Photo: Tiago Augusto (Courtesy of artist)

The Best World Music of 2017

This year, some of the most powerful sounds across the global music industry were those that resisted injustice, whether by directly rejecting it or surviving in spite of it.

If 2016 was a year of gut-punching realities around the globe, then 2017 at its best was a year of moving forward with renewed energy, of voices rising and demanding to be heard. Whether at rallies, on social media, or in music, the world this year was full of strongly worded messages. This year, some of the most powerful sounds across the global music industry were those that resisted injustice, whether by directly rejecting it or surviving in spite of it.

Many of our top world music albums for this year fall in at least one of those categories. All ask us to step outside of the local spheres in which we live our lives for a few tracks, and instead to learn about another person’s reality, and for all of us, at least one worldview from the albums below will come from a very different place than our own. Young artists offer brand new perspectives on their environments and how to express them in song. Well-established musicians lead the charge against oppression in their homelands, whether in the form of state-sanctioned crackdowns on secular music or long-held gender roles. Artists up and down the experiential spectrum celebrate their ability to communicate something about their home or their heritage through music, something all performers share with varying degrees of intention.

As always, the term world music embraces so much and draws such arbitrary lines that it can be hard to pick just a few albums. Here are ten to whet your appetite for musical discovery, with hopes for a continuation of fruitful cross-cultural dialogues in the coming years, whether through song or positive social change.

10. Fabiano do Nascimento – Tempo Dos Mestres

Armed with little more than an acoustic guitar and, Fabiano do Nascimento heads into the Amazon rainforest for sophomore album
Tempo Dos Mestres, a work of astounding sensitivity. Throughout the record, do Nascimento illustrates the lushest natural landscapes of Brazil with a delicate strumming hand. Gentle touches of flute, sax, and percussion flesh out the scenery, and the result, for all its intricate melodies and patterns, is a refreshing and understated masterpiece of expression. “Já Que Tú” finds the artist singing from the heart of love and the pain that goes with it; “Louva-a-Deus ‘Mantis'” starts small and quickly unfolds into earthy brilliance, evoking its namesake insect’s strange and wondrous ways of moving through emerald jungles. Throughout the record, do Nascimento hearkens back to the quintessentially Brazilian genres of samba and bossa nova, linking together the people and places closest to his heart in sparkling, previously unheard-of combinations with virtuosic subtleties.

9. Quantic and Nidia Góngora – Curao

British-born producer Quantic spent seven years living and working in Colombia before heading to New York. On
Curao, he returns, this time to the country’s Pacific coast, where folklorist and singer Nidia Góngora continues the Afro-Colombian musical traditions of her hometown of Timbiquí. Wisely, Quantic keeps the synths to a minimum, letting Góngora’s lithe voice tell the stories and take the spotlight; “Dios Promete” even sees Góngora and a backing chorus go fully a cappella in a thoughtful call and response. Found sounds balance out the occasional flutter of digital beats, and every addition to the accompaniment exists to elevate Góngora’s dynamic voice, just as strong when she croons sweet, legato notes as it is when she takes a more forceful approach to her music. In juxtaposing modern production with longstanding folk music styles of Colombia, Curao exemplifies the concept of living traditions and their place in the contemporary music industry and gives an expert folk singer the attention she deserves across the globe.

8. Tinariwen – Elwan

Displaced once again from their homeland of Mali by a hostile political regime, the famed Tuareg desert blues band Tinariwen did what they do best in response: they went to other deserts and made music just the same. The group’s guitars trace trancelike rock grooves on “Ténéré Tàqqàl”, a song bemoaning the fate of the group’s beloved and much-embattled Sahara. More upbeat dance rhythms praise the Sahara itself on “Sastanàqqàm”. Joining the coolest rock band out of Mali are some of the coolest rockers out of the American scene today; Mark Lanegan, Alain Johannes, Kurt Vile, and Matt Sweeney all blend seamlessly into wave after wave of metallic riffs. There’s no question that life has been and continues to be hard for the members of Tinariwen, but the way they channel that and express it on
Elwan is exquisite. The love and agony they feel bleeds through on track after track, surpassing language barriers and becoming visceral through music.

7. Amadou & Mariam – La Confusion

Husband and wife duo Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia leave their stripped-down strings behind in favor of brighter colors on
La Confusion, an album with heavy 90s pop vibes that sound like they’re coming straight from mom’s tape deck. Tracks “Bofou Safou” and “La Confusion” go heavy on bouncing synth melodies, while “Diarra” and “Massa Allah” incorporate Bagayoko’s bluesy, Hendrix-inspired guitar to add a high lonesome feel to the mix. As its title suggests, La Confusion is one of the many albums out this year trying to make sense of the current global chaos. On it, Amadou and Mariam opt for a hopeful approach, with high spirits even in weary times. They spread love on mellow “Ta Promesse”, urge strength on rousing “Femmes Du Monde”, persevere on driving “C’est Chaud”, and know how to make good, memorable music that engages from start to finish. Feel-good Afropop jams with substance and serious energy, all wrapped up with some truly spectacular guitar solos.

6. Oumou Sangaré – Mogoya

As soon as Oumou Sangaré started dropping videos and singles, Afropop musicians across the globe began to rejoice on social media. Bombino took to Facebook to call her the queen; Vieux Farka Touré congratulated his “grand soeur Oumou” on every new release. The famously self-made Sangaré deserves every accolade for
Mogoya, her first solo release since 2012. Long an outspoken advocate of women’s rights and a businesswoman herself, Sangaré has experienced no shortage of difficulties getting to the top of Malian pop music, and with the help of original Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen, she takes her hard-earned strength and urges others not to give up on the buoyant single “Yere Faga”. On “Kamelemba”, she issues a lighter-hearted warning against playboys, her charisma sharp against the twinkle of the stringed ngoni. No matter her subject matter, though, Sangaré remains not only an inspirational figure, but a vibrant artist with a well-developed skill for storytelling. Mogoya is a perfect translation of Sangaré’s commanding creative presence into music.

5. Bokanté – Strange Circles

If we have to use the nebulous term “world music,” let’s use it for Bokanté, an ensemble that truly exemplifies the virtues of international collaboration. The name itself means “exchange” in the Antillean Creole natively spoken by lead vocalist Malika Tirolien, and it’s a word that says it all for debut album
Strange Circles. Accompanying Tirolien’s vocals are various Snarky Puppy members and collaborators, including percussionists André Ferrari, also a former member of Swedish folk group Väsen, and Keita Ogawa, who has worked with Yo-Yo Ma and Banda Magda. Together, the group makes music that draws on each member’s background to create new sounds – but instead of sounding like a patchwork world fusion, the group takes us on a journey to a new sphere altogether. Layers of percussion alternating between wooden and metallic, spiky rock guitars, soulful singing, and a constant twilight atmosphere put Strange Circles in a heavenly realm of its own making.

4. Omar Souleyman – To Syria, With Love

As the Syrian Civil War rages on and nations continue to debate the lives of refugees forced to flee their homes, wedding singer-turned-synthpop star Omar Souleyman remembers better times in his home country on
To Syria, With Love. He hits sugary heights with nonstop beats on long, electric tracks like “Ya Bnayya” and sings seductive love songs over microtonal melodies on dance bangers like “Aenta Lhabbeytak” with equally soulful aplomb. The tracks drive harder and heavier than those of 2013’s Wenu Wenu, but are just as representative of Souleyman’s long and successful music career. His music constantly shows where his heart lies, and never does he sing to more poignant effect than on the two closing tracks of To Syria, With Love: “Mawal”, a slow and weary lament that, his patience has done nothing to soothe the pain of being in exile; and “Chobi”, where Souleyman entreats the heavens on behalf of his countrymen, begging God for an end to their years of being forced away from home. Souleyman’s album is a truly comprehensive tribute to the land he longs to see again.

3. Tamikrest – Kidal

Named for an arid town in northern Mali,
Kidal is a crystal-clear picture of modern life in northern Africa. The members of Tamikrest returned to the rugged and historically embattled community to put together the album, and the location allows for a truly effective exploration of roots and current events. The band’s guitars buzz in the familiar fuzzy desert blues style now so closely tied to the music of the Sahara, but Tamikrest doesn’t feel tethered by what audiences expect from Malian music. The group draws on influences from around the world: “Tanakra” features a melancholy acoustic guitar throughout, while “Atwitas” braves the frontier with old west-style rock stings and a blistering solo. “Ehad Wad Nadorhan” incorporates modes of the Maghreb, and “Wainan Adobat” rides with an outlaw country twang. It’s as though in coming to a familiar place, the minds and hearts behind Tamikrest have room to stretch out and experiment. On Kidal, they do just that, with more exciting results than ever before.

2. Ibibio Sound Machine – Uyai

Music doesn’t get any more fun than
Uyai, a 43-minute-long block party from British-Nigerian group Ibibio Sound Machine. Retro synths and jubilant horns give Uyai hints of Prince, Fela, and Talking Heads during sunny moments like “Give Me a Reason” and “The Pot is On Fire”; midway through, the group blasts off into high-stakes future funk for cosmic tracks “Quiet” and “Joy”. Singer Eno Williams brings her infectious energy to every second of Uyai, and Ibibio Sound Machine achieves a fuller sound than ever before, fleshing out the electric highlife of their debut with brassy, soulful Afrobeat to give it texture and staying power. Ibibio Sound Machine has always had a knack for feel-good tunes, but here, softer tracks like “Lullaby” and “Cry” add to the depth of the band’s repertoire. These are fine-tuned globalized grooves that prove Ibibio Sound Machine’s tremendous range and make for an altogether ecstatic experience.

1. Les Amazones d’Afrique – République Amazone

2017 kicked off with with the Women’s March, the largest single-day protest in U.S. history and one that spread across the world. Fittingly, April saw the release of
République Amazone, the first studio album from West African supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique. Made up of well-established musicians like Nigerian singer and occasional Tricky collaborator Nneka, Amadou & Mariam’s Mariam Doumbia, influential Beninois diva Angélique Kidjo, and many others, Les Amazones sing with a unified female voice on République Amazone. To set the tone, the album includes 2015 single “I Play the Kora”, a song that references the historically male-only kora and sees each member of the collective demand respect for women. Each track, though, is full of riot grrrl spirit and perfectly polished musicianship, allowing each stellar collaborator to show off her individual talent in a style well-suited to her: Kidjo gets to belt it out on heavy electro dance track “Dombolo”, Nneka takes a laid-back approach to “La Dame Et Ses Valises”, and Rokia Koné and Massan Coulibaly trace polyphonic lines over the stretched-out funk of “Deep In Love”. This is a diverse, pan-African group of women, and on République Amazone, their voices and messages blaze a trail to the future well worth following.