The Best World Music of 2017

Photo: Tiago Augusto (Courtesy of artist)

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.

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.

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