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.

Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis and more...

 
Artist: Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis

Album: NYN

Label: Riverboat

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Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis
NYN

This has been a year that has had more than its share of chaos and disappointment, but on one front, it has been one of the best in a decade. Musically, 2016 provided a global treasure trove of releases, and I could have offered you a dozen must have releases from the past year.

The top of my list this year is NYN, a work of poetry and politics by the Greek duo of Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis. In the midst of the political and immigration turmoil that has rocked their country, they have composed a set of songs that address these issues with absolute devotion to poetry above polemic. RootsWorld's Nondas Kitsos summed it up perfectly in his review. "In the song 'NYN', Stassinapoulou sings, 'I threw away the past in the garbage bin.' It's one of the most revolutionary phrases ever uttered in Greece, a country that sometimes seems exists just to justify its ancient history. In this hymn for the here and now they sing 'I'll just lie down in the Ypsilon of the NYN' (the υ of the νυν in Greek letters)." Delivered in their raw self-named Greekadelia style, Stassinopoulou and Kalyviotis offer a convergence of art, hope, and determination that is what I consider the essence of rock music. -- Cliff Furnald

 
Artist: Terra Sangue Mare (Michela Musolino, Michael Delia, and Fabio Turchetti)

Album: Terra Sangue Mare

Label: Self-released

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Terra Sangue Mare (Michela Musolino, Michael Delia, and Fabio Turchetti)
Terra Sangue Mare

The first album by Terra Sangue Mare, a trio led by the Sicilian-American vocalist Michela Musolino, was recorded in Prague, but its 13 selections, original compositions and traditional songs, are suffused with Mediterranean warmth and color. Musolino, a first-rate singer with a rich, soulful voice, was born and raised in New Jersey, but she has close connections—familial and cultural—to Sicily. She often has performed there, as a soloist and with the cream of the island’s traditional/folk artists. On Terra Sangue Mare (Land, Blood, Sea), she sings in Sicilian (which actually is a language, not an Italian dialect), but the arrangements and instrumentation don't make a fetish of authenticity. Musolino, Delia, and Turchetti play Sicilian and southern Italian instruments — tamburri and other frame drums, mandola, accordion — but also some from other musical traditions — the South American bandoneon; dumbeck, a Middle Eastern hand drum; the Zimbabwean mbira; bouzouki; and the waterphone, a percussion instrument modeled on Tibetan water drums. "Fammi Ristari" (Let Me Stay), with Musolino backed only by guitar and the chiming tones of the mbira, boasts a beautiful melody and romantic lyrics by Luciano Maio of the Sicilian neo-folk band Taberna Mylaensis. The up-tempo "U Sceccu" (The Donkey) takes its lyrics from a poem published in 1848, when Sicilian popular classes revolted against their oppressive Bourbon rulers. "Rove Ngoma/Palumedda" deftly fuses a Zimbabwean melody and lyrics from a Sicilian love song. Earthy and ethereal, Terra Sangue Mare is an auspicious debut for this rootsy yet innovative threesome. -- George de Stefano

 
Artist: Rokia Traoré

Album: Né So

Label: Nonesuch

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Rokia Traoré
Né So

Home, and the exile’s longing for it, is at the heart of Né So, the sixth album by the Malian singer-songwriter Rokia Traoré. But Traoré isn’t commiserating with the plight of the displaced from a safe distance; she instead witnessed it in her homeland, as Mali descended into civil war. Traoré has made something beautiful and moving from the traumas of war and her personal crises. She wrote 10 of the 11 songs (the exception being Billie Holiday’s "Strange Fruit"), rehearsed them in Bamako, Mali’s capital and center of its music industry, and then recorded in Brussels and Bristol with a band that included her producer John Parish and musicians she recruited from throughout West Africa.

Traoré has made an African rock album in which guitars—often as many as three per song, including Traoré‘s—dominate. Concise, melodic guitar phrases -- a.k.a. riffs -- are the foundation of most of the songs, and drum kits, rather than African percussion, provide the beats. The album has a consistent sound and mood that at first might seem a bit too unvarying but with subsequent listening becomes entrancing.

"Strange Fruit" can elicit melodramatic overstatement, but Traoré avoids that pitfall with her hushed, tremulous rendering of Holiday’s devastating lyrics. And so it goes for the rest of Né So. Whether expressing a refugee’s longing for home, or exulting in the pleasures of a happy love affair ("Amour", "Obiké"), or preaching an ethical code of mutual respect ("Sé Dan"), Traoré is never a showy singer. But her subtlety and quiet intensity, and her way of digging deep into a groove, make her a consistently captivating one. -- George de Stefano

 
Artist: Various Artists

Album: Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959

Label: Dust-to-Digital

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Various Artists
Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959

It's also been a remarkable year for making the old new again, and if there is a single recording label that does it with style, every time, it's Atlanta's Dust-to-Digital. This year they have released Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, a hardcover book and accompanying CD that explores the 1927-29 recordings, and the personal history of a little-known gospel artist and his unique instrument. Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll gave us a glimpse of a pop music world we'd never have known, otherwise. And another book and CD set gave us the music of Blind Alfred Reed: Appalachian Visionary, music from the unsung artist who gave us songs like "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" and "The Telephone Girl" that have gone on to become country and blues staples.

Dust-to-Digital also brought out one of my top choices for 2016. Music of Morocco: Recorded by Paul Bowles, 1959 is a masterpiece of music, passion and presentation. In 1959, novelist and cultural explorer Paul Bowles convinced the Library of Congress, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, to record music on the streets and homes of Morocco. What he came home with was remarkable. Long, trance pieces gave the listener a deeper understanding of what the music could do, how it could move people in ways far deeper than popular music. But there are also light moments, with humorous street songs and spontaneous singing. What moves the whole collection from educational anomaly to masterpiece is the seemingly random track orders, made more for the ear than the mind, and Dust-to-Digital's impeccable presentation style. The four CDs are placed in a cloth- wrapped "cigar" box, with an embossed leather ledger of notes by Bowles and others, and drawings and photographs by Bowles made during his travels. -- Cliff Furnald

 
Artist: Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil

Album: Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música: Multishow Live

Label: Nonesuch

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Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil
Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música: Multishow Live

What better bond is there than fifty years of music, protest, imprisonment, exile, and even more music? Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso have a friendship that has weathered it all, and then some. Now in their 70s, Gil and Veloso each still provide the perfect vocal counterpoint to the other, Gil's voice sounding rich and deep while Veloso's rings out higher, lighter. Together, they are a complete sound, yin and yang, with a gravitas and beauty on stage together that can only come from shared experiences such as theirs.

On Dois Amigos, two men, their guitars, and a single spotlight trace a vital portion of Brazilian musical history as Gil and Veloso play new, stripped-down versions of their own songs from decades earlier, highlights of which include a wistful version of Gil's formerly bombastic"Marginália II" and Veloso's reflective "Nine Out Of Ten", a song that has grown more poignant with age. The live recording itself is clear, perfectly capturing each harmony and echo while leaving in just enough audience applause to serve as a reminder that Gil and Veloso, godfathers of Tropicália, still have that legendary star quality. Dois Amigos puts this perfect team on a perfect pedestal. -- Adriane Pontecorvo

 
Artist: Zomba Prison Project

Album: I Will Not Stop Singing

Label: Six Degrees

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Zomba Prison Project
I Will Not Stop Singing

The guards and prisoners of Malawi's only maximum-security prison became Malawi's only Grammy nominees with 2015 album I Have No Everything Here, a poignant compilation of recordings from within the overcrowded Zomba Central Prison, produced by Grammy winner Ian Brennan in conjunction with a documentary. Their second album is just as raw and emotional, full of largely acoustic songs with titles like "AIDS Has No Cure" and "I Will Never Stop Grieving For You, Wife". Each singer colors their tracks with their own unique experiences; hope mingles with melancholy, resignation with still-burning resolve. Electrified track "Leave My Daughter Alone" is a march ready for fighting, and a hidden track at the end sounds almost like a spiritual.

Malawi is sometimes referred to as "The Warm Heart of Africa", and this second installment of Zomba Prison Project proves why. While it may be harder to imagine empathizing with some inmates than others (Zomba Central houses double murderers as well as people convicted of homosexual acts, still criminalized under Malawian law), the Project creates direct human connections from its participants' words to listeners' ears, giving a global voice to a group of people who might otherwise go unheard forever. On top of that, a percentage of the proceeds of each sale go toward legal aid for the inmates, making this an album worth both time and money.

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