The concept of world music – a catchall term to describe music that draws on cultural forms outside of a chosen mainstream – is one way in which hierarchies of the commercial music industries are made manifest. After all, who decides what counts as being in the mainstream, and what is different enough to be relegated to its own category based solely on its periphery from the said center? What makes Cuban son more worldly than Britpop when both are so strongly associated with a single region?
David Byrne’s 1999 article “I Hate World Music” refers to the titular genre as “a marketing as well as a pseudomusical term” and critiques its Eurocentrism and exoticization in a way that echoes the discursive dichotomy Stuart Hall once summarized as a divide between “the West and the rest”. Perhaps NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas said it best when she called world music “a problematic, horrible term that satisfies absolutely no one”.
In spite of this, the term persists, and with it a sense of otherness. How does a conscientious consumer support diversity in the music industry without further widening intercultural gaps?
These issues are ones we keep in mind as we highlight ten particularly phenomenal albums from across the globe and attempt to offer enough context for each to place them in the wider popular music scene. In each one, artists ask their audience to leave behind insular worldviews and try to understand new perspectives, whether through lyrics of protest, sounds rooted in histories of disenfranchisement, or simply self-determined expressions of individual identity – much like in any musical genre. By considering such brilliantly expressed perspectives as those in our top ten world music albums of 2019, perhaps we can move a little further toward breaking down the barriers inherent in the very concept of world music.
10. Nicola Cruz – Siku [ZZK Records]
The concept of Andean folktronica made serious waves in the world this year, with Quito-based producer Nicola Cruz bringing us a particularly fine-tuned example of just how organically digital beats and indigenous South American sounds can come together on Siku. Cruz’s sophomore full-length release (the last was Prender el Alma in 2015), Siku is a thoughtful presentation of both his Ecuadorian background and his prowess with modern musical technology. Bass-heavy instrumental cuts are interspersed with more melodic vocal tracks – melancholy samba “Criançada”, slow and sweet “Voz de las Montañas”. The atmosphere Cruz builds with each number – with flutes, strings, drums, and versatile synths – is palpable. Inspired by images of nature and ritual alike, Siku is an exceptional synthesis of past and present that draws from an exquisite sonic palette. This is a cosmic production, one that speaks to the depths of Cruz’s capacity for cultural reflection and his finesse as an artist.
9. Lim Kim – GENERASIAN [self-released]
No one could have predicted GENERASIAN, the first release from singer-songwriter Lim Kim since she was still firmly ensconced in the aesthetic and cultural realm of K-pop back in 2015. When she left her management at MYSTIC Entertainment in 2016, she all but disappeared – until now. At the end of May, she released a single “Sal-ki”, her debut as a rapper. A brutal takedown of Asian stereotypes, especially those Kim has encountered as a Korean woman at home and abroad, it paved the way for album GENERASIAN. Here, Kim has had enough and wants the world to know; she shouts her way over trap beats and frenzies of East Asian-esque string and percussion sounds with sharp-edged messages of empowerment. This is a radical reclamation of space, bodily autonomy, and identity, with the statements Kim makes throughout constituting an extraordinary use of her platform as a former rising K-pop luminary. On GENERASIAN, Lim Kim is not here to twinkle – she’s here to blaze a trail.
8. Umut Adan – Bahar [Riverboat]
At first listen, Bahar could be an album from the time of politically active Turkish rockers Erkin Koray or Fikret Kızılok – and not just because it includes a cover of the latter’s “Zaman Zaman”. Instead, it’s a product of a much more current artist, Umut Adan, who takes the psychedelic sounds and spirit of social change common to 1960s Anatolian rock and updates them for today’s world, one still in need of a healthy dose of critical creativity. Fittingly for an artist so inspired by his musical predecessors, Adan draws on vintage elements ranging from folk song lyrics to the fuzz of 1960s electric guitar sounds in putting together his commentary on topics like Westernization in Istanbul, the 2013 Gezi Park protests, and Turkey as a nation. With a limber, largely unembellished voice and a strong sense of music as a way of expressing crucial thoughts, Adan reaches out to his home country and the world on Bahar, an album that looks to sonic legacies from the past to work on meaningful change in the present.
7. Fémina – Perlas & Conchas [self-released]
Patagonian vocal trio Fémina – sisters Toti and Wewi Trucco and childhood friend Clara Miglioli – bring together a unique combination of ethereal vocal harmonies, low-key rap, and incisive commentary on Perlas & Conchas, their third album chock full of soulful style and crafted with masterful production. The latter comes, at least partially, from producer Quantic, whose light hand stays out of the group’s way. The group, meanwhile, thrives in sonic clarity. Shining tones and crisp, melodic sensibility make Fémina a delight to take in; a sense of social justice makes them crucial. The combination of both is likely how Fémina became a favorite of Iggy Pop, whose voice appears on the track “Resist”. There’s no question they deserve his endorsement – but creatively, they stand on their own six feet. The women of Fémina, with their dulcet deliveries of thoughts on love, sex, womanhood, and moving forward, captivate on triumphant Perlas & Conchas.
6. Altin Gün – Gece [ATO Records]
Reissues and reimaginations of the golden age of psych-rock has been one of the most constant and thrilling trends in the world music market for years. On sophomore release Gece, Amsterdam-based group Altin Gün returns with another of their own sharp, resonant takes on the style, and it rings true. Drawing on Turkey’s position as a geographical and cultural bridge between the two halves of Eurasia, Altin Gün plays with Turkish folk instruments and modes as well as Western rock and borderline disco elements as the group interprets extant Turkish rock and folk songs. A luscious vintage feel permeates the album, as does an era-transcending sense of cool. Like so many of today’s hottest groups – Dengue Fever, the Bombay Royale, Khruangbin – Altin Gün positions sounds from a specific locale within a more globally accessible popular music scene. Gece is as much an album for fans of 1960s and 1970s Turkish music as it is one for anyone who appreciates outstanding rock music.
5. Angélique Kidjo – Celia [Verve]
Queen meets queen on Celia, Angélique Kidjo’s album paying tribute to one of her icons, the legendary Celia Cruz, through a series of magnificent, polyrhythmic covers. Coming just a year after Remain in Light, Kidjo’s album of Talking Heads covers, Celia is another perfect match of past and present, with “Africa’s premier diva” taking on the repertoire of the “Queen of Salsa” in such a way that honors its source material even as Kidjo’s creative ingenuity comes through. Her delivery, as always, is skillful and vibrant, and her appreciation for the Afro-Cuban traditions Cruz worked so tirelessly to bring to the globe shines through.
Like Cruz, Kidjo always invests her full energy into each performance, and the additional emotional stake she has in Cruz as a personal musical influence – and as an icon of African diaspora in the Caribbean – only adds to the passion with which she carries out classics like “La Vida Es Un Carnaval” and “Quimbara”. With contributions from Tony Allen, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Gangbé Brass Band, Celia is a brilliant perspective on Celia Cruz and the West African roots of salsa and shows Kidjo moving from strength to strength – as she always does.
4. The Garifuna Collective – Aban [Stonetree Records]
The Garifuna community is one that has been in a state of diaspora since its 18th-century exile by the British government from the island known today as St. Vincent, with most making new homes on the Caribbean coastline of Central America. Fast forward a few centuries, and you’ll still find many of their descendants living on those same shores – including the members of Belize’s Garifuna Collective, who released album Aban this year. It’s been six years since the group’s last release, a farewell album to late founder Andy Palacio that still featured the vocals of Aurelio Martínez, whose solo career continues to thrive.
Under the direction of producer Ivan Duran, though, the formula is largely the same, albeit fine-tuned: a mix of traditional Garifuna rhythms and lyrics and carefully added contemporary pop sounds, including dub, soul, funk, and a hint of electronic enhancement. This, though, is a good kind of familiarity, and Aban once again places the members of the Garifuna Collective as some of its community’s best-known culture bearers for outside audiences. Compelling, tropical, soothing, infectious – it all describes the music of Aban.
3. Ekiti Sound – Abeg No Vex [Crammed Discs]
On the first track of Abeg No Vex, producer Leke Awayinka’s first album under the name Ekiti Sound, majestic keys lead into lyrics that describe life in Nigeria – the “Land of the Talking Drum”, as the track calls it – and a sense of identity tied into the associated history and landscape. It makes for a perfect introduction to an album that draws on local folklore, national popular music traditions from the last century to paint a portrait of the Nigeria Awayinka knows. As Ekiti Sound, he builds on that experience with an eclectic mix of vocals, beats, and samples. The songs of Abeg No Vex range from dancehall jams and trance music to melancholy reflections on the more tragic moments of life in Lagos – and that’s hardly the limit of Ekiti Sound’s creativity. Multilingual and sonically diverse, Abeg No Vex is bold and unpredictable, a new perspective on older traditions that makes it very easy to get up and dance.
2. A-WA – Bayti Fi Rasi [S-Curve]
The sisters of Israeli trio A-WA, Liron, Tagel, and Tair Haim, first made waves with 2016 single “Habib Galbi”, a hip-hop- and dub-influenced single that made its way into the hands of Balkan Beat Box frontman Tomer Yosef. On Bayti Fi Rasi, they continue to bring together traditional Yemenite sounds and modern electronics, a potent blend. Bayti Fi Rasi is particularly forward-facing, with songs taking on refugee crises and the people in power too cowardly or cruel to address them with humanitarian kindness. It is something that strikes a particularly personal chord for the Haims, whose paternal grandparents were evacuated from Yemen as part of a military operation in 1949.
Sonically, A-WA’s influences make these themes easy to want to listen to; they still draw on hip-hop, reggae, dub, and other contemporary sounds as they sing for justice, humanity, and love. With timelessly glorious vocals, potent lyrical content, and the fiercest of beats, A-WA is no less than the future of West Asian pop.
1. Mdou Moctar – Ilana: The Creator [Sahel Sounds]
This year’s release of Ilana: The Creator marks a turning point for Nigerien artist Mdou Moctar, a recording that finally captures the same energy he unleashes at his live shows. His nimble guitar work is an electric revelation, letting loose trance-inducing waves of psychedelic sound from the start. That skill stays in full force throughout the album, whether he’s embellishing slow, swaying dreamscapes like that of “Tumastin”, priming the dance floor on upbeat numbers like “Wiwasharnine”, or shredding at top speed on climactic tracks like “Tarhatazed” and title track “Ilana”.
Though Moctar claims not to have been familiar with rock and roll growing up, there’s no question that on Ilana, he hits rock star highs on each track. Moctar stands out as one of this year’s most virtuosic players in the globally-facing Saharan popular music scene – no small distinction, especially so early on in his career compared to older groups. Still, he deserves such adulations as he moves from local stardom to commanding a global audience with the tremendous sounds of Ilana: The Creator