2015 has been a great year for world music so far. African bands in particular have had a banner year, with groups from Mali, Niger, and the Congo issuing original music that transcends boundaries. In other parts of the world, collaboration between different traditions has also led to exciting musical discoveries.
If you’re looking to add some global diversity to your music collection this year, here are my top five favourite world music albums of 2015 (so far):
5. The Deepest Lake, Dengue Fever (Cambodia/United States)
Based in Los Angeles, Dengue Fever fuses Cambodian rhythms with the lo-fi fuzz of American garage rock. The result is an entrancing sound that feels at home in a West Hollywood dance club, but still connected to centuries-old traditions of Southeast Asia. If you like the psychedelic California bands of the 1960s and 1970s and are looking for something a bit more exotic, put on The Deepest Lake late at night for a non-stop trance party. The opening track, “Tokay”, provides a good sampling for the rest of the album.
4. Zoy Zoy, Tal National (Niger)
Tal National is based out of the West African country of Niger, but they’re not what you would typically expect from a band of that region. For starters, the lead guitarist holds a day job as a judge. More pertinently, the band consists of musicians spanning the diversity of Niger’s multiple ethnicities, which is reflected in their music. Fusing the “desert blues”-style guitar playing of the region with a cornucopia of jazz-like rhythms, Zoy Zoy presents a high-energy collection of songs that will reward you (and make you get up and dance) through multiple listens. The track “Farila” in particular shows off this diversity and expert musicianship.
3. Neo-Reconquista, Boogat (Mexico/Canada)
Daniel Russo Garrido (stage name Boogat) is originally from Mexico, but now calls Montreal home. As such, he is part of a thriving scene of international musicians, including Congolese Pierre Kwenders and Sengalese Elage Diouf, who fuse the sounds of their respective homelands with the multilingual melting pot and strong communal identity of Montreal. Together, they are creating one of the hippest urban music scenes anywhere in the world. Neo-Reconquista is Boogat’s latest offering, layering Spanish-language hip-hop atop of cumbia and reggae beats. The album takes a brief break from its politically-charged lyrics to revel in the glories of a Montreal summer’s Sunday afternoon in “En la montaña” (where he cheekily sings, “Here you can find everything, except for the Expos”).
2. Tundra Songs, Kronos Quartet (United States/Canada)
The Kronos Quartet has built a reputation among the crowded world of string quartets for its willingness to take on daring cross-cultural experiments. The album Tundra Songs may represent the pinnacle of that experimentation: It expertly builds a dialogue between modern classical music and Inuit throat-singing and storytelling. The album shows off the creativity of Derek Charke in melding the Kronos Quartet’s intricate musicianship with the mastery of Inuit artists Tanya Tagaq, Laakkuluk Williamson Bathory, and others to deliver a fascinating journey of the modern Arctic. You can read a full review of the album (and listen to the extended piece “Cercle du Nord”) here.
1. Ba Power, Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba (Mali)
Bassekou Kouyaté and his band, Ngoni Ba, have put together what might be the year’s most infectious album in Ba Power. Kouyaté is a master of the ngoni, a hollowed-out, West African type of lute that looks like a canoe paddle. It delivers a bright, precise sound, and Kouyaté expertly puts the instrument to use in nine groovy and melodic tracks. With a full complement of percussionists, guitarists, ngoni players, and vocalists, Ba Power delivers traditional Malian songs in an energizing and highly danceable package. This is the perfect band to see live at a summer music festival – or, if you’re not so lucky to have that opportunity – get this album and put it on for a fun summer’s evening. The track “Waati” should help kick off the party.