Wahoo! The desk is looking cleaner already. So continuing the year-end everything-must-go review frenzy (I know -- we're well into the new year), here are the final 10. Then on to 2016 release, of which there are already many! Enjoy your audio explorations, and let me know what jumps out at you.
The Undercover Hippy - Monkey Suit
This album actually came out in 2014, but I just got a copy, and it’s quickly become a favorite. Billy Rowan spent years as a drum and bass DJ before recording this album backed by a wonderfully rich band with great horns and rhythms. Social commentary married to great melodies makes “Coming to the Gambia” and
“Borders” quick favorites, even above the clever why-can’t-I-get-lucky anthem “Boyfriend.” This may not be the first sound that comes to mind under the label “world music,” but I think a lot of you will like it, so check it out.
RiservaMoac - Babilonia
To understand the music of this high-energy troupe, start with their name: Moac is an acronym for Molise (the band’s hometown in Italy) Oriente Africa Cuba. Babilonia, their third album, bristles with energy, blending Balkan brass with splashes of rock, rap, Caribbean, and other international colors. Their lyrics may be tough to translate (Google renders the end of the refrain as “Mud, favela, guns, gang: my poison you!”) but RiservaMoac’s infectious spirit is impossible to miss. Very fun indeed.
Kora Jazz Band - Live au New Morning
This may not sound like the jazz you’ve heard before, but this CD + DVD set certainly delivers with virtuosic performances from Abdoulaye Diabaté (piano), Yakouba Sissokho (kora), Moussa Sissokho (percussion), Andy Narell (steel pan) and others. For radio airplay, I prefer the shorter tracks on their early 2015 CD Back to Africa, but this live recording is a wonderful addition for extended listening (three of the six tracks top 10 minutes). Wonderful African-flavored jazz from outstanding performers.
Trad.Attack! - AH!
Is this Estonian group attacking with tradition, or simply attacking tradition? Some of their songs are based on archival recordings from as far back as 1930 (“Tuna-Tuna”), and the music sounds folky, but also has driving beats and walls of rhythm. If you like jaw-harp paired with dance beats (“Must Madu / Black Snake”), or Inuit throat-singing with what sounds like indie-rock (“Peale päeva / After the day”), Trad.Attack is the modern Estonian group for you.
Black Masala - I Love You Madly
I’m trying to figure out whether Black Masala is best described as “Gogol Bordello playing a jazz club” or “Delhi 2 Dublin infiltrated by a New Orleans brass band.” The latest album from this Washington DC-based group doesn’t fit easily into any categories, borrowing bits from India, the Balkans, jazz, funk, and swing. The lyrics aren’t a particular highlight, but if you’re catching Black Masala live — which I’m guessing is where they really shine — you’ll clearly be too busy dancing to care.
Bixiga 70 - III
I suppose it isn’t tough to achieve a big sound when you have a 10-member band. But Brazil’s Bixiga 70 isn’t just big, it’s tight, disciplined, and exploratory. The nine songs on the group’s newest album III (yep, it’s their third release) are peppered with Afrobeat, funk, Moroccan, and of course Brazlian influences. True Afro-Brazilian sounds, from the simmering opener “Ventania” to the insistent horn lines of “Martelo.” Afrobeat fans and horn-section lovers will hear sounds that seem familiar, but with enticing new twists and turns. One of my favorite recent releases, it’s not leaving my stereo anytime soon.
Gangbe Brass Band - Go Slow to Lagos
Benin doesn’t seem to produce a lot of music that makes it to the USA, but then… when who’d want to be in competition with the jaw-dropping sounds of Gangbe Brass Band? The group has been honing their sound for more than 20 years, and it shows better than ever on their new album. In the mix you’ll hear New Orleans (“Miziki”), Afrobeat (Yoruba featuring Femi Kuti), jazz (all over), and styles all their own. All with some of the tightest, most inventive, freshest horn lines anywhere in the world. A must-have album for, well, anyone who loves music.
FolkBeat - In Mixt
A fascinating vocal project, Moscow-based FolkBeat is four women blending traditional Russian harmonies and polyphonies with beatboxing. It’s not all a capella by any means — there are club-heavy beats on”Nut-Tree” and “Stallion” and lighter instrumentation on some other tracks — but the voices dominate, and what voices they are! If you love groups like Varttina and Burlakat (or the Indian/beatboxing music of Nisthra Raj), you’ll want to check this out.
Wesli - Ayiti, Étoile Nouvelle
If certain xenophobic politicians had their way, human migration would be a thing of the past. And that would mean we wouldn’t have artists like Wesli, who was born in Haiti before living in west Africa before settling in Canada, and whose music reflects his travels through different cultures. The album opens with “Rara,” a traditional-sounding drum and chant song. The breezy “Latibonit” sounds like something from Cabo Verde; “Mama Africa” (the only English-language tune) is an Afropop plea for unification highlighting Wesli’s nimble voice. While listeners may not understand all the words, the music conveys Wesli’s hopeful spirit. “You want to say something useful to society, not just entertain people,” he says. “I connect the frustrations I felt in Haiti, the political and cultural issues, to express my hope, a better situation for Haitians and for all African diasporic people. That’s what I want to share.”
Čači Vorba - Satrika
I recently fell into a rabbit hole of Polish music. Before I emerged, one of the gems I discovered was the group Čači Vorba. Led by singer Maria Natanson, the group is rooted in traditional folk, but you can tell they’re willing to explore farther afield by the instruments they use: rebab, bouzouki, sarangi, kemanche. Oh, and throat singing, too. Gorgeous vocal harmonies lead the way into this new realm of Polish (and Romani and Balkan) folk. My favorite track so far is the swinging “Boli me moja praznina,” which Google translates as “It Hurts My Emptiness.”