Top 15 World Music Albums of 2011

“It’s been a good year,” Dave said, mentioning albums by established names like Tinariwen, Natacha Atlas, Mamadou Diabate. I accepted, thinking of the Poly-Rhythmo Orchestra reunion, and also considering the anonymous Ethiopians recorded by Olivia Wyatt for watch the sun and the Scots of Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree, those people who were documented once off the cuff before quietly plunging back into their private singing lives. A mass of scrapbooks at the end of the year can remind you of infinity, or endings. New faces have arrived. Two Kyrgyz men recorded 40 minutes of mouth harp. After five years of publishing online, Awesome Tapes from Africa has released a physical album. Finders Keepers in the UK had its warehouse set on fire by rioters and musicians rallied to help. Shortly before the disaster, the label had resurrected a 1976 film soundtrack from Czechoslovakia. This nation was demolished too. The disc is a double relic.

There’s energy all around the music, this man-made struggle to find an approximation of the unspeakable. If we ever find, then of course there won’t be any more albums…

So it’s a celebration of failure. — David Maine and Deanne Sole

(Note: The list of top world music of 2011 is listed in alphabetical order.)


Kiran Ahluwalia – Middle ground [Avokado Artist]

Ahluwalia enlisted high-octane help for this album, including desert blues stalwarts Tinariwen and Terakaft, and put together a one-disc masala that includes tunes made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, among others. Somehow it all works, probably because the musicians are both respectful of the material but also fully engaged. Also vital is Ahluwalia’s voice, which is raspy and expressive and acts like the glue binding these disparate elements together. Three different versions of “Mustt Mustt” are a bit excessive and detract from the whole album, but evocative tunes like “Raqaba” and the Terakaft-accompanied “Rabba Ru” make up for that.


Azam Ali – From night to day [Six Degrees Records]

Azam Ali - From Night to the Edge of Day

This is billed as a collection of “lullabies” inspired by Ali’s recent motherhood, but never fear: a children’s album, it’s not. Persian-born Ali delivers a set of strong melodies featuring her signature voice, plunging and soaring through a set of Middle Eastern gyrations, with plenty of echoing exotic instruments – oud, dembir, santour – to spice it up. the debates. If the arrangements are a little calmer than his recent work with Niyaz, they are nonetheless beautiful, like the bewitching opening of “Nani Desem? attests. The instrumentation is quite muscular too, with lots of percussive punch like “Shrin” and “Dandani”. It’s hard to imagine “Nami Nami” or “Lai Lai” being used as lullabies, unless you want the kid to dance the night away – which wouldn’t be a bad thing, of course.


Baba Zula- Gecekondu [Essay]

Baba Zula - Gecekondu

Turkish “psychobelly dance” outfit Baba Zula springs from the door with Gecekondu, combining traditional instrumentation (saz, darbuka, various forms of percussion) with studio effects like wah-wah and distortion before covering everything, vocals included, with buckets of reverb. If “world music” equals “traditional music”, cross it off the list. But if that means “traditionally inflected music has brought screams and screams into the 21st century”, then this record deserves to be heard by anyone even remotely interested in the genre’s outer limits. Murat Ertel and Elena Hristova’s vocals give listeners plenty to hang on to, but it’s the hyperkinetic string instruments and slow, swampy bass and drums that give the album its flair. Plus, you can belly dance on it! What’s not to like?


Aram Bajakian – Aram Bajakian’s Kef [Tzadik]

Aram Bajakian - The Kef of Aram Bajakian

kef opens with a pastoral nostalgia, howls in the opposite, goes back, shouts, laughs, howls, refuses to settle down and constantly returns to the Armenian background of Aram Bajakian, who is its anchor and its standard. kef – the Armenian-American migrant dances named after the album – have a reputation for sweet cheese and nostalgia, but kef the album is different. Pastoralism is floating again. He gets rid of it. He asserts himself. He kills away from home but he can’t leave him, he won’t leave him, he loves him too much, he wants to hit him – get yelled at in there! The musicians hammer, saw and sweat in front of this vision. The sweat is punk, but the expert playing is not, nor the essential sweetness it shows towards its roots. kef is a bristling cradle but a cradle nonetheless.


Friend Dang- Hukam [Ehse]

Ami Dang - Hukam

Rough, brutal, both soaring and secretive, so devoted to its own aesthetic of flow and barrage that it’s willing to risk being mistaken for hysteria or chaos, all Indian voices floating and high-pitched whipped, the sitar drone, the loops, passionate cries, bizarre exclamations… this is Amrita Kaur Dang’s first album, after a college education in music. It was released online for free in the first half of the year, but the hard copy costs $12 or $15, depending on your choice of format. I underrated it when it came out, I think, and when I listened to it again recently for this review, I sat back and wondered why I hadn’t been more surprised, more impressed.

George L. Hernandez