For many people, "world music" is synonymous with the "miscellaneous" record bin, a vague and unappealing genre falling somewhere between jazz and new age, and distinguished only by the impossible-to-pronounce names of the artists. Though artists like Youssou N'Dour, Margareth Menenzes and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan were legends in their own countries long before they were "discovered" by Western pop stars, few have crossed over to mainstream audiences unaided by such associations and even fewer have stayed there long enough to gain recognition in their own right. Paul Simon's "Graceland" may have made Ladysmith Black Mambazo a household name in the late '80s, but how many people do you know who bought any of their subsequent recordings?
Learning about world music can be as daunting as learning a foreign language, and in many ways the two experiences are similar. Though you may be able to appreciate the beauty in the sounds, you have no idea what any of it means. And before you become fluent, there's always the danger that your newfound enthusiasm will land you in long, pointless conversations with any idiot on the bus -- when you're traveling alone in a foreign land, after all, it's hard to know whom to trust.
Maybe that's why so many casual fans are loathe to venture beyond what the Great White Hunters of the pop pantheon -- among them David Byrne, Keith Richards, Mickey Hart, Ry Cooder, Peter Gabriel and producer Don Was -- have cherry-picked for them. But now, with the increased availability of both traditional and contemporary world music (due in part to new U.S. distribution deals with world music labels and the lifting of the U.S. cultural embargo against Cuba), there's no reason for music lovers not to venture into the wider world on their own.
To help map out the territory, we asked six of our regular contributors to write about the current releases that moved them. For Milo Miles, it's the current crop of Cuban music. Hans Eisenbeis talks about the folk vocals of England's June Tabor and Hungary's Muzsikas with Marta Sebestyin, who provide a much-needed respite from what he calls "these intractably baby-voiced times." Banning Eyre celebrates Senegalese pop singer Cheikh Lt, while J. Poet discusses Brazilian superstar Gilberto Gil and Native American Robert Mirabal. Kevin Vance sends up the latest Irish offerings from Green Linnet, and Will Hermes debates world music's move toward modernity. Between them, they cover more than 20 artists from 15 different countries.
You can divide African pop music's brief life as a force in the international
marketplace into three general phases. Starting around 1980 came the roots
phase, championed by King Sunny Ade's percussion-heavy juju music. Then, around
five years later, we got the polished offerings of Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita
and others -- high-tech African music designed to cross over into the progressive
rock and dance pop arenas. That phase crested around 1993, and recently, a new
genre has emerged -- call it Afro soft-rock. The best of it is indigenous music
with natural sophistication and a mostly acoustic sound palette, like Cesaria
Evora's mournful mornas, a sort of Cape Verdean blues, or Oumou Sangari's funky but sensitive Wassoulou music. Far less persuasive music by would-be Afro-folkies like Lokua Kanza of Zaire also fall into this category.
Enter Senegal's Cheikh Lt. West Africa has produced the continent's most powerful singers, and Lt easily earns a high position in the pantheon. His debut international release, "Ni La Thiass" (World Circuit/Nonesuch) does the new genre proud. A true original, Lt grew up in
Burkina Faso, far from the music industry bustle of Dakar, where he lives now.
By the time Lt moved beyond his career as a freelance drummer, percussionist and
singer, and broke out as a singing star in 1990, he was determined to advance
the musical aesthetics of Senegalese pop. Mbalax, a dense weave of keyboard
chirp-and-moan, lightly strumming guitar rhythms and pummeling Sabar percussion,
rules the airwaves in Dakar. When Lt went into the studio in 1995 to record "Ni
La Thiass," he axed the keyboards, toned down the percussion, substituted
acoustic for electric guitars and brought in a flute and a small horn section.
His producer, none other than Senegal's biggest star Youssou N'Dour, helped him
get an exquisitely well-realized sound, but the genius here is all Lt's, and it
goes well beyond these changes in the lineup.
Lt spent years playing what the Africans call variiti, an international mix that
has changed with the times -- jazz and Afro-Cuban salsa in the '60s, Congolese
rumba and more salsa in the '70s, reggae and more salsa in the '80s. Lt
internalized all of this, and when he invests his arrangements with these
influences, he does it so subtly that you can't quite pin them down. The music
really moves, proving that good arrangements rather than force or bluster are
what makes a groove deep. On the flamenco-flavored title track, Lt's clear,
slightly rough-edged voice rises from speech into song, and the music rises with
it, cooling off periodically with each repeat of the song's delightful, descending refrain.
If Lt's keening vocal in songs like "Dokandeme" or "Cheikh Ibra Fall" suggests a spiritual bent, that's because Lt is a Baye Fall, a member of an Islamic mystical brotherhood that champions hard work and simple living. Most of Lt's themes here stem from his faith, and that
sense of visionary certainty fuels the music the way Rastafarianism fuels the
best of reggae. Track after track, the music's brisk levity and Lt's
sensationally committed vocals make for pop that soars, transcending all
confinements of genre.
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Sekouba Bambino Diabati
Guinea's most celebrated "griot" (an oral historian-cum-minstrel) singer aims to become the next Salif Keita with this carefully crafted pop album. It spans from high-intensity dance tracks to mostly acoustic numbers echoing the court music tradition of Diabati's ancestors. Diabati deals in majesty, but his mark in West Africa -- aside from his clear, soaring voice -- is his
concern with lovers, and the ways that customs, tradition and prejudice conspire
Keyboards, electric guitars and backbeat drums blend easily with the gossamer
melodies of African instruments like the 21-string kora and the percolating
wooden balafon. And Bambino's sweetly rendered vocal passion places him on the
short list of world-class African singers. A lot of different eggs have been broken in
the quest to turn this brand of roots music into universal pop. Bambino reaps
the rewards, serving up one very tasty omelet.
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This may be the best Algerian rai release to emerge in years.
Khaled's voice is electrifying, almost fearsome in its grandeur, but still
warm, even sentimental at times. Singers from the Arab-speaking world have
always had the potential to rock, but they've usually been done in by production
notions that don't travel well. Not so for Khaled. His stylistic vocabulary
gracefully encompasses rock, soul, funk, rap and reggae.
As for travel, it's been in Khaled's blood ever since he was forced into exile
from his war-torn country a decade ago. "Sahra" includes glimmering Paris
Afropop, funky concoctions engineered by Don Was in L.A. and three terrific
reggae tracks recorded with the Wailers at Tuff Gong in Kingston, Jamaica. Once
again, Khaled sets the new standard for Algeria's rebellious pop music.
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"Svikiro, Meditations of an Mbira Master"
Recordings of straight traditional African music tend to appeal to a select few. But this
intimate set of Zimbabwean ceremonial songs has the sort of entrancing beauty
and spiritual power that may seduce a wider audience. Spiritual power is
literally accurate; the Shona people use this music to summon the spirits of
their dead ancestors.
New agers will appreciate the gentle sonic undulations here. But Kwenda, 29 and
perhaps the most accomplished mbira player of his generation, uses the
metal-pronged "hand piano" to weave complex, ever changing webs of music that
draw you in deeply. He's a brilliant improviser. These tracks don't stop at
mere trances. They cast spells.