Music

The 12 Best World Music Albums of 2016

There’s no short list that can be truly comprehensive of all the music in a single country, much less a planet, but there are always a few promising places to start.

The world of 2016 has been a fragmented place, with fear and hate giving rise to isolationist movements around the globe and huge portions of the population turning inward rather than trying to understand each other. As such waves of xenophobia spread like wildfire, the world music scene becomes doubly important, not just because it means more great music (and it does), but because it connects us all together on a wavelength that hits the human heart even harder and faster than anger.

PopMatters contributor George de Stefano, Rootsworld founder and editor Cliff Furnald, and I have all come together on this year’s list of top world music. Debuting artists stand side-by-side with old favorites as we circle Europe and cruise the Mediterranean, travel the Sahara, and then take a trip to the Americas, both North and South. All selections here are divided by review author; Cliff Furnald's writings also include links to full reviews on Rootsworld.

Traditional sounds of Eastern and Mediterranean Europe are fresh, bold, and ready for the 21st century on many of our selections, while from Africa come new twists on Tuareg desert blues, a whole spectrum of rare music from Morocco, prison songs from Malawi, and the ever-dulcet tones of Rokia Traoré; Afrobeat legend Tony Allen crosses the Atlantic Ocean for a whirlwind collaboration with some of Haiti's finest musicians. In Brazil, the modern thrives and memories of revolution still ring; balancing out two contemporary electronic albums is an acoustic, live album by a still-potent duo of two of the most politically and culturally influential artists to fight against Brazil’s 1970s military regime.

It’s a difficult thing to pick a handful of albums from a category as widely varied as world music, itself less a true genre than a broad category for culture-defining music, but it’s also easier to find something new. There’s no short list that can be truly comprehensive of all the music in a single country, much less a planet, but there are always a few promising places to start. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

 
Artist: Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra

Album: Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra

Label: Glitterbeat

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Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra
Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra

Since co-founding the unstoppable musical style of Afrobeat almost 50 years ago, master drummer Tony Allen has recorded dozens of albums, both solo and with everyone from Damon Albarn to Zap Mama. Now, he's teamed up with some of Haiti's finest, including musicians from Lakou Mizik and Yizra'El Band, forming supergroup Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra. Their brief time together marked by technical and musical chaos (including a smoke grenade at a music festival), the Orchestra's only album had to be pieced together from rehearsals and re-recording sessions. The result: a space-age frenzy of traditional Caribbean music, Afrobeat rhythms, and psychedelic electronics.

It was well worth the effort. Every track is brand new, bursting with tightly packed colors and textures. "Chay La Lou" sounds like smoke and neon. "Bade Zile" is pure Afro-Caribbean electrofunk. "Mon Ami Tezin" haunts, slow and mournful. "Pa Bat Kòw" rises to the top of the pack, with soaring solo vocalists Zikiki and Mirla Samuel Pierre from Yizra'El Band. Each member of the Orchestra adds to the ecstasy as cultures swirl together, and each piece feeds off of the whole group's unstoppable energy, creating something exponentially stronger than each individual member. In spite of their improbable and almost disastrous beginnings, Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra is a masterpiece of trans-Atlantic collaboration, full of familiar sounds that make up a completely unique creation. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

 
Artist: Bombino

Album: Azel

Label: Partisan

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Bombino
Azel

Whenever Nigerian guitarist Bombino releases a new album, the desert doesn't seem so bleak, and this may be his brightest moment yet. Blossoming with the colors of spring and the Sahara sunshine, Azel cushions the blow of a chaotic year with a combination of desert blues and reggae vibes. Hand-in-hand with producer David Longstreth of Dirty Projectors, Bombino leads a tighter band than ever on his sixth release; the whole Bombino crew handles traditional Tuareg sounds and electric rock and roll with equal skill. Handclaps and full drum kits coexist not only peacefully, but beautifully alongside Bombino's soothing voice and nimble guitar work. Azel brings together a full rainbow of tempos, moods, and genres, from the unbridled joy of opening track "Akhar Zaman" to the rootsy sweetness of "Igmayagh Dum" and the driving, dirty grooves of "Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar". It's a fine and varied selection of music, each track full of love, soul, and expert-level musicianship. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

 
Artist: Céu

Album: Tropix

Label: Six Degrees

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Céu
Tropix

Another gem in a steady stream of brilliant Céu albums. As always, she has new frontiers in mind, and on Tropix, she blends tropical and digital sounds together to craft an innovative wonderland that avoids the trap of relying too much on either traditional Brazilian sounds or overprocessed electronics. Nostalgia plays a major part on this album; the pixels referenced in its title are chunky, retro blips, and sole English-language track "Chico Buarque Song" strings childhood memories together into one of the album's most powerful songs. Classic samba beats add another layer of warmth and familiarity, especially on closing track "Rapsódia Brasilis".

While it's easy to break the music down into individual, identifiable pieces, though, the magic is in Céu's delivery. Every track is fresh, expertly-produced pop music that forgoes easy labels in favor of showcasing Céu's brilliance as a singer, songwriter, and all-around mastermind who continues to find exciting new outlets for her overflowing creativity.

 
Artist: Imarhan

Album: Imarhan

Label: City Slang

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Imarhan
Imarhan

Imarhan isn't like other desert blues bands, and this eponymous debut album of smoldering ballads and red-hot dance tracks proves it. A newcomer to the Tuareg rock scene with close ties to the almighty Tinariwen (frontman Sadam's cousin is Tinariwen's bassist Eyadou Ag Leche), Imarhan leaves behind the emptiness of the vast desert to draw on the urban streets of its native Algeria, adding warmer, fuller sonic layers that transform melancholy into potent, youthful romance. There's a heart-on-sleeve quality to those starlit Saharan guitars, a wilder fire and a gentler touch, creating a whole new style of free-spirited desert music. A polished funk edge and a dash of soul further set the group apart from its musical forebears. Imarhan opens up the way for a complete reimagining of Tuareg pop, one with greater depth of feeling and room for passion. It's a great sign for the future of West African rock, and a demonstration of fantastic versatility within the realm of nomad rock. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

 
Artist: The Klezmatics

Album: Apikorsim/Heretics

Label: World Village

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The Klezmatics
Apikorsim/Heretics

When the Klezmatics emerged nearly 30 years ago, they were radical in their political stance and their approach to Eastern European Jewish music. They titled their debut album Shvagn=Toyt (Yiddish for Silence=Death, the motto of the AIDS activist group ACT-UP); the band featured two gay members, singer Loren Sklamberg and violinist Alicia Svigals (since departed); and their politics were forthrightly leftist. Whether playing traditional material or their original numbers, they electrified audiences with a sound that was powerfully physical and deeply spiritual. A late ‘80s show I caught at the original Knitting Factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side remains in my memory as one of the most exciting and revelatory I’d seen in that dismal decade. Now, what was radical several decades ago has become classic, an established style that offers the pleasures of familiarity. Apikorsim/Heretics has everything the band’s fans have to come to expect: up-tempo dance numbers; instrumentals featuring round-robin solos and tight ensemble work; the seamless incorporation of jazz, Latin, and other influences; utopianism and irreverent humor. Their classicism doesn’t preclude new sounds or ideas, though; the former include the Latin flavor drummer Richie Barshay, a recent addition, brings; the title track celebrates dissent and rebellion with lyrics like "Cheerful heretics don’t believe in God" and "Happy heretics have no rabbi". (But why doesn’t the band take on Israel, given that Netanyahu and the country’s right-wing politics are the antitheses of everything they stand for?) All six Klezmatics play with authority and soul, but Sklamberg deserves special mention – he’s nothing less than extraordinary, the kind of vocalist of which it might be said, "I’d listen to him sing the phone book". -- George de Stefano

 
Artist: Luísa Maita

Album: Fio da Memória

Label: Cumbancha

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Luísa Maita
Fio da Memória

It's been six years since Luísa Maita's debut album, Lero-Lero, and in that time, she has grown by leaps and bounds. On Fio da Memória, she taps into her wilder side and leads us through the dark and dreamy parts of her São Paulo. Neon electronics and tropical rhythms provide the perfect backdrop for her voice as she goes from whisper to bellow and back again, reaching refreshingly chaotic heights. The key to Fio da Memória is Maita's newfound control: she knows exactly when to let loose and when to lie low here, maintaining a low-key strength even when she sounds effortless.

Percussion and guitars vary greatly in style across the album, but always move together in a well-choreographed dance of rhythm and melody. In contrast to the squeaky-clean Lero-Lero, instrumentation here tends to be full of electric fuzz, allowing Maita to maintain an enticing air of enigma. Fio da Memória is a stellar, ultrahip comeback that reveals another dimension of Luísa Maita, and promises a few more still to come. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

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