“World music” can mean pretty much anything. French club tracks. Field recordings captured on remote Pacific islands. Bollywood soundtracks. Argentine tangos. Or, for that matter, pop, traditional, classical or religious music from anywhere on the globe — as long as the lyrics aren’t sung in English and the instruments aren’t “Western” (unless they are). Admittedly, I’ve assigned myself a quite wide (and ultimately frustrating) purview over nearly 20 years of covering world music for various outlets.
But I like to see the positive repercussions of tagging art in such impossibly vague ways. It means that I have all the more good music to dig into, even if I never hear a fraction of what’s out there and worth hearing. So I invite you to consider this list of 10 albums I’ve really enjoyed this year as simply a jumping-off point for discovery — and please tell me what I’ve missed via Twitter, on Facebook or in the comments section here.
And be sure to check out all the great international picks on NPR Music’s other year-end lists, from our 50 Favorite Albums to our 100 Favorite Songs. Needless to say, there’s plenty of globalismo in the year-end picks offered by my friends Jasmine and Felix over at Alt.Latino — so go check out their excellent list. I was delighted to see that we had only one point of intersection, which means there’s just that much more for me to hear in 2014.
10 Favorite World Music Albums of 2013
Artist: Mulatu Astatke
Album: Sketches of Ethiopia
Mulatu Astatke: 'Sketches of Ethiopia'
Title: Hager Fiker
Album: Sketches of Ethiopia
The latest project from the man dubbed "the father of Ethio-jazz" — vibraphonist, pianist, keyboard player and arranger Mulatu Astatke — will make you swoon. Astatke turned 70 this year, but "Sketches of Ethiopia" is, astonishingly enough, his first release on an international label. He creates sublime textures for his 12-piece band. Take, for example, his enchanting version of a traditional tune, "Hager Fiker," with burnished brass set elegantly against brightly chiming vibes and other dark, rolling percussion.
Banda Magda: 'Amour, t'es là?'
Title: Amour, T'es Là?
Album: Amour, T'es Là?
If, on first listen (and at first look at the album art), you thought this bright and breezy French-Brazilian hybrid was some treasure unearthed from early 1960s Paris, I'd totally forgive you. But it's the product of the fertile mind of Magda Giannikou, a Greek singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist now based in New York who creates these supersaturated songs when she's not collaborating with the likes of Louis CK and the Kronos Quartet. And if you listen more closely, you'll hear just how many bits of musical ephemera Giannikou and her band sneak into their nearly cartoonish mix, from seductive Greek tsifteteli rhythms to a shining Japanese shamisen.
Buika: 'La Noche Más Larga'
Title: Ne Me Quitte Pas
Album: La Noche Más Larga
Singer Buika shrugs off expectations at every turn. Born to parents from Equatorial Guinea and raised in a Roma (Gypsy) neighborhood in Mallorca, Spain — and never feeling that she really belonged — she took on flamenco style as her own, then turned the genre upside down. On her sixth album, she deploys her fire-and-smoke voice like a precision weapon in covers of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain," an Afro-Cuban version of Abbey Lincoln's "Throw It Away" and the Jacques Brel torch classic "Ne me quitte pas," as well as several of her own songs.
Débruit & Alsarah: 'Aljawal'
One of my very favorite finds this year has been a collaboration between French producer and musician Débruit and the Sudan-born, Yemen-raised and now Brooklyn-based vocalist Alsarah. Earlier this year, I really enjoyed a rootsier project in which Alsarah is involved, but this outing, titled Aljawal (The Traveler), sees her and her musical partner blending his electronic textures with her sweet voice, the two using Sudanese rhythms and melodies as their launching pad. The album is compulsively listenable — and much of it is eminently danceable, like this track, "Sharara" (Spark).
Red Baraat: 'Shruggy Ji'
Title: Dama Dam Mast Qalandar
Album: Shruggy Ji
If anyone still needs a pro-pluralism argument, here's stellar sonic proof in the form of what Brooklyn's Red Baraat calls "dhol 'n' brass" — the insistent, joyous rhythms of Punjabi bhangra married to New Orleans brass, with some go-go and funk thrown in for good measure. On their second album, the band moves suavely from Bollywood covers to original tunes to Sufi devotional classics given a new spin, like this version of "Dama Dam Mast Qalandar."
La Santa Cecilia: 'Treinta Días'
Title: ICE-El Hielo
Album: Treinta Días
I fell head over heels for La Santa Cecilia — their vibe, their style and especially the voice of frontwoman Marisol Hernandez, aka "La Marisoul" — at their performance at Globalfest in New York almost a year ago. And their mix of Mexican norteño and ranchera, Cuban mambo and Colombian cumbia, and other sounds from around the Americas, including good old rock 'n' roll, just keeps getting better. They've made their aching and tender song "Ice El Hielo," a protest of American immigration policy, a centerpiece of their 2013.
Rokia Traore: 'Beautiful Africa'
Album: Beautiful Africa
Mali's Rokia Traoré has been musical royalty for quite some time now. But her latest album sees her take West African music in a different direction. This is rock filtered through a Malian prism. Rushing currents of rhythm swirl gracefully under Traoré's honeyed voice. It's a really good album — and one made all the more poignant by the chaos and violence that has besieged the singer's home nation. The track "Mélancolie" (Melancholy) is all the more haunting for its beautiful video, echoing the lyrics: "Melancholy, faithful companion of my solitude ... dance with me."
Various Artists: 'Qat, Coffee & Qambus — Raw 45s From Yemen'
Title: Amsi Sameer Al-Nojoom [Night Stars Watcher]
Album: Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s From Yemen
One of the most groove-filled international albums of this season is a compilation from one of the most unlikely places on Earth. Qat, Coffee & Qambus: Raw 45s from Yemen is the brainchild of Chris Menist, an NGO consultant by day and crate digger extraordinaire who travels the world in search of vinyl epiphanies.
The singers spool out lines of lyrical poetry; just as in desert Arabia a millennium ago, words take priority over the music, much of which is vamping. You can tell pretty easily how many of these mesmerizing songs would easily accompany Yemen's national pastime, the chewing of the drug qat. Though all of the tracks Menist selected were recorded in the mid-1960s to early '70s, they sound like they come from the pre-industrial age. There are no electric guitars or other Western instruments within earshot — yet they roll and groove with an audacious edge. Even one of the more "traditional" songs, like "Amsi Sameer Al-Nojoom" (Night Stars Watcher), performed by Ahmad Al-Harazi, has a driving sound.
Van-Anh Vanessa Vo: Three-Mountain Pass
Title: Three-Mountain Pass
Album: Three-Mountain Pass
This is another album that doesn't sit comfortably inside a particular genre, and that's all to the good. A Vietnamese musician and composer who now resides in the Bay Area, Vo has taken traditional stringed instruments like the dan tranh plucked zither and the single-stringed dan bau to new and intriguing — and even mysterious — depths. In her hands, these Vietnamese instruments become the vessels for wild explorations, whether she is revisiting traditional tunes, playing her own music or reshaping Satie's Gnossienne No.3.
William Onyeabor: 'Who Is William Onyeabor?'
Title: Let's Fall In Love
Album: Who Is William Onyeabor?
Much of this Nigerian funk master's biography is still cast in shadows — he became an evangelical Christian and stopped talking about himself or his music in the mid-'80s. But the eight futuristic synthpop albums Onyeabor made back in the '70s and early '80s are still weird, wild and wow-inducing 30 years later. Kudos to reissue producer Uchenna Ikonne and Yale Evelev at Luaka Bop for culling some killer tracks — like the sinuously groove-laden "Atomic Bomb," the disco-ready "Body and Soul" and the giddy "Let's Fall in Love" — in a compilation that spreads the gospel of an African son of P-Funk far beyond a small circle of crate diggers.