clip: NYTimes world music survey
- June 27, 2003
Oh, the Music of Our Sphere
By JON PARELES
IMES have changed, there are no more secrets," Amadou et Mariam, the
Malian duo, sing on their album "Wati" (Circular). They could be singing
about world music, which has opened up in all directions. This is the
fifth annual survey in these pages of recent world-music releases, and
musical boundaries have grown more amorphous than ever.
National boundaries have grown stronger, though. Since Sept. 11, 2001,
obtaining a visa to tour the United States has grown more difficult for
many musicians, particularly those from Islamic countries. Still, plenty
of international performers reach New York City, where they can play for
homesick expatriates alongside first-timers. And recordings and Internet
connections still circumvent xenophobia.
The world-music category has always been a hodgepodge: field recordings
by ethnomusicologists, popular music originally made to please a local
audience, traditional music played by traditional musicians or
repackaged for tourists, slick international hits in languages other
than English. In all of them, Western listeners found the promise of
genuine alternatives in both the sounds of the music and its purposes.
Visions of otherness could be attached to a nontempered melody, a slinky
rhythm or a penetrating voice.
The truth, as usual, grew more complicated. Cultures were rarely as
isolated as would-be purists liked to imagine, and the reach of
electronic media continues to increase. Still, listeners in search of
seemingly pristine exotica can dig into a growing selection of
recordings from the ethnomusicologists of yesteryear, like the reliable
Anthology of World Music series being reissued on Rounder, and the
novice-friendly Nonesuch Explorer series, which has now rereleased its
catalogs of African and Asian music.
Recordings have a way of circulating to far-flung places, where disc
jockeys can juxtapose and mix them every which way. The dance-floor
remix with samples or guest performances by international musicians has
become a subgenre in itself. And musicians, habitually wanderers and
hybridizers, see little need to shut out possibilities. So Abdelli, from
Algeria, cheerfully collaborates with musicians from Cape Verde,
Azerbaijan and Burkina Faso on his album "Among Brothers" (Real World).
It's a big world, and this selection is geared toward music that
emphasizes its connection to local and traditional styles. It
deliberately and arbitrarily skips large swaths of what's sold as world
music: foreign-language rock and pop, assemblages by Western disc
jockeys, New Age meditations. It also skips reggae and Latin pop, which
present an overwhelming number of releases. What's left ranges from
ancient songs to 21st-century hybrids with ever more entangled roots.
(CD's range in price from $14.99 to $19.99 a disc.)
Abdelli, a Berber from Algeria who has lived in Brussels since 1987,
hears musical kinships across continents. "Among Brothers" (Real World)
begins with the stark sound of his voice and mandola (large mandolin),
which he picks like a Middle Eastern oud. His own band includes Moroccan
percussion and the Tunisian nay (reed flute). But his concise, modal
songs recorded before their accompaniment are surprisingly
compatible with the overdubbed Afro-Portuguese lilt of a Cape Verdean
band, with booming African drums and the austere picking of Central
Like Harley-Davidsons, Gypsy brass bands have long been renowned for
their speed, heft and noise: an oom-pah that's unstoppable at any speed.
Boban Markovic Orkestar's "Live in Belgrade" (Piranha) does pause for
traditional ballads, and it eases back sometimes for Mr. Markovic's
zigzagging fluegelhorn solos or saxophones that trill like bagpipes. But
mostly it riffs and punches, swaggers and blares in Balkan odd meters or
funky 4/4. Fanfare Ciocarlia, from Romania, is even faster and more
aggressive on "Iag Bari" (Piranha). "The Rough Guide to Music of the
Balkans" intersperses brass bands with related styles that show the
brass bands aren't the only powerhouses; listen to the voice of Ezma
Redzepova, from Macedonia. The Hungarian band Besh o droM plays a more
self-conscious but still adrenalized fusion of music from around and
beyond the Balkans; on "Can't Make Me!" (Asphalt Tango), it tosses in
jazz and flamenco guitar and hip-hop scratching among the cimbalom and
Carnival is central to Brazilian music; samba drumming, by ranks of
tightly coordinated percussionists, is central to Carnival. The double
album "Batucada Brasileira" (Iris Music) shows how it's done. It's a
two-CD set by the percussion core of the samba school Mocidade, recorded
clearly enough to reveal every thud of a mallet and snap of a
tambourine. If disc jockeys aren't already sampling this album, they
Carnival is the first thing Marisa Monte, Carlinhos Brown and Arnaldo
Antunes sing about on their shared album, "Tribalistas" (Metro Blue).
They collaborated on songwriting and sing most of the the vocals
together, with Mr. Antunes, who led the rock group Titas, adding a
lower-octave growl that recalls Squeeze. And they sing, mostly, about
togetherness, love and what one song calls "carnalismo," in modest
arrangements that usually revolve around Ms. Monte's acoustic guitar and
Mr. Brown's percussion. The music is casual and graceful, not a grand
statement about anything but a three-way friendship.
Recife, in northeast Brazil, has generated pop hybrids for the last
decade, among them the electro-traditional charms of DJ Dolores and
Orchestra Santa Massa's "Contraditorio?" (Stern's Brasil). DJ Dolores
places children singing, rough-hewn voices and a fiddle called the
rabeca in the foreground; under them is an inseparable amalgam of
percussion and rhythm programming. The machines know their place behind
the irreplaceable local particulars.
"The Rough Guide to Scottish Music" (World Music Network) mixes
established (the Battlefield Band, Capercaille) and lesser-known
musicians to suggest that traditionalism is thriving among young
fiddlers, pipers and singers. The anthology is a showcase for Scotland's
more dulcet side, downplaying abrasive sounds like bagpipes and savoring
the clear voices of female singers.
Ffynnon has a haunting way of updating the traditional songs on "Celtic
Music From Wales" (Green Linnet). It's a band of two women and one man,
who harmonize over sparse drones from keyboards or electric guitar and
bass. There are no drums, and the old songs, in Welsh and English,
maintain their death-haunted dignity.
Coco Mbassi, born in Cameroon and transplanted to Paris, harmonizes and
multiplies her melancholy alto on "Sepia" (Tinder), an album of
delicate, inward-looking songs. The lyrics, in the Douala language,
often preach Christian messages, but they're delivered with the
sensuality of Sade and the ingenuity of Zap Mama. Vocals often float
above little more than subdued hand drums and a syncopated acoustic
bass. Although Ms. Mbassi hasn't abandoned African rhythms, her music
aims not for the dance floor, but for a chill-out lounge or a private
moment at home.
Wu Man plays the pipa, a Chinese lute that has long been used for
dramatic, tone-painting solos. On "Pipa" (Naxos World), she uses
untraditional backup: banjo, didgeridoo, drum machines. Her
improvisations still have a traditional flavor twangy melodies,
shimmering sustained lines, nervous tremolos but transplanted to a far
less solemn climate.
Congolese rumba, one of Africa's most immediately beguiling and
longest-lived styles, repatriates Afro-Cuban rumba back to Africa,
smoothing out the vocals and layering on the guitar lines. Sam Mangwana,
who has been performing for 40 years, goes international on "Cantos de
Esperança" (Sono/Next Music), a largely acoustic album that juxtaposes
modern soukous with more old-fashioned Cuban music and songs that draw
on the Afro-Portuguese Angolan semba.
Ndala Kasheba, a Congolese guitarist who settled in Tanzania, is nowhere
near as slick as Mr. Mangwana. But the band he leads on "Yellow Card"
(Limitless Sky/Stern's) is bursting with life. His 12-string guitar and
an infusion of East African rhythms give Mr. Kasheba's soukous a special
heft that doesn't make it any less luminous.
The aftermath of the multimillion-selling "Buena Vista Social Club"
album, which showed how old Cuban songs could still move the world, has
been an outpouring of vintage Cuban songs. The Septeto Nacional Ignacio
Piñeiro is entitled to join in; founded in 1927, since the death of its
founder it has continued to play the courtly old songs in lean,
unplugged septet arrangements topped by trumpet and the small guitar
called tres. "Poetas del Son" (Le Chant du Monde) revisits its favorite
repertory with vivid sound and just a hint of 75th-anniversary
sentiment. "Hecho en Cuba" (Ultra/Escondida) digs out what seem to be
older, peppier recordings by the members of the Buena Vista Social Club,
though it provides little information.
Bobi Céspedes's "Rezos" (Six Degrees) has a more modern take on Cuban
music as it mingles electronic beats and basslines with Afro-Cuban
percussion and guitars. Ms. Céspedes, an expatriate since 1959, sings
prayers to Yoruba deities and impressions of California in the leathery
voice of a Yoruba celebrant; the music is sleek without getting
It's hard to believe that some of the tracks on "Ari Polyphonies"
(Ocora) come from groups of people instead of tape loops. Voices mesh in
rippling chants that are cross-timed against handclaps and each other,
with men and women taking complementary parts and no one missing a beat.
Sometimes flutes are added, also overlapping. The complexity would daunt
a classically trained choir, but not, apparently, an Ethiopian wedding
Steindor Andersen, a traditional singer (and fisherman) who has toured
and recorded with Sigur Ros, sings excerpts from the unaccompanied epic
song cycles called rimur, which can last for hours, on "Rimur" (Naxos
World). The songs' stately, straightforward melodies can sound like
Celtic sean nos songs or liturgical chants, sustained and liquid.
"Rimur" is a largely austere album of solo vocals, but a few tracks bend
tradition, adding the drone of didgeridoo or a reticent Irish harp.
In India, the songs from Bollywood musicals are pop hits. Here, they are
campy jaw-droppers, cheerfully stirring together unlikely East-West
mixtures of tabla drums and high, cutting Indian voices with surf guitar
or Latin bongos or flamenco strumming. "Bollywood: 15 Classic Hits From
the Indian Cinema" (Hip-O) samples songs from the 1970's to 2001 for a
glimpse of a hyperactive melting pot.
Fans of free-jazz saxophone or Moroccan jajouka music could easily take
to "Periya Melam: Chidambaram Temple" (Ocora), Hindu music from southern
India. In music for temple feasts, ragas are taken up by blaring conical
oboes and drums; there are improvisations over drones, full of sliding
and wriggling notes, that lead into jagged, breakneck melodies, buzzing
Tommy Peoples, a fiddler from Donegal, has been sharpening up
traditional tunes with rough-edged ornaments and sly variations since he
was in the Bothy Band in the 1970's. "Waiting for a Call" (Shanachie) is
a straightforward set of reels, jigs, slip jigs and strathspeys, played
in duos or small groups and mostly recorded in 1985. Five tunes recorded
in 2002 with the guitarist John Doyle show Mr. Peoples still has his
Patrick Street is an occasional alliance of Irish musicians who maintain
busy solo careers. But when they get together, they're thoroughly
cooperative. On "Street Life" (Green Linnet), Kevin Burke's fiddle and
Jackie Daly's accordion merge as one dancing melody in traditional
tunes, pushed by Ged Foley's strategically shifting guitar
accompaniment. They all lend self-effacing support to traditionalist
songs by Andy Irvine, who brings his kindly voice to current political
Great claims have been made for Mali in recent years as the fountainhead
of the blues. Whether or not the modal guitar patterns and hortatory
voices of Mali's ancient jali (or griot) songs are the main source for
the blues, they're still the starting point for some of modern Africa's
most compelling music. The compilation album "Mali Lolo" (Smithsonian
Folkways) is an excellent introduction.
Amadou et Mariam, a married couple who met as students at a school for
the blind, have long tried to merge Malian music with funk and blues,
and on past recordings they've tipped over on the Western side. "Wati"
(Circular) gets it right: there's a Malian spirit in the circling
guitars and rippling vocal lines even when the band rocks out.
Salif Keita, the Malian singer known worldwide, recast his songs for
acoustic instruments on last year's extraordinary album "Moffou"
(Universal), and more traditional griots have followed suit. The
improvisational expanses of jali songs aren't built with pop verses or
choruses in mind. But two recent albums provide just enough structure,
setting declamatory voices amid acoustic guitars, drums, flutes and
backup voices that provide a handle for listeners. Kandia Kouyate, one
of Mali's most celebrated female griots, unleashes her commanding voice
on "Biriko" (Stern's Music). Kasse Mady Diabate, who spent time in Paris
and has collaborated with Taj Mahal, has a gentler voice; he also
includes Cuban-style tunes amid his traditional material on "Kassi
Kasse" (Narada World). And the quietly hypnotic guitarist and singer
Boubacar Traore has just released a worthwhile best-of collection,
despite its misleading title: "The Bluesman of Mali" (Wrasse).
Ritchie Valens didn't write his three-chord masterpiece, "La Bamba."
It's an old song from Veracruz, called a son jarocho, which is
traditionally played on a fast-plucked harp and some frantically picked
and strummed guitars. "La Bamba: Sones Jarochos From Veracruz"
(Smithsonian Folkways) explores the repertory of a son jarocho trio,
José Gutiérrez y los Hermanos Ochoa, pelting listeners with notes like a
Son jarocho is just one of the styles represented on "The Rough Guide to
the Music of Mexico" (World Music Network), which covers the continuum
from traditional music as familiar as mariachi, as hopped-up as banda
(brass band) to the warped rock of Café Tacuba. Through it all is the
Mexican gift for lamenting deeply one moment and laughing the next.
The classical songs performed on "Mahagita: Harp and Vocal Music of
Burma" (Smithsonian Folkways) are transparent duets. The music glides
weightlessly, suddenly skitters ahead or surrounds a gentle melody with
lacy counterpoint; a tiny bell and the click of a clapper pinpoint the
underlying rhythms. To a Western ear, the music stays sweetly elusive.
King Sunny Ade had been recording for more than a decade before he
introduced the multileveled guitars and drums of Nigerian juju to the
international market in the early 1980's. "The Best of the Classic
Years" (Shanachie) collects recordings he made before 1974, and they are
already the work of a master bandleader. The music has the precise
counterpoint and open-ended pace the world would hear a decade later,
etched in a stereo mix that clearly reveals each part. "Synchro Series"
(IndigeDisc) combines the album he made for Nigerian release immediately
before he recorded his international debut in 1982 ("Juju Music") and
the one he released immediately afterward. Like an appendix to "Juju
Music," it shows some of the material he compressed for pop listeners
and then toys with the loops and echoes of dub reggae in outtakes from
To hear juju's ancestry, try some highlife, the ebullient dance music
mingling local rhythms with calypso, rumba and funk that dominated
Nigeria and Ghana in the 1960's and 70's. "The Kings of Highlife"
(Wrass) concentrates on guitar-centered Nigerian highlife; "The Rough
Guide to Highlife" (World Music Network), which has five of the same
songs, also includes the big-band side of Ghanaian highlife.
The devotional Sufi songs called qawwali found fans among nonbelievers
and rock fans, with their handclapping beat, their terse melodies and
the riveting improvisations of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. One of the few
younger singers to suggest the fierce, almost hysterical edge of Khan's
style is Faiz Ali Faiz. He even presumes to sing one of Khan's songs,
"Allah Hu," on a live album, "The New Qawwali Voice" (World Village),"
which ascends to peak after peak.
Senegal's best-known musician, Youssou N'Dour, has long reached for a
worldwide audience with his songs of conscience and compassion and his
soaring voice. Yet he manages to sound more Senegalese with every
refinement of his musical fusion. "Nothing's in Vain" (Nonesuch) has the
transparency of acoustic arrangements even when electric instruments
slip in. Amid the koras (harp-guitars) and balafons (xylophones) and the
six-beat pattering of Senegalese mbalax, the melodies and hooks welcome
Western ears. Mr. N'Dour has now remedied the obligatory French ballad
that has often been the downfall of his albums; this time, the chanson
accordion is levitated by Senegalese percussion. "The Rough Guide to
Youssou N'Dour and Étoile de Dakar" collects Mr. N'Dour's early
Senegalese recordings from the late 1970's to 1982; its low-fi
recordings present a young, confident singer and a band that's already
sure of the national style it's determined to create.
The duo Pape and Cheikh sing modern mbalax on "Mariama" (Real World).
They admire close-harmony American groups like the Everly Brothers and
Simon and Garfunkel, so there's a touch of folk-pop, but not too much;
earnest acoustic guitars are enveloped in percussion and funk.
Orchestra Baobab formed in 1970 to play a Senegalese variant of the
Afro-Cuban rumba that was popular across West Africa. It reunited to
tour in 2001 and recorded the sublimely suave "Specialist in All Styles"
(Nonesuch) last year, with Mr. N'Dour as a producer. The album revives
Baobab's old rumba style, makes a trans-Atlantic connection with a guest
vocal by Ibrahim Ferrer from Cuba, and also tosses in a little ska,
reggae and mbalax, with some quietly startling guitar solos by
Barthélémy Attisso. Orchestra Baobab is touring the United States again
Gokh-Bi System adds hip-hop to a Senegalese continuum. Its album
"Message From Home/Suma Deuk Waay" (World Rhythms) sets
positive-thinking raps (in English as well as Senegalese languages) to
handmade music: percussion, singing and riffs plucked on the ekonting, a
Senegalese lute. Hip-hop takes a joyful, respectful place alongside
The soundtrack album for "Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony"
(ATO) features the music that emerged when South African traditions met
imported hymns and gospel: thrilling solo and close-harmony singing from
voices both hearty and confiding. The "Amandla!" soundtrack includes
some jazz, but it's the singers professionals, community choirs,
prisoners who exemplify the resolute dignity that conquered apartheid.
One of the album's standouts, Vusi Mahlasela, has his own album coming
out next month.
Brenda Fassie, the best-selling bad girl of South African pop, has been
buoyant through 20 years of hits and scandals. Her latest album,
"Myekeleni" (EMI/Stern's Music), sung in South African languages with
two songs in English ("They All Want Me Down" and "Mama I'm Sorry"),
covers the bases from tootling organ and three-chord mbaqanga to
thumping house and kwaito.
The bagpiper Susana Seivane's "Alma de Buxo" (Green Linnet) starts with
what could be Scottish reels. But they're polkas from Galicia, a region
of Spain with its own bagpipes. Ms. Seivane plays old and recent
Galician tunes, backed by a varied mixture of electric instruments and
traditional drums, tambourines and Basque accordion. There is a telling
juxtaposition on the album: a pair of tunes piped by Ms. Seivane's
grandfather, with percussion, and then by Ms. Seivane, backed by a
group. Her backup is more genteel, but she knows all her grandfather's
Ten calabash horns or 10 bamboo flutes each tuned to a different note
and honking at the precise syncopated moment to construct a riff or a
melody are at the core of the village celebrations recorded on "Waza:
Blue Nile Sudan" (Wergo). It's music of the Berta people, who live on
the border of Sudan and Ethiopia. As women sing and ululate and men play
woodblocks or drums, the short melodies hop continuously around the
ensembles in pointillistic staccato, conjuring a rhythmic hive of horns
or a stuttering calliope of flutes. Although some of the horn tracks are
frustratingly short, the flute pieces are dizzying.