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The Best World Music of 2011

David Maine and Deanne Sole

The best of this year's world music proves there's energy surging everywhere around music, this human-made fight to find an approximation of the inexpressible.

"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.)

 
Artist: Kiran Ahluwalia

Album: Common Ground

Label: Avokado Artist

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Kiran Ahluwalia
Common Ground

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.

 
Artist: Azam Ali

Album: From the Night to the Edge of Day

Label: Six Degrees Records

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Azam Ali
From Night of te Edge of Day

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.

 
Artist: Baba Zula

Album: Gecekondu

Label: Essay

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Baba Zula
Gecekondu

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?

 
Artist: Aram Bajakian

Album: Aram Bajakian's Kef

Label: Tzadik

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Aram Bajakian
Aram Bajakian's Kef

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.

 
Artist: Ami Dang

Album: Hukam

Label: Ehse

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Ami Dang
Hukam

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.

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