The Best World Music of 2013

Deanne Sole, George de Stefano, and David Maine

This year's best world music offers up evidence of the artist's confidence in the audience. Do they trust you to be interested in two discs of avant-garde Korean zither or vast archives of live Syrian party music? They do and they should.

Some of my picks here were chosen by seduction. I listened to them again and said, "I need that one." Sometimes after that I threw them out. Most of my second choices came from that retro telescope, the Pharaway label. I'm still sorry I didn't get their Ramesh in there. Dave has his second choices too -- he writes, "Honorable mentions: Tamikrest, Chatma; Rokia Traore, Beautiful Africa; Vieux Farka Toure, Mon Pays; Various Artists, Qat, Coffee and Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen; Lobi Traore, Bamako Nights." Each of these runners-up very nearly made this list, and perhaps should have; each is worth seeking out." All right, I said, looking at that, then I'll mention Tayatha by Yungchen Lhamo and Anton Batagov. George sent an email arguing for the primacy of Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, "one of the year's big world music success stories." He gave our list its Italians.

I was struck by the unusually large number of women playing instruments this year, most of them from countries in Asia and the subcontinent. That doesn't deserve to be so remarkable. More people seem to be taking their styles in a warped-classical direction. A formality comes in and gets cunningly outwitted. Evidence of love, I think. Evidence of close attention, at least. Evidence of a musician's confidence in the audience. Do they trust you to be interested in two discs of avant-garde Korean zither? They do. They should. Deanne Sole

Artist: Alpay

Album: Yekte

Label: Pharaway

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This re-release of the early '70s album from Turkish heartthrob Alpay wins big points for his fluid, expressive voice -- but even more for the record's joyous production, which manages to incorporate every sonic signature of the times. Whether it's wah-wah pedal underpinning a traditional saz riff or hyperactive conga drums or Batman-theme bass licks later on, the album is a glorious mash-up of traditional Turkish crooning and the then-new standard of pop-rock studio tricks. What elevates the record above mere kitsch-factor enjoyment is the fact that ultimately, these tunes rock, and rock pretty effectively. Sure, there are some Neil Diamond-type ballads, but they're far outweighed by the simple badassery of the guy in bell bottoms on the album cover. David Maine

Artist: Baudouin de Jaer

Album: Compositions for Geomungo and Gayageum

Label: Sub Rosa

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Baudouin de Jaer
Compositions for Geomungo and Gayageum

Both the geomungo and gayageum are Korean instruments, both stringed, and in this instance both played with a mangy slap-whack that might remind non-Korean listeners of a blues guitar, often with long spaces between each pluck, the music taking a moment to listen while the reverberations wander off and tensely perish. A traditional sanjo is faster than de Jaer's transformation. He re-times the music from the inside out. Key words: lingering, persistence. Half a tune floats through shockingly and hesitates. Where did I come from? Am I going to go on? What am I? The performers, Lee Jung-a on geomungo and Kim Hyunchae and Lee Hwa-Young on gayageum, are alert: you trust them through all the irregularities, through every pause. This unification of reckless personality and teasingly withdrawn timing is the most thrilling thing I've heard all year. Deanne Sole

Artist: Brushy One-String

Album: Destiny

Label: RiseUp

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Brushy One-String

It sounds like a gimmick but it's not: Brushy's guitar really does only have one string, but that's as much as the man needs. With a warm, rich baritone and the wisdom of the ages, Brushy's deceptively simple but relentlessly energetic tunes summon up home truths about life, love, injustice, war, and hard times. Coming off like a cross between street preacher and cool uncle, Brushy keeps it real in ways that most rappers can only dream of. It's not at all gloom and doom though: lighter tunes like "Chicken in the Corn" prove that there's plenty of joy to be found out there as well. Soul? This guy oozes it. David Maine

Artist: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

Album: Pizzica Indiavolata

Label: Ponderosa

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Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino
Pizzica Indiavolata

For the Italian band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino (a.k.a. CGS), 2013 was "an incredible year", as a newspaper in their homeland put it. The sextet, led by violinist and percussionist Mauro Durante, toured Europe and North America, playing prestigious gigs like the WOMAD festival in London, South by Southwest in Austin, the Montreal Jazz Festival, and Joe's Pub in New York. Wherever CGS played, they won over audiences and critics with their updated but tradition-based take on pizzzica tarantata, a centuries-old folk music from the Puglia region of southern Italy. The band toured to promote Pizzica Indiavolata, the excellent album they released at the start of the year. Comprising 13 tracks written by Durante or adapted and arranged by him and the band members from traditional sources, the album focuses on pizzica, up-tempo and powerfully rhythmic. But it also showcases other styles from the band's home turf, Puglia's Salento peninsula: serenades, ballads, and work songs. Each band member -- vocalist Maria Mazzotta, vocalist and percussionist Giancarlo Paglialunga, guitarist and vocalist Emanuele Licci, multi-instrumentalist Giulio Bianco, diatonic accordionist Massimiliano Morabito, and Durante -- gets to shine, but the ensemble's the thing, and as Pizzica Indiavolata demonstrates on every track, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino is a remarkable and unique ensemble. The album not only establishes them as the premier ambassadors of Salento's music; it also stakes their claim to being one of the most distinctive bands on the world music scene. George de Stefano

Artist: Mimmo Epifani

Album: pe' i ndò

Label: CNI

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Mimmo Epifani
pe' i ndò

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino wasn't the only Italian neo-roots act to release an exceptional album in 2013, or, for that matter, the only one from Salento. Mimmo Epifani, a virtuoso mandolinist and singer from the Salento town of San Vito dei Normanni, put out his third album, pe' i ndò, whose dialect title translates as "to go where". Inspired by a poem written by a friend, the lyrics urge young people not to abandon their hometowns and local traditions to seek their fortunes in the city. Epifani first learned to play from a barber in his hometown who moonlighted as a musician; in tribute to his maestro, he calls his band the Epifani Barbers. But Epifani also studied at the Conservatory of Padua, so his work has the earthiness of Salento folk styles and the rigor of classical music. He can play pizzica, tarantella, and other southern Italian roots music in a traditional manner, but he's just as likely to give them a global spin. Two tracks on pe' i ndò, "Scaminante" and "A nott", borrow from Brazilian forrò, Portuguese fado and klezmer. "Pasquella" is a happy meeting of southern Italy and West Africa; "Mosse mosse mosse", in two different versions, is bhangra-pizzica, as is "Corre core", the album's closer. But Epifani never stoops to eclecticism for its own sake. His mastery of Salentine folk styles, which originated in the area's countryside and small towns, is so thorough and confident that he can comfortably borrow from other musical vocabularies without compromising either his native traditions or those he adapts. His mandolin playing can be dazzling but he doesn't showboat, instead giving every song just what it needs. Epifani is also a zesty singer whose rustic style, with its quavers and bleats, might startle listeners used to smoother, pop-operatic Italian vocalists. But it's as bracing as a good glass of negroamaro, Puglia's best-known vino rosso. George de Stefano

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