Pop Playground
World Music: The Survival Guide

wonderful as Stylus Magazine is I feel there is one thing missing from it's labyrinthine world of astute criticism. Music made by the other 75% of the world's population.

Yes, there's the odd mention of a trendy Japanese girl band or a German Death Metal outfit but I fear that anything that falls under the umbrella of 'world music' rather than 'alternative', 'left field' 'ambient' or 'electronica' is still poorly represented. Yet for me this is where the action is these days.

I came across Stylus when I was doing a search to find out more about the new Fripp and Eno album so I probably have a similar musical background to most of its readers, having gone from Bowie, Iggy and Lou to the Clash, Costello and Waits. However over the past decade or so I've become more and more impatient with the music that is put under my nose. That is, the music of my received culture in its current manifestations.

Rock to my middle-aged (there I said it!) sensibilities suddenly seemed terribly adolescent in its concerns. The decadent Rock Star with his petty paranoia and pretentious wordplay—making mountains out of molehills with deafening waves of distorted chords—suddenly seemed an embarrassing irrelevance.

So here I was a Forty Something guy who feels it's not too much to ask to want some new music which excited me, as I used to be excited by the musical heroes of my youth—anything which took the tired constituents of the music I was familiar with, shook them up and produced something entirely new.

Then I found out that if I wanted to here something new, funky, genuinely innovative and exciting there was only one place to look. Or rather many places to look—under the umbrella of world music.

So here are ten of those seminal world music albums—in no particular order—which changed my listening habits:

Mlah - Les Negresses Vertes (France 1991)
Perhaps if the Clash had done a Bowie and gone all European after their love/hate relationship with the USA, they would have sounded something like this. Great tunes and a live sounding production guarantee this album will never date.

Sao Paulo Confessions - Suba (Brazil 1999)
Dark but warm, funky but filmic. Full of the unfulfilled promise of a life cut tragically short only weeks after this, his only solo album, was completed, when Suba died in a fire at his own studio. In it's sleeve notes Suba describes Sao Paulo as The Bladerunner of the Tropics. On the CD he provides the soundtrack to this insight. He takes the bombastic polyrhythms of carnival and turns them in on themselves to create subtle creeping jazz and rock tinged grooves.

Jogos De Armar - Tom Ze. (Brazil 2000)
His best work: quirky, modern, ironic and full of the strangest dissonant sounds (from band-saws to car horns), with this eccentric sixty-something's idiosyncratic vocals bringing it all into focus. Once you've acclimated to Ze's weird universe you'll learn to love him.

Rumbo Submarino - Macaco (Spain 2001)
Manou Chao is OK, but Macaco understandably gets somewhat irritated to be called 'the new Manu Chao'. when in fact his presence in Barcelona was what prompted Manu Chao to move there in the first place. Macaco's the better songwriter—less of a one trick pony—and this album is full of interesting twists and turns. Perhaps not an absolute classic as it fizzles out towards the end, but great Summer music with a twist.

Marrakech Emballages Ensemble 3 - Think of One (Belgium/Morocco 2000)
A Brass band or a Rock band? Both really. As they don't have a commanding lead vocalist, they tend to travel the world looking for other singers and musicians to splice their musical DNA with. The results are usually greater than the sum of the parts. And in this case transcendental. The kind of music that could give Fusion a good name.

New Deal - Smadj (France/Tunisia 2000)
It really is impossible to categorise this one. Smadj is a guitarist turned Oud player who is also a master craftsman of studio technology. On this, for me his most satisfying release, jazz improvisations and North African rhythms collide with dub and drum and bass to create a soundtrack for a movie I wish existed.

Tropicalisimo - Peregoyo Y Su Combo Vacana (Colombia 1972)
A trip further back in time for this early 70s Cumbia classic. It's not Rock-Steady and it's not Ska, but if you try to imagine a loping groove somewhere between these two styles you end up with Cumbia—one of the planet's best kept dance-groove secrets. The playing is spot on and the recording quality superior to some of the more 'classic' recordings. If you like it you can then dig deeper—there's plenty of Cumbia classics to unearth.

Contraditorio - DJ Dolores (Brazil 2003)
A quirky, tough, sexy and intelligent mix of samples and live sounds which recently received David Byrne's seal of approval. It's rare to hear such a seamless blend of live band and electronics—I often find myself wincing at clunky production-line 'modern' Brazilian efforts that think bombast is all you need. Bu this guy pulls it off by taking the opposite approach, teasing out the subtleties of the Samba and Rumba, rather than the obvious bass punch. The best dance music of any genre I heard last year.

The Living Road - Lhasa (Canada/Mexico/France 2003)
An extraordinary singer-songwriter that sings in French, Spanish and English with equal aplomb. The songs have simple and spacious 'less is more' arrangements using piano, trumpet, and unusual percussion including what sounds like foot tapping and thigh slapping on track 3! There's melancholy, the joyous heat of Mexican folk music and a dash of Bjork (but not as mannered) eccentricity. The overall effect of listening to the whole album is the aural equivalent of floating down a river from one exotic land to the next

Electro Bamako - Mamani and Marc Minelli (Mali/France 2002)
A Malian singer, but essentially a European album, this is a mix of traditional Malian forms with sophisticated jazz and sample-based arrangements. It you didn't know its provenance you might think it was music from Mars. Guaranteed to be unlike anything you have heard before.

And that’s the common theme for everything here. If you want to take a step into the sonic unknown, of the native and the native merging with the West, then these albums are a great place to start. It's got to be better than the grab-bag lucky dip of the cheap Various Artists CDs, right?

By: Howard Male
Published on: 2004-09-22
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