multi-band compilation and an Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou collection called Echoes Hypnotiques. Orchestre Poly-Rythmo is better than any of the groups on this album, so why choose this one and not that? Because the groups here, with their different styles, their wayward Afrobeat, vodoun energy, their James Brown impersonations, their less-than-perfections, they offer a kind of crazy joy that you don’t get from the Poly-Rythmo album, which is a more solid and seamless piece of work. Echoes Hypnotiques humbles with its intensity, but the messiness of Legends of Benin invites us in.

 

Artist: Madera Limpia

Album: La Corona

Label: Out Here

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US Release Date: 2009-01-20

UK Release Date: 2008-09-28

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List number: 6

Spanish-language hip-hop is still quaking from the peak of reggaeton just a few years ago, which spawned a new-millenium wave of raperos riding mechanized beats. Madera Limpia, an organic duo from Guantánamo, Cuba, proudly occupies the opposite end of the spectrum, drawing heavily from traditionally acoustic instrumentation and styles (as well as the best of reggaeton itself, as it turns out). La Corona, the duo’s second release, embeds tres guitar, strings, and percussion using modern production. The lyrics, whether sung or rapped, sometimes deal with serious topics (check “Boca Floja”, about an informer for the Man). But the best thing about the record is its easy, insistent, extremely durable groove. The melody of the title track, as close to a pop hit as you’ll find here, may just lodge itself in your head permanently.

 

Artist: Mamer

Album: Eagle

Label: Real World

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US Release Date: 2009-04-07

UK Release Date: 2009-05-18

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List number: 5

Beijing-based Brit Robert Haller seems to have turned into the go-to man for UK labels wanting to put out Chinese new-folk albums. Last year he brought World Music Network’s attention to Hanggai, and the result was Introducing Hanggai, this year he’s brought Real World’s attention to Mamer, and the result is Eagle. Hanggai was a group. Mamer is a man. He, like Hanggai, hails from the western, Central Asian areas of China, and his songs have their roots in Central Asian country tunes. The music has been remixed for its outer-Chinese release, but essentially Eagle is all about him, his voice, his playing, his signature sound: a long lollop that hits its stride early and gallops on through mouth-harp, long-song, throat-singing, dombra, drum, chant, his voice rumbling along with a catlike purr.

 

Artist: Sarazino

Album: Ya Foy!

Label: Cumbancha

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US Release Date: 2009-08-25

UK Release Date: 2009-08-25

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List number: 4

The breakthrough third release by Lamine Fellah’s Ecuador-based band is a vibrant, bubbly mix of reggae, funk, hip-hop, even raï. It’s quite catchy — there’s no doubt this is a pop record — which is surprising given the eclectic mix of ingredients, including the distinctive voices of Revelino Aguidissou (Benin) on several tracks, and Toots Hibbert (Jamaica) on one. The lyrics, mostly in Spanish, but also in English and French, deal with love and finding one’s place in the world. Fellah spent much of his life in Africa (he was born in Algeria) and Canada (he went to school in Montreal), but his music is closest to the mestizo movement coming out of Barcelona via Macaco, Manu Chao, Zulu 9.30, and Ojos De Brujo.

 

Artist: Oumou Sangare

Album: Seya

Label: World Circuit

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US Release Date: 2009-06-09

UK Release Date: 2009-02-23

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List number: 3

Oumou Sangare comes with reputation attached. She’s one of those singers who attracts — with her Malian Wassoulou style — labels like African diva, and — with her pro-women lyrics — epithets like “feisty!” Her voice is dryly impassioned and flexible, capable of twisting back on itself, sometimes giving off long notes, sometimes rolling into a grand speaking-singing pendulum-movement like a woman performing Shakespeare. In Seya, she’s found a set of strong songs to back up the voice. Zoumana Tereta’s compact soku lends her huskiness some juice, and saxophones plump up the background. There are misfired moments — the keyboard in “Senkele te Sira” does nobody any favours — but Seya is Sangare at her best.

 

Artist: Khaled

Album: Liberté

Label: Universal

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US Release Date: 2009-08-25

UK Release Date: 2009-05-11

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List number: 2

The extroverted joy and sense of discovery in Khaled’s music have only grown stronger over the years, which is remarkable given how powerful they were to start with. The French-Algerian king of raï returns after five years of silence with Liberté, which properly showcases his mature, expressive voice in a mostly acoustic instrumental setting. Five of these pieces, including the excellent title track, come with short, separate “Intro” segments where he stretches out and establishes a reflective mood. In each case, they lead right into a deep, unstoppable groove, making an explicit connection between ecstasis and euphoria, balancing out the overall mix. Khaled’s voice sounds confident and assertive, rich in melisma and emotion, inspiring and involving, just fantastic. His accordion playing is quite tasteful too, as it turns out.

 

Artist: Warsaw Village Band

Album: Infinity

Label: JARO Medien/Barbes

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US Release Date: 2009-04-07

UK Release Date: 2008-10-27

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List number: 1

Infinity is the marriage of two ideas: a deep, dignified, old Afro-American heave-ho, and a higher-pitched East Europeanism executed with fiddle, cello, and ringing singing: on one hand sternly rooted to the earth, on the other fleet and sneaky, unreliable, laughing, airbound. One idea feeds into the other, spins off it, spins back again, until we have a dense nugget about the size of a chamber orchestra, not large, but of concentrated intelligence. The pace of the album sometimes slows but it’s never allowed to go slack. The musicians, although formally trained, don’t adopt an imaginary veneer of country bumpkin when they bring the country vernacular into the city, instead they treat it as it should be treated: as if it’s as smart as they are. Infinity is supremely lively.

 

AND THE LIST GOES ON…

Several outstanding 2008 albums escaped our attention until this year, so we’d like to mention them here. All of these albums deserve best-of status, even if they earned it late.

  • Grupo Fantasma – Sonidos Gold (Aire Sol)
  • Calle 13 – Los De Atras Vienen Conmigo (Sony)
  • Lenine – Labiata (Universal)
  • Seun Kuti – Seun Kuti & Fela’s Egypt 80 (Disorient)
  • Los Tucanes De Tijuana – Propiedad Privada (Fonovisa)
  • Kasbah Rockers – Kasbah Rockers (Barbarity)
  • Zulu 9.30 – Huellas (Kasba)
  • Ablaye Cissoko & Volker Goetze – Sira (ObliqSound)
 
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