Music | MUSIC NOMAD

The best of this year's world music crop

by Paul Fisher

Strangely, I had thought this year was not a particularly vintage one for world and roots music. That was until I had to whittle down a list to come up with a top 10, as part of a panel for the British magazine fRoots.

“Wanita” by Rokia Traore
“Joko” by Youssou N’Dour

Top of my list — eventual winner in that fRoots poll — and the best gig I saw in Japan this year was Malian singer Rokia Traore. Her album “Wanita” (Indigo/Alter Pop) is utterly compelling, beguiling, innovative and starkly beautiful. Her intimate voice and guitar adorns an original acoustic backing of traditional instruments. Traore writes her own material, contemporary in that she embraces elements of blues, jazz, soul and rock, but rooted in various Malian traditions.

Africa’s most established singer and another visitor to Japan this year, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour, released his long-awaited album “Joko” (Epic Records). Blessed with one of the world’s most extraordinary voices, N’Dour could hardly make anything other than an exceptional album. Featuring friends Peter Gabriel, Sting and Wyclef Jean, “Joko” is specifically tailored for a Western audience.

My other favorite African album from 2000 was an infectious compilation of songs recorded between 1948 and 1950 by South Africa’s The Manhattan Brothers on “The Very Best Of” (Stern’s). Somewhat bizarrely influenced by pre-rock ‘n’ roll American harmony groups, such as the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers, The Manhattan Brothers brought that close harmony style of singing to the burgeoning townships. Over the years, they developed their own sound to become South Africa’s most popular group throughout the ’50s and forerunners of South African jazz and jive.

The influence of Africa is felt throughout the wide ranging two-CD compilation “Musica Negra in the Americas” (Network) — my Latin album of the year. These include not only Cuban son, Brazilian samba and salsa, but equally invigorating, lesser-known styles from Ecuador, Belize, Suriname, Peru and Curacao.

“Musica Negra” manages to be both educational and entertaining. The same cannot be said for some of the surfeit of Cuban compilations and spinoffs released in the wake of the success of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was left to one of the original Buena Vistas to record the best Cuban album of the year, pianist Ruben Gonzalez with “Chanchullo” (World Circuit/Warner Music Japan). The album includes several other virtuosos of Cuban music and mixes standards with improvisations.

Playful is a word that could easily be applied to Marc Ribot and his “Prosthetic Cubans.” His second album of Cuban music, “Muy Divertido!” (Atlantic/Warner Music Japan) partly pays tribute to one of Ruben Gonzalez’s former band leaders, Arsenio Rodriguez, with several of Ribot’s own compositions and other Cuban standards. In Ribot’s hands, these can turn into wild garage rock renditions, or sultry guitar workouts, but all stamped with Ribot’s now trademark flair.

Ribot also turns up on Susana Baca’s “Eco De Sombras” (Luaka Bop), another of the featured artists on “Musica Negra.” A world away from Peruvian panpipes, Baca is the primary singer of Afro-Peruvian music, mixing in elements of indigenous Andean and European traditions. Mostly slow- to mid-tempo renditions of folk tunes and recent compositions, Baca’s voice, melancholic and seductive, glides gracefully over traditional Peruvian instrumentation, backed up by some of New York’s most inventive musicians.

“Last Leaves” by Malinky

I am constantly on the lookout for new Celtic artists to release. Topping this list was the strikingly assured debut by Scottish quartet Malinky. On their album “Last Leaves” (Greentrax), Malinky put songs to the forefront, in contrast to the dizzying tunes of most of their counterparts. In female singer Karine Polwart, they have someone to rival English songstresses Kate Rusby and Eliza Carthy. The guitar, bouzouki, whistle, percussion and fiddle playing is of an equally high standard.

When it came to European traditional music in Japan, this was, for a change, not the year of the Celts, but of Eastern European Gypsy brass bands. Fanfare Ciocarlia, a group of 12 Romanian Gypsy musicians, performed a series of frenetically paced concerts here in August. They play their clarinets, trumpets, tuba, saxophones, and tenor and baritone horns at a truly breathtaking pace, accompanied by a large drum and percussion section. This year’s “Baro Biao” (Piranha/Alter Pop) expanded the group’s repertoire beyond Romania to include dance tunes from Serbia, Bulgaria and Macedonia. Other tunes have a klezmer feel, and most surprising of all is the Latin tinged “Casablanca.”

Another high-energy gig this year was played by Asian Dub Foundation. Their album “Community Music” (London/East West Japan) combined acerbic, witty lyrics with hard-hitting jungle breakbeats, dub, rap, trip-hop, distortion guitar and other cutting edge influences. Although built on sounds, rhythms and effects, there are also some memorable songs, and ADF are careful to pay tribute to both the past and the present.

“So La Li” by Sabah Habas Mustapha

This was a good year for music from Southeast Asia, which is finally moving onto the world stage. British bass player Sabah Habas Mustapha, with legendary world music pioneering group 3 Mustaphas 3, recorded “So La Li” (Kartini/Rice) in Sunda (western Java). Mustapha wrote most of the songs, with the lyrics based on traditional Sundanese texts. Local musicians back him, and occasionally sing, with an intriguing traditional Sundanese and jaipong (a local form of dance music) accompaniment. His “brother” Hijaz Mustapha and other friends from home add steel guitar, drums and keyboards that take the music into African and Hawaiian territory at times.

Some of the same musicians from the Mustapha Sunda sessions, including singer Teti Yani Mugiono, take center stage on the even more bizarre “Bali Jaipong” (GNP/Rice) by Sambasunda. Mixing Sundanese jaipong and Balinese gamelan is a radical move in Indonesia, where a perplexing variety of disparate musical traditions exist but never intermingle, outside of pop music. Indeed, Balinese and Javanese gamelan groups consider each other rivals. This recording intended to bridge a gap and unite Indonesians. The slightly off-key jaipong elements, such as the rebab (violin) and vocal style combine perfectly with the clanging Balinese gamelan and the kendang, a tabla-like Sundanese percussion instrument.

Sri Saujana Ghazal’s self-titled album

Indian tabla form the basis of Malaysian ghazal music. Right now, Malaysia is experiencing a renaissance in its traditions, through pop singers such as Siti Nurhaliza who have blended these roots with contemporary influences. On their self-titled album “Sri Saujana Ghazal” (Victor), the group digs deeper into the original ghazal sound, with a delicious blend of extraneous influences from Arabic to Chinese and European music, reflecting the cultural diversity of Malaysia.

Speaking of funky, of all the various compilations released this year, one in particular caught my ear: “Future World Funk” (Ocho). Selected by DJs Cliffy and Russ Jones, this is music intended for the dance floor. Latin (particularly Brazilian) Afrobeat, Arabic, Caribbean and more styles are combined together or remixed with breakbeats, dub and other grooves.

Thank you for reading this column throughout the year, and have a Happy New Year.