The Best World Music of 2014

The best world music albums of 2014 often possessed some element of exaggeration or extremeness that seemed too unlikely to be fully true, and made you listen to them again and again.

The albums that meant the most to me this year were the ones with some piece of exaggeration or extremeness that seemed too unlikely to be fully true: I had to listen to them again. So there was the radical unflashiness of Ahmed, there was the grunting of Tanya Tagaq, there was the extraordinary heady quietness of the Nawa group from Aleppo. And I realise that this way of listening to music tends to rob me of the intense dedication to a single area of sound, Malian music, for instance, or K-pop, that would reward me with me another kind of pleasure.

As for George, of course, I can’t speak for him. I’m just glad that he’s saved me the job of putting Pedro Luis Ferrer on there. And I thank David Maine too, who, in 2013, drew everyone’s attention to Lobi Traoré’s Bamako Nights, an amazing live recording that I didn’t get to until early this year.

As before, we’ve each chosen five albums and ordered the list alphabetically according to the performer’s name. rating_circle_full-7Deanne Sole


Artist: Ahmed

Album: Dhaalu Raa

Label: Asasi

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Dhaalu Raa

When the band that the Maldivian musician Ahmed Nasheed was in during the late ’80s decided to travel around the islands to research the nation’s music for its debut album, Dhoni, the government decided that the musicians had to be supporters of the opposition and banned them from the radio. Nasheed went to the UK to study. Years later he returned and the band persisted. This solo LP (his first) is perhaps less ambitious than Dhoni — he’s not trying to take in the entire Maldives this time — but it’s more tenderly focused. Here, there’s overt evidence of his love for classic rock, in particular, the Beatles, whose later penchant for Indian crossover pop provides him with a handy blending-in device for the islands’ indigenous sounds, which have been derived partly from the South Asian mainland and partly from the Arabic and African influences that came through on the oceanic trade routes. How often do you have the opportunity to hear music from the Maldives, and how often does such a little-known tradition get updated and made as personal as this — personal, and forthrightly, even daggily, sincere, even though Ahmed is accompanied by a multitude of Dhevehi voices and boduberu log drums and other additions that could easily have scrambled themselves together into an overheated mess? Listeners who want to hear Maldivian music without the rock can look out for Asasi’s other 2014 release, Maldivian Traditional Music from V. Keyodhoo. rating_circle_full-7Deanne Sole


Artist: Tony Allen

Album: Film of Life

Label: Jazz Village

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Tony Allen
Film of Life

The career of legendary Nigerian drummer Tony Oladipo Allen began with a happy accident. As a youth, he hadn’t been exposed to traditional Nigerian percussion instruments. But while working as a radio technician in Lagos, he acquired a passion for the Western-style drum kit. He taught himself to play by listening to the records of the great African American drummers Art Blakey and Max Roach, but he soon developed his own style, one that showcased the hi-hat cymbal and the tom-toms. In the ’60s, he met a young Nigerian musician who had just graduated from the Trinity College of Music: Fela Kuti. The two worked together in the highlife jazz band Koola Lobitos, which led to their development of the revolutionary Afrobeat style. During the more than 15 years they collaborated, Allen’s drumming anchored Fela’s music, giving shape, cohesion, and momentum to the bandleader’s extended jams. In the decades since his and Fela’s paths diverged, Allen has had an impressive solo career, keeping faith with Afrobeat while exploring other styles, from jazz to dub to pop.

For his tenth album, Film of Life, Allen enlisted as producers a trio of French musicians (Ludovic Bruni, Vincent Taege, and Vincent Taurelle) known as the Jazzbastards. With them, and a top-notch studio band of African and European musicians, he has made an album that’s a musical biography of sorts, one that harks back to the early days of his career while being totally of the moment. Allen wrote ten of the album’s 13 tracks, including two with Damon Albarn, with whom he’s collaborated since 2006. Several of the album’s guest artists contributed three tracks (“Ire Omo”, by the vocal group Adunni and Nefretti; “Tony Wood”, by the American-born Nigerian singer Kuku; and “Na Bangui”, by Sandra Nkaké, who sings it). Film of Life encompasses Afrobeat, funk, electronica, Philly soul, and jazz. What ties everything together is Allen’s unique drumming, which melds Yoruba rhythms with American funk and jazz patterns. His playing is as precise as clockwork but supple and flowing. No grandstanding solos for him; the groove is all. And at 74, Allen remains one of the planet’s greatest groove masters. From the opening track, the Fela-like “Moving On” to the album’s closer, “Insider”, Film of Life is a rhythmic tour-de-force. rating_circle_full-7George de Stefano


Artist: M’Barka Ben Taleb

Album: Passion Fruit

Label: Graf/Full Heads

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M’Barka Ben Taleb
Passion Fruit

If you saw Passione, John Turturro’s 2011 documentary about Neapolitan music, you’ve seen — and heard — M’Barka Ben Taleb. A singer (and actor) from Tunisia who lives in Naples, she appears in the film’s “Nun te Scurdà” sequence and performs a beguiling Arabic version of “O Sole Mio”. On Passion Fruit, her second album (she debuted in 2005 with Alto Calore), she covers six international pop hits, from Italy, France, and Mexico, and introduces three new songs written for her. With her collaborators — beatmaker Tonico ’70, Arcangelo Michele Caso, a cellist, and arranger/artistic producer Salvio Vassallo — the polyglot vocalist has crafted a varied and satisfying album that isn’t afraid to be irreverent, eccentric, or even a bit cheesy, but in a good way (the Serge Gainsbourg/Jane Birkin heavy-breather, “Je t’aime moi non plus”). She turns Adriano Celentano’s “Storie d’Amore” into electronic-swing; takes the famous canzone “Guaglione” to North Africa, singing in Arabic and Napoletano; and re-visits “Nun te Scurdà”, seasoning it with guitarist Fausto Mesolella’s spaghetti Western licks and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly whistles. Best of all, there’s “Nisciuno”, by the young Neapolitan singer-songwriter Alessio Arena, interpreted by Ben Taleb with tenderness and delicacy, in Italian and Neapolitan; and the title track, an electronica-rap number that points to new directions in the music of Italy’s most musical city. rating_circle_full-7George de Stefano


Artist: Rubén Blades

Album: Tangos

Label: Sunnysude

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Rubén Blades

Since his early days as a house songwriter and then a hit-making recording artist for the New York-based salsa label Fania, Panamanian singer-songwriter Rubén Blades has been a genre-buster and innovator. He’s written story-songs like “Pedro Navaja”, a barrio ballad inspired by “Mack the Knife”; stirring political protest numbers like “El padre Antonio y su monaguillo Andrés”, about the murder of Salvadoran archbishop Arnulfo Romero; and a two-part salsa opera, Maestra Vida. He has ventured — with mixed results — into pop-rock en Inglés on the album Nothing but the Truth, with songs by Sting, Lou Reed, and Elvis Costello. (The Panamanian polymath also has been active in politics, having most recently been his nation’s minister of tourism, and he has acted in numerous films.)

But few probably expected him to make an album of tango versions of 11 of his best-known compositions, “Pedro Navaja” among them. The original incarnations of these songs are so well known, and so beloved, that remaking them in a radically different Latin American idiom seemed a dubious undertaking. Tangos, happily, is a resounding success. Blades is a long-time tango enthusiast, and for this project, he reached out to Carlos Franzetti, an Argentine pianist and arranger with whom he’d already collaborated, on Maestra Vida and Siembra, a 1978 salsa classic that teamed Blades and trombonist Willie Colon. Whereas clave-based, Afro-Cuban polyrhythms drove the original arrangements, tango doesn’t have a continuous rhythmic pulse. Its mood is different, too, more languorous and rhapsodic. Blades had to adapt his vocal style to the genre, phrasing to emphasize his song’s rich melodies. Blades more than met the challenge — he sounds terrific on every track — and he gets superb support from the 85-year-old Argentine bandoneon player Leopoldo Federico and his orchestra, as well as from a strings and woodwinds section recorded in Prague. rating_circle_full-7George de Stefano


Artist: Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino

Album: Solo Andata

Label: Ponderosa Music & Art

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Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino
Solo Andata

As the news media inform us with depressing regularity, countless numbers of desperate immigrants (economic and political refugees, actually) from Africa and the Middle East are fleeing their homelands for Sicily and other parts of southern Italy. Italians have reacted ambivalently to the new arrivals; many have shown compassion and support, but there also has been a frightened, xenophobic, and sometimes racist response, as elsewhere in what immigrant advocates call “Fortress Europe”. Some southern Italian musicians have directly tackled the issue. The Neapolitan singer Raiz, in his song “WOP”, and the Sicilian singer/trumpeter Roy Paci, in “Gastarbeiter”, for example, reminded Italians that they too, have known the pain of having to leave their homes to build new lives elsewhere.

In 2014, the band Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, which plays an updated version of the age-old folk form pizzica tarantata, leaped into the fray with “Solo Andata” (“One-Way Ticket”), a music video that is a collaboration with the Neapolitan author Erri de Luca, who wrote the song’s lyrics. Alessandro Gassman (son of the great film star Vittorio Gassman) directed the video, which he shot on a beach in the band’s home province of Lecce. In the clip, a grizzled fisherman gazes fondly at an old photo of a woman (his mother?) taken when she emigrated from Italy. While he waits for fish to bite, a group of migrants emerges from the sea. As they run up the shore, the fisherman hears the cry of one left behind. He rushes into the sea, but the person he saves from drowning is the woman in the old photograph. Her oneiric presence links the Italian immigrant past with present-day immigration to Italy, while De Luca’s lyrics condemn historical amnesia and indifference: “We let them drown / To drown them out.” Amnesty International’s Italian branch awarded Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino its Art and Human Rights Prize 2014 for “Solo Andata”. rating_circle_full-7George de Stefano

Nawa, Tanya Tagaq, and others

Artist: Dálava

Album: dálava

Label: Sanasar

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Aram Bajakian’s Armenian folk-punk debut Kef was one of the highlights of 2011 and the intervening period has not made him less serious or less determined to take risks. Pointing out yet again that he’s one of the more interesting things in a given year is the least I can do. Now he’s collaborating with the excellent Czech-American singer Julia Úlehla, whose ideas about emotion in music are as dramatic as his own. Her great-grandfather Vladimír, who was a man who regarded ethnomusicology as seriously as the Brothers Grimm regarded linguistics, once stayed in a South Moravian town named Strážnice (still in existence, with a handsome yellowish church) and noted down the music there. “His groundbreaking, methodical approach to the music of Strážnice [. . .] raised the bar for folklore research in the region, in part thanks to Úlehla’s highly scientific mind and painstaking care in transcriptions,” notes the publicist’s blurb. With these transcriptions as a guide, the band has constructed a raw erection of heaving and warbling in which the folk-source is still clearly audible alongside this fresh push that reminds you of Bajakian’s time with Lou Reed. It may only have been a brief period, but it seems to have left an impression on him; the instrumental screams echo back to “Venus in Furs”. You’re never in any doubt as to where this music came from originally but you know that it’s being tested. rating_circle_full-8Deanne Sole


Artist: Pedro Luis Ferrer

Album: Final

Label: Escondida

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Pedro Luis Ferrer

Cuba’s gifts to the world of music are lavish and legendary, and surely reason enough to lift the United States’ vindictive, fifty-plus-year embargo on the island. Why punish a country that has produced so many wonderful artists, among them the singer-songwriter Pedro Luis Ferrer? To tell the truth, Cuban authorities on occasion have penalized Ferrer, by keeping his more iconoclastic songs from airplay. Ferrer’s written about pot parties in Havana with female space aliens, used artificial insemination metaphors to criticize Cuban agricultural policies, and satirized, in the same song, First World vegetarians and Cuban carnivores. He’s also an open-hearted romantic who composes love songs rich in poetry and free from sentimentality. Final comprises twelve new songs recorded in Ferrer’s home studio in Havana. Accompanying himself on the tres, a guitar-like instrument that is a fixture of various Cuban styles, he sings in a warm and relaxed baritone, never straining for an effect or over-emoting. His daughter Lena, a frequent collaborator, duets with him on several numbers, including “Dicen de Ti, Dicen de Mi”, a conversation, set to a barebones arrangement of tres and percussion, about women and the roles “that dilettantes designed for them.” The entire album has an intimate feel, with the voices of padre e hija and Ferrer’s tres framed by steady but unobtrusive percussion, horns, and synthesized strings. I love all of Ferrer’s work, but Final represents a high-water mark in the career of one of the most remarkable and original artists in the Americas. rating_circle_full-8George de Stefano


Artist: Nawa

Album: Ancient Sufi Invocations & Forgotten Songs from Aleppo

Label: Lost Origin

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Ancient Sufi Invocations & Forgotten Songs from Aleppo

The story around this album is a litany of loss and horror in retrospect, though, at the time it was recorded in 2010, all the omens must have seemed good; the producer had come from the United States with an interest in the religious music of Syria — Christian, Jew, Muslim, whoever — all the burrowed-in local sounds that, he was astonished to discover, had never been recorded before. The musicians were an amateur group dedicated to the nuances of poetic litany and devotional dhikr, though “amateur” in this instance means merely “unpaid”, not “sounds unprofessional”, because their delivery is clear, measured, practised, and emotionally resonant: a deep simplicity. It’s the delivery that gets them on this list, of course, not the story, which ends with the city coming under heavy fire, the old buildings smashed by barrel bombs, and the Sufi singers fleeing for their lives. The news is still bad as I’m writing this. But here they are on the album, sending their humming sea-surge in and out until the atmosphere has tuned in to their vision of trembling blissful stability, a transcendent state that real life unhappily did not live up to. rating_circle_full-8Deanne Sole


Artist: Quraishi

Album: Mountain Melodies: Rubab Music of Afghanistan

Label: Evergreene

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Mountain Melodies: Rubab Music of Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s formal musical traditions are under siege for reasons that are too well known to be rehearsed here — Taliban, war — and this sophomore rubab album from the Kabul-born New York-based musician known as Quraishi would be welcome for that reason alone. But it has the added value of being an exceptionally intelligent work in its own right, and also providing us with a contrast to the last major rubab album released by a Western label, the one by Homayan Sakhi that came out from Smithsonian in 2006. Now we can picture the rubab as a chunkier instrument, its repertoire still derivative of the Indian raga, but the tone not inevitably as close to the sitar as it is on Sakhi’s recording. Quraishi is less astral, more candid, even when he’s classical-raga-ing on “Jun Garna”. A customer review on Evergreene’s website compares his first album to “virtuoso bluegrass guitar”. This is an earthbound civilisation at its most refined and discreet. The difference might come down to a stylistic influence from his late father, who gave him his first rubab when he was a child, but the liner notes aren’t detailed enough to let an inexperienced person say so with any confidence though we do learn that there is a “unique style in which the rubab is played in my father’s home province, Warduk.” I’ll think of this as the rubab‘s Warduk album. rating_circle_full-8Deanne Sole


Artist: Tanya Tagaq

Album: Animism

Label: Six Shooter

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Tanya Tagaq

The traditional throat-singing game of the Inuit has two women hurr and growl face to face until one of them breaks down and laughs. For years the Canadian throat singer Tanya Tagaq has been harnessing that idea of endurance to an impression of organic life itself — nature as an unstoppable surge. Her latest album is the current apogee of this merging experimentation, which, with her imitations of animals, she makes explicitly shamanic, therefore explicitly aboriginal. The result isn’t “sassy” or even straightforwardly “proud” or “powerful” — those words that often get brought out when a woman sings in a forceful way; rather, it’s violently self-assertive and ungentle, even abject in its creepy inhuman animality. It’s easy to be transfixed by the big grunts in “Caribou” but attention should also be paid to the soft little moments, the whimpering in “Rabbit”, this vision of a complete surrounding environment, not just a roaring world but a trembling one as well. I’ve heard nothing else quite like it this year, just nothing. I don’t think anyone else is making albums like Animism. Kudos to the collaborators who helped her get there, especially Michael Red whose field recordings are vital to the overall effect. In interviews, Tagaq has referred to her songs as Inuit protest music: “I don’t want to see people being abused and I’m sick of it. I’m mad, I’m yelling.” It’s not pop, not rock, not folk: this is protest music with the remorseless high intensity of tragic opera. rating_circle_full-8Deanne Sole