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.

8 - 1

Artist: Tinariwen

Album: Imidiwan: Companions

Label: Independiente

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/features_art/t/tinariwen-imidiwan-companions.jpg

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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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