The Best World Music of 2013

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. rating_circle_full-21 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. rating_circle_full-21 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. rating_circle_full-21 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. rating_circle_full-21 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. rating_circle_full-21 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. rating_circle_full-21 George de Stefano

Juju and more…

Artist: Juju

Album: In Trance

Label: Real World

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In Trance

British electric-guitar maestro Justin Adams teams up with Gambian ritti master Juldeh Camara for this blistering Afro-blues-rock rave-up. Opening track “Nightwalk” is all scratchy riffs, swirling ritti (a kind of west African fiddle) and blazing rhythms, but follow-up tune “Waide Nayde” is even better: a five-minute molten grungefest of burbling, gloriously distorted riffs supporting the swirl of Camara’s voice-like fiddle. East-West fusions have been done before, but rarely as convincingly as this. Technically, this album was released in 2012, but didn’t cross my desk till 2013, so here is: my 2013 album of the year. rating_circle_full-22 David Maine


Artist: Joseph Kabasele

Album: Le Grand Kallé, His Life, His Music: Joseph Kabasele and the Creation of Modern Congolese Music

Label: Stern’s

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Joseph Kabasele
Le Grand Kallé, His Life, His Music: Joseph Kabasele and the Creation of Modern Congolese Music

During the 1960s and early ’70s, the hybrid style known as Congolese rumba was the hottest thing in Central and East Africa, and its most popular exponent was the singer, songwriter ,and bandleader Joseph Kabasele, aka Le Grand Kallé. Although it’s an overstatement to call Kabasele the creator of the style, he played a leading role in fusing Congolese folk music and Cuban dance music. For fans of Congolese rumba, and African music aficionados in general, Le Grand Kallé, His Life, His Music: Joseph Kabasele and the Creation of Modern Congolese Music is a must-have. The two-disc, nearly 40-track set, like all the recent re-releases of classic African music from Stern’s, has been expertly compiled and packaged with care. It includes a 100-page booklet by Ken Braun, a historian of Congolese music, and his commentary on the selections is astute about the music itself and its sociopolitical context. (The compilation includes the hit, “Independance Cha Cha”, which celebrated the Congo’s gaining of independence from Belgium in 1960.) The first disc, which covers Kabasele’s output from 1951 to 1962, is stronger, featuring most of Kabasele’s best material. The second, spanning 1964 to 1970, has some dull patches, but there are high points, too, like the 1968 hit “BB69”. Kabasele’s marvelous tenor voice, as well as the electric guitar work by Dr. Nico and Papa Noel, make even the less memorable tracks worth hearing. rating_circle_full-22 George de Stefano


Artist: Antonio Loureiro

Album: Só

Label: Boranda Music

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Antonio Loureiro

is jazz as an effervescence of ideas, jazz with the tropicalismo hunger for different sources of inspiration: rolling piano, men singing falsetto, indie-pop melody, the indigenous speech of Tupi-Guarani. It opens with a song dedicated to water and I would argue that water — softly irresistible, flowing here and there, bubbling, splattering, swallowing land — is the secret language of the entire disc. Every track is light with that supernatural-seeming samba lightness that never precludes serious thought: tight dance of the syncopated feathers. His transitions sound so natural and easy that I sit there thinking, “With a background in Brazilian music a person could do anything.” rating_circle_full-22 Deanne Sole


Artist: The Pedrito Martinez Group

Album: The Pedrito Martinez Group

Label: Motéma Music

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The Pedrito Martinez Group
The Pedrito Martinez Group

It’s not like Pedro Pablo “Pedrito” Martinez has been idle since he arrived in New York from Cuba in 2000. The 40-year-old percussionist, singer, and bandleader has performed or recorded with some stellar musicians — salsa and Latin jazz eminences Eddie Palmieri, Paquito D’Rivera, Chico O’Farrill, Bebo Valdez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba, and jazz artists Joe Lovano, Stefon Harris, Cassandra Wilson, and Brian Lynch. He also was a founding member of one of New York’s most popular Latin bands, Yerba Buena, recording two albums with them. But it wasn’t until this year that he released his first album under his own name, or rather, that of his band. The maxim that good things are worth waiting for definitely applies in this case. Martinez’s debut as a leader is a sizzling blend of classic Cuban styles, jazz, and funk. The band, comprising percussionist Jhair Sala, bassist Alvaro Benavides, and keyboard player and singer Araicne Trujillo, has become a top-flight ensemble from playing live over the past five years, including their regular weekly gig at Guantanamera Restaurant in Manhattan. Martinez has said that his challenge was to capture in the studio the heat the band generated in its shows. He’s succeeded admirably. Songs the band often plays live, like “Que Palo” and “La Luna” more than survived the translation from stage to studio, and the covers — Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” and the Jackson Five’s “I’ll Be There” — have been successfully Afro-Cubanized. High-profile jazzmen Wynton Marsalis, John Scofield, and Steve Gadd (who produced the album with Martinez) make guest appearances, but while they’re not exactly superfluous, Martinez and the band are all you really need. rating_circle_full-22 George de Stefano


Artist: Lala Njava

Album: Malagasy Blues Song

Label: Riverboat/World Music Network

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Lala Njava
Malagasy Blues Song

Lala Njava’s voice isn’t what you’d call polished, but it’s evocative as hell, and this album makes terrific use of it through its ten tracks. From the opening of the elegiac “Soa Gnanay” through the loping, hypnotic title track to the final strains of the sweetly lulling “Mosera”, Njava croons, whispers, exhorts, and snarls her way through a range of moods, ably backed by a posse of skilled musicians. The instrumentation is familiar to western ears — guitars, bass, drums — but it’s Njava’s voice that occupies the spotlight and glues the disparate moods together. With wider recognition finally coming to other African women like Rokia Traore and Khaira Arby, perhaps it’s not too much to hope that Njava will get some much-merited attention of her own in 2014. rating_circle_full-22 David Maine

Jyotsna Srikanth and more…

Artist: Jyotsna Srikanth

Album: Call of Bangalore

Label: Riverboat/World Music Network

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Call of Bangalore

Jyotsna Srikanth and her violin make the classical waveform of carnatic music sound idiosyncratic and even cranky or slangy. The other carnatic albums I heard this year tended to be lovely, but Srikanth’s so smart that she can speak in the vernacular. Is it her side-projects in jazz and folk that give her this insouciance? Is it the confidence you get from working on an insane number of South Indian filmi soundtracks? It was the almost ugliness in her gāyaki that grabbed my attention. She hasn’t changed the shape of the music but she’s granted it her character. If she has a signature sound on this album, then it’s a slur linked to a twiddle, the bow going between one extreme and another like 20 different diagrams of the same vibrating particle. Patri Satish Kumar and N. Amruth are a pair of beauties on percussion. rating_circle_full-23 Deanne Sole


Artist: Samba Touré

Album: Albala

Label: Glitterbeat

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Samba Touré

Surprising absolutely nobody on earth, Mali continued to produce outstanding musicians and great records in 2013. None was more satisfying than the debut from Samba Touré, which incorporates plenty of fluid guitar playing, full-throated vocals, call-and-response harmonies, multilayered percussion and mesmerizing rhythms. Opening track “Be Ki Don” is a standout, but the album overflows with fluid grooves and fine musicianship. rating_circle_full-23 David Maine


Artist: Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ

Album: Three Mountain Pass

Label: Innova

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Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ
Three Mountain Pass

Three Mountain Pass is a unique oddity, a reimagining of traditional Vietnamese music by Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ, who has been working with the 16-string đàn tranh zither since the age of four. It says something when the most normal-sounding track on your album is your collaboration with the Kronos Quartet. Their “Luu Thuy Truong” seems so routinely deconstructive, all angled and pithy with its ensemble of strings, but Võ’s own đàn bầu/đàn tranh version of Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne No. 3” is like a theremin muttering to itself underneath a blanket. No surprise that she likes Satie, that experimental humourist. Her Vietnamese instruments are regenerated objects. “The dan Bau is traditionally a solo instrument,” she explains, so she put three of them together to see what would happen. Something like throat singers on springs is the answer. The album is not only a rethinking of established modes, it’s also a series of experiments with scale. She’s probing at the boundaires of the appropriate merger. Does a massive Japanese taiko drum belong with a little t’rung? No, so let’s do it. Her descriptions of her own motives in the booklet are so very very modest. rating_circle_full-23 Deanne Sole


Artist: Various Artists

Album: Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran

Label: Sham Palace

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Various Artists
Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran

The DJ hey-heys the crowd, the equipment bleeds a harsh ruckus of squealing reeds and percussive brickbat, and the integrity of everything is wrecked and shattered, the sounds are not separated into their feeds, reeds not cleanly in one place, percussion not shamefully in another but all mashed and mingled in helpless non-integrity and incontinent violence. Who is responsible? Mike Gergis put it together, of course: Gergis of Sublime Frequencies and the band Neung Phak. Today he is being Sham Palace. “Culled from cassettes and discs found in the cities of Daraa, Suweida and Damascus, Syria between 1997-2010,” it explains, and I wonder about the skill of the ear that searches through a heap of cassettes and picks out “Deg Deg Dagdeglo” by Abu Wafsi. “Dagdeglo!,” yells Wafsi, rising drunk and skittish on a spume of noise, the human being as a self-powered commodity feeding off its own energy, perpetual motion machine of the Syrian wedding party circuit. Of all the albums I listened to this year, Dabke: Sounds of the Syrian Houran was the one that most gave the illusion that I was in the same room as the music itself — not the secondary recording of the music, but the original, time-growing atmospheric and vibrational occurrence. rating_circle_full-23 Deanne Sole


Artist: Various Artists

Album: Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu

Label: Clermont

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Various Artists
Live from Festival au Desert, Timbuktu

The Festival in the Desert, held annually in or near Timbuktu since 2001, originally was a local affair that highlighted the arts and cultural traditions of the nomadic Touareg people. Just a few years after its founding, the festival opened to the world, attracting musicians from other African countries, Europe, and the Americas. (Robert Plant was an early visitor from the West, performing there in 2003.) But in 2012, the future of the festival seemed in jeopardy, as political upheaval broke out in Mali — a coup d’état in the capital Bamako and horrendous violence perpetrated by militant Islamists, who banned music wherever they took power and infiltrated (and to some extent usurped) the Touareg independence movement. The festival didn’t happen in 2013, but this year the UK-based label Clermont released a live album from the 2012 event. The sound quality isn’t the best and the audience is mostly inaudible. But the artists demonstrate the richness and diversity of Malian music, from electric guitar-driven “desert blues” to more traditional sounds. There are tracks by musicians well-known to world music fans — Habib Koite, Tartit, Bassekou Kouyate, and Tinariwen — as well as lesser-known artists who deliver fervent and gripping performances. Guitarist Oumar Konate shreds like a demon on “Bismillah”, and Tinariwen, the internationally-renowned Touareg band, backs the Indian-Canadian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia on her version of “Mustt Mustt”, a ghazal (poetic love song) made famous by the late qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. rating_circle_full-23 George de Stefano