The 15 Best World Music Albums of 2011

“It’s been a good year,” Dave said, mentioning albums from established names like Tinariwen, Natacha Atlas, Mamadou Diabate. I agreed, thinking of the Poly-Rhythmo Orchestra reunion, and also considering the anonymous Ethiopians recorded by Olivia Wyatt for Look into the sun and the Scots of Whaur the pig Gaed on the Spree, these people who were documented once at a moment’s notice before plunging quietly back into their private singing life. A mass of albums at the end of the year can remind you of infinity, or endings. New faces have arrived. Two Kyrgyz men recorded 40 minutes of harsh harp. After five years of publishing online, Awesome Tapes from Africa has released a physical album. Finders Keepers in the UK saw their warehouse burned down by rioters and musicians mobilized to help. Shortly before the disaster, the label resurrected a 1976 film soundtrack in Czechoslovakia. This nation has been demolished too. The disc is a relic on two occasions.

There is energy everywhere around music, this man-made struggle to find an approximation of the inexpressible. If ever we find it, then of course there will be no more albums …

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

(Note: The list of the world’s best music of 2011 is listed in alphabetical order.)


Kiran Ahluwalia – Middle ground [Avokado Artist]

Ahluwalia asked for help with this album, including desert blues mainstays Tinariwen and Terakaft, and put together a masala from a record that includes tunes made famous by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, among others. Either way, it all works out, probably because the musicians are both respectful of the material while still fully engaging with it. Also essential: Ahluwalia’s voice, which is hoarse and expressive and acts as the glue that binds these disparate elements together. Three different versions of “Mustt Mustt” are a bit over the top and detract from the whole album, but evocative tunes like “Raqaba” and “Rabba Ru” accompanied by Terakaft make up for it.


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

Azam Ali - From night to day

This is a collection of “lullabies” inspired by Ali’s recent motherhood, but fear not: a children’s album, it’s not that. Ali, of Persian descent, delivers a powerful set of melodies featuring his characteristic voice, plunging and soaring through a set of Middle Eastern gyrations, with lots of exotic instruments and echoes – oud, dembir, santour – for spice up the debates. If the arrangements are a little quieter than his recent work with Niyaz, they are nonetheless delightful, like the haunting opening of “Nani Desem? attests. The instrumentation is also quite muscular, with a lot of percussive punch on “Shrin” and “Dandani”. It’s hard to imagine “Nami Nami” or “Lai Lai” being used as lullabies, unless you wanted the kid to dance the night away – which wouldn’t be a bad thing, of course.


Baba Zula – Gecekondu [Essay]

Baba Zula - Gecekondu

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


Aram Bajakian – The Kef of Aram Bajakian [Tzadik]

Aram Bajakian - Kef of Aram Bajakian

Kef opens with a pastoral melancholy, meows in the other, meows again, shouts, laughs, screams, refuses to settle down, and keeps returning to the Armenian background of Aram Bajakian, which is his point anchor and his stallion. Kef – the American-Armenian dances of migrants whose album bears the name – 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 runs away from home but he can’t leave him, he won’t leave him, he loves him too much, he wants to hit him – shout in there! The musicians hammer, saw and sweat on this vision. Sweat is punk, but expert playing isn’t, and neither is the essential softness it shows towards its roots. Kef is a spiky cradle but a cradle all the same.


Friend Dang – Hukam [Ehse]

Friend Dang - Hukam

Rough cut, brutal, both booming and secretive, so dedicated to his own flow-and-dam aesthetic that he’s willing to risk being mistaken for hysteria or chaos, all high-pitched whipped Indian chants , sitar drone, loops, passionate cries, bizarre exclamations… this is Amrita Kaur Dang’s first album, the day after a college training 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 underestimated it when it came out, I think, and when I listened to it recently for this article, I sat down and wondered why I hadn’t been more surprised, more impressed.


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