Visions of the World

Sri Lanka (from Laya Project)

Three world-music documentaries deserving of your attention detail the unity of Islam through music, the convergence of South Asian folk with modern technologies, and the plight of Saharan desert dwellers.

Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam

Director: Simon Broughton
Cast: Youssou N'Dour, Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sain Zahoor, Mercan Dede
Length: 49
Studio: Riverboat
Distributor: Riverboat
MPAA rating: N/A
First date: 2008

Laya Project

Director: Harold Monfils
Distributor: EarthSync India
Length: 68
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: EarthSync India
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: Available as import

Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey

Director: Kathi von Koerber
Distributor: Kiahkeya Productions
Length: 67
MPAA rating: N/A
Studio: Kiahkeya Productions
First date: 2009

The underlying themes of the following three documentaries represent some form of unity, an exploration at the foundation of indigenous cultures heading into the future with a solid understanding of what has brought them here. With any evolution, growing pains exist, and the directors and producers of these three fine films have done their best to show that while governments and popular media often present one side of a story, many others exist. The unity of Islam through musical means, the convergence of South Asian folk with modern technologies, and the plight of Saharan desert dwellers and their familial and social rites make up this trio of cinematic travels. Sit back and enjoy the ride, for there is much to be learned, and even more to be enjoyed.

Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam

"Because its bases are in every human mind already," writes Idries Shah in his celebrated work, The Sufis, "Sufic development must inevitably find its expression everywhere." Director Simon Broughton and host William Dalrymple explore Sufism, the "mystical" sect of Islam, in this fascinating documentary as ripe with music as it is with messages -- namely, the underlying current of all spiritual faiths that bonds and unites humans. Given the diverse nature of the music covered in this brief film, one can expect Sufism to have an inherent flexibility. Indeed, it does.

Sufism is often frowned upon by the Sunni and Shi'a sects of Islam, mostly due to the fact that they attempt to experience the divine, believing the universal energy to be attainable by everyone. Mohammed tapped into this, pointing the way for others to follow; he did not hoard that knowledge and claim that no one else could have it. We have an obvious parallel in a Christian society with followers of Jesus; recall that the Gnostics were derided for claiming God was available to all as well. Through their rituals of music and dance, the Sufis tap into the transcendent possibilities of existence.

It's the polarization of not only Islam, but faiths in general that Broughton and Dalyrmple address, doing so beautifully in this informational and sonically rich undertaking. The music is what drives this film, which is fitting, because the Sufis believe that music is what drives us. The term "Sufi" has been well-circulated since Coleman Barks' translations of Rumi's richly textured verses made him the largest-selling poet in America in the 1990s -- no small feat for a man who was born in Afghanistan and spent most of his life in Turkey in the 13th century.

While the faithful claim that Islam is a religion, Sufis would say that Sufism is religion; it is the elemental thread upon which the wool (which is the meaning of the word "Sufi") is woven. Music is a devotional force in praise of Allah, and from the opening minute of this film we are embraced by Pakistan's Sain Zahoor, spinning cyclically while fiddling his ektara and singing praiseful lyrics. His voice is heartbreaking; the ghungroos, or ankle bracelets with bells, keep rhythm while he pounces.

There are other memorable performances, including Turkey's Mercan Dede, who although now living in Canada spreads the gospel of his homeland's flute, the ney, combined with bottom-heavy electronica. Flautist Kudsi Erguner, a Mevlevi Sufi and one of the planet's most renowned ney players, talks about the oppression of Sufis; it is still illegal in some countries to partake in their rituals, although that law is less enforced these days. While governmental agencies use the images and ideas of Sufism to promote tourism, hence exotifying their country for mystically inclined travelers, the reality is the opposite -- it is the tale of the gypsy, remixed.

The duo then journeys into Pakistan to visit Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, nephew and successor of the great Ustad of qawwali music, as well as Abida Parveen, another of today's great qawwals (and especially rare, given that she is female). We also travel to Fes, Morocco, for the Sacred World Music Festival, witnessing Youssou N'Dour in action. The Senegalese superstar took a break from mbalax in 2004 to record a stunning collection of Sufi devotional songs, Egypt. His intent was similar to that of the producers of Sufi Soul, the art he created just as important. While the songs during the actual film are substantial, the extras have complete performances by some of the artists, making it an even more pleasant purchase.

Despite the subtitle and popular sentiment, there is nothing "mystical" about Sufism; the discipline is aimed toward fulfilling the highest human potential: union with everything. From a political and theological standpoint, it is easier to control subjects by having them believe there exists a grand battle between good and evil, and of course that they are on the side of good. It is an old and tragic tale, one we continue to live today. The soul of Islam lives through these musicians, and others who promote the idea of going beyond good and evil to merge with life in all its facets; devotion has nothing to do with only giving thanks when things go your way. When nothing is denied, everything is complete, and we spin, like the dervishes of Sufic faith, in unblemished symmetry.

Laya Project

While there are many gorgeous moments on this DVD, the top two are from India. Vocalist Chinmayi Sripada offers a brief exposition on the nature of water music -- that is, the songs of fishermen, which used to be timed to the row stroke. That was lost, he claimed, when motorboats took away the rhythm. (It makes one think of the chain gang song that opens the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, "Po' Lazarus".) The musicians then launch into "Hai La Sa". The cinematography is unmatched. Cameras pan to the quick-fingered veena player, A.K. Devi, who literally sets fire to the piece, and to tabla player K.V. Balakrishnan, whose cadence is matched only by his smile.

Part Koyaanisqatsi, part Baraka, part Planet Earth, the filmmakers of Laya Project set out to record and present indigenous and village music of South Asia in a completely new manner. With technology on their side, they certainly succeed. The portraits of mountains, lakes, sunsets, and so on are delicious to the eyes. The real winner is the people, both those in the towns they visit, and the musicians. This returns us to India for "Ya Allah".

When I first visited the project's MySpace page a number of months ago, I was instantly taken by this song in particular. It has serious bottom, led by the percussive instrument, rabahna; the praiseful call-and-response hymn is heartbreaking. Indeed, that is the intent of the lyrics (translated as):

You pose the question of tomorrow and lead us every day O Allah

One day I shall come to you, give me loving care that day O Allah

I am not the one who forgets you in this living world O Allah

When sadness surrounds me, you give me comfort O Allah

Not all the songs are this powerful, not all the scenes this dramatic. There is another, though, from Indonesia. The song "Kataul Kalu" features only vocals, led by Ismail AK, and handclaps. But these are some of the loudest and most rhythmic handclaps imaginable. The performers sit in a circle, dancing and shuffling to the rhythm they create, occasionally answering a line in chorus. How long a group of friends practices such a routine, or how they even came up with such ingenious music, is beyond the knowledge of this writer; that they did, much to my pleasure.

The DVD comes boxed with two CDs that, like the DVD, range in quality and tone. Some of the programming added in the mixing process, and some of the scenes, delve a bit too much into romanticism; too many clouds, not enough fields to plow. Still, this is a heartfelt and impassioned project by the Laya team, and for the moments that take your breath away -- and there are plenty -- this is a must-see.

Footsteps in Africa: A Nomadic Journey

Using the philosophy that images are more powerful than words (and music more powerful than both), the team behind Footsteps in Africa set out to capture the life of the Malian Tuareg/Kel Tamashek. These names have recently come into circulation thanks to the musical efforts of bands like Tinariwen, Etran Finatawa, Tartit, and others. Tinariwen, for one, was influenced by the folk music of their roving communities, not to mention the electric six-stringing of Jimi Hendrix, creating some of the most unique African music this side of Congotronics. When the music pipes in on the screen during this documentary, it is the highlight.

The nomad part of the subtitle involves the tribes' constant displacement by governmental interference. This is the heart of the Tuareg story, and what the documentary sacrifices by focusing on the community and spirituality of these groups is an important political component. This would not be a complaint had the spirituality been clearly presented. While the photographic efforts are simply amazing -- the visual effects worked in post-production are superb -- the occasional spiritual maxim on the screen detracts from the overall meaning. If you're going to use images as the driving force in your work, let them do the talking; adding sometimes subtracts.

Still, the sights and sounds are enough to carry this film. Getting an inside view into a little-known community -- their rites and rituals, their day-to-day and struggles in a harsh desert environment -- makes this an important document. The insights offered by one elder, that Americans and Europeans are racing to the top of the mountain and are, therefore, "obligated to fall", draws a timeless parallel to current economic conditions. These people are survivors, and if a world ever were to crash, it would be them, not us, who would continue pushing forward. Sometimes adding subtracts, true, but sometimes less is more. As it's so brilliantly stated in the liner notes, "We did not know we were poor until you told us we were poor." Their riches -- in family, community, knowledge, music, dance -- are what make a culture thrive, and survive.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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