Friday, January 13, 2006


A play on words, perhaps, but 2005 was the finest year for world music in over a decade.

Enjoy. I know I did!

The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara (World Music Network, 2005). Did you know that the Sahara by itself is bigger than all of Europe? Neither did I. Encompassing countries like Mauritania, Algeria, Libya and Mali, this compilation pays tribute to the diversity of the region's musical culture. Far from being the typical "sampler" so many lesser albums would've settled for, Andy Morgan insisted on getting it right. While I certainly can't claim any profound understanding of the area's musical heritage, there's no denying the brilliance of the music - a cross between blues and funk, the likes of which haven't hit these shores in quite some time. And then there are the haunting chants, mostly by women, which in this culture is still thought of as risqué. A wonderful album! A+

M.I.A.: Arular (Interscope, 2005). Maya Arul is not just any hip-hop diva. Combining elements of world music with R&B she comes off as sounding like Neneh Cherry gone Soweto, or was that Kingston? My favorite song is “Bucky Done Gun,” where she states her peace: “Can I get control / Do you like me vulnerable / I’m armed and I’m equal / More fun for the people.” Raw, violent, but, strangely, non-malevolent, Arul is acutely aware of her surrounds, but refuses to lower herself to its level. In so doing she overcomes the sadistic nature of the genre’s main appeal to most of its fans and becomes a siren, if you will, for a generation that’s about as disillusioned as any in history. This is about as anti-Kanye as you’ll likely to find. Here’s hoping she doesn’t turn bitter. A

Amadou & Mariam: Dimanche a Bamako (Nonesuch, 2005). Married for 30 years, these blind and remarkably talented artists have been the best-kept secret of West Africa. With a handful of Afro-rock albums, issued on small, independent labels to their credit, call this their coming out party. Their music is one part African, one part Latin, one part reggae, with a touch of American R&B and English blues-rock thrown in for good measure, the latter no doubt a by-product of listening to BBC broadcasts in their homeland. Strangely seductive, the texture of the rhythms pulls you in like few albums can. Produced by Manu Chao, himself a well-known member of the Parisian alternative music scene, this is about as global a record as you’ll likely find these days. A

Cheb I Sabbah: La Kahena (Six Degrees, 2005). Algerian by birth, and now San Francisco-based DJ, Sabbah and Bill Laswell, content here to merely play bass, undertake a project of love. In this post-9/11 world, albums that celebrate Islamic traditions are rare in deed. Even more rare, all the singers are female, including Michal Cohen, a Jewish singer of Yemenite descent, who’s song “Im Ninalou” is based on a poem by Shalom Shabazi, a 16th century Yemenite Jewish mystic. But the real triumph here lies in how Sabbah mixes Sufi, Jewish, Berber and Muslim values into one remarkable record that is as ancient as it is contemporary. A-

Daby Balde: Introducing Daby Balde (World Music Network, 2005). Hailing from Senegal, Balde has a long and celebrated history at home, and thanks to World Music Network will hopefully establish himself abroad. Classically trained and combining West African grooves with a European/Spannish pop flavor, his rich and beautiful melodies will seduce you like few singers can. A genuine find. A-

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