The Top World Music Albums of 2016 (So Far…)

Debo Band

It’s hard to believe we’re already past the halfway point of 2016. As usual, this year has already brought a bounty of must-hear music from all corners of the world. New albums have trickled in from established artists on the world music circuit (such as Fanfare Cicorlia), while new artists are being discovered from countries that have become world music hotspots (such as North Africa’s Imarhan). Meanwhile, new artists in other parts of the world, including the Caribbean and the Middle East, are cultivating global audiences and sounds. One trend underlying the most recent crop of world music is the dialogue between different cultures, the fruit of increasingly common immigrant and multi-ethnic experiences.

Here are our top five world music albums from the first half of 2016 to check out:

5. Onwards to Mars by Fanfare Ciocarlia (Romania)

Outwards to MarsFanfare Ciocarlia is a Balkan brass band originating from the small Romanian town of Zece Prajini. Veterans of the world music touring circuit, the band is known for its high-energy, exuberant songs; the band’s music is often based on the Roma folk songs of its home region, but also dabbles in other musical traditions, such as traditional New Orleans jazz. In 2016, the band is celebrating its 20th anniversary with the new studio album, Onwards to Mars. 

This 15-track recording delivers on the band’s reputation for joyful, sometimes goofy, but always intricate arrangements: If you let your ears wander for a bit, you can even mistake its percussive brass lines for that of a drumset. On this album, Fanfare Ciocarlia slows down somewhat on a few tracks to explore other types of grooves, including a cumbia-inspired collaboration with the Colombian band Puerto Candelaria. Listen to this album when you need a shot of energy, or just to be spell-bound by all the sounds that can be coaxed out of a brass instrument.

Featured Song: “Cucuritza”

4. Wa Di Yo by Lakou Mizik (Haiti)

Wa Di YoIt’s no coincidence that many of the best-known world musicians come from times and places of strife. Music can be a way to express complex emotions and thoughts from a time of trauma that aren’t easily captured in other venues; it’s also a way for communities to rally together when they have few other institutions to rely on. Such is the case with Haiti’s Lakou Mizik, a nine-member collective of established and emerging Haitian musicians. Formed in the aftermath of the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake, the band has sought to give voice to a complex society that is often caricatured by outsiders as either a hopeless cause, or a place for international NGOs to run orphanages and adoption programs.

Wa Di Yo, the collective’s first album, demonstrates a rich mix of musical traditions; French-style accordions mix with Caribbean rhythms and the call-and-response chants to reflect the panorama of Haitian culture. The album’s tracks, all sung in local Creole and Voodoo languages, alternate between pleasant folk songs and more complex originals that search for answers to Haiti’s current governance and societal problems. Though the language may be a barrier, the diversity of musical styles that can be heard on this album testify to the rich diversity of Haitian culture that has too often been under-appreciated.

Featured Song: “Zao Pile Te”

3. Imarhan, by Imarhan (Algeria)

ImarhanOn the surface, Imarhan appears to be yet the latest in a long string of bands from the North African Sahel Desert’s Touareg people to find a Western audience. By now, the rhythms of bands like Tinariwen and Bombino have almost become mainstream, as Western producers such as The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach and The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner scour the region for the next electrified “desert blues” band to bring to mass production.

But in their debut album, Imarhan create a sound that feels a bit different. They share the electric guitar riffs and hypnotic chants and musical “loops” of previous Touareg bands, but there is something softer, almost more rounded about their sound. Rather than letting the rhythms dominate the music, Imarhan more carefully blends them into their melodies to create a more contemplative sound. If artists like Tinariwen and Bombino are considered the Sahel’s version of blues, Imarhan might be thought of as “desert soul”. This is an excellent album for a late-night drive or a quiet drink while watching the sunset.

Featured Song: “Imarhan”

2.  Lola, by Carrie Rodriguez (United States/Mexico)

LolaThis album isn’t overtly political, but given the path the U.S. election season has followed, it’s hard to find a more socially resonant album among the world music offerings this year. Chronicling the experiences and challenges of immigrant families, with one foot in Texas and one foot still firmly planted in Mexico, Rodriguez’s music challenges the preconception that people can be categorized in one box. In our review of this album earlier this year, we noted the intermingling of the two cultures through language, musical styles, and the stories painted on them. A few months later, this is still a favourite album for exploring a range of emotions, from longing for love across a language divide, to a rock anthem for the culturally marginalized in the entertainment industry.

Featured Song: “Que Manera de Perder”

1. Ere Gobez, by Debo Band (United States/Ethiopia)

Ere GobezOne of the potential pitfalls of cross-cultural collaborations is the risk that the sum may not always be greater than its parts. Sometimes, the different cultural traditions may seem to sit side-by-side, rather than combining and enhancing each other into something new and exciting. This is definitely not the case for the Debo Band, an ensemble that has won accolades from numerous festivals and publications for its modern take on Ethiopian funk. Led by Ethiopian-American saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, and featuring musicians from both Ethiopia and the Boston area, the band fuses Ethiopian pop and 70s funk traditions with a brass band and rock horn section.

The Debo Band’s second album, Ere Gobez, pops with exuberant energy. Lead singer Bruck Tesfaye’s Amharic lyrics add urgency to the grooves laid down by the horn section, each propelling the other. The result is a seamless, cohesive album with intriguing melodies in every track. This is not only an album to play as background music for good times, it’s worth several repeat listens to appreciate the depth of the music and all its influences.

Featured Song: “Yachat”

That wraps up our list for the top world music albums of the first half of 2016. But now it’s time to hear from you – what has been playing in your headphones? What did we miss? Please share in the comments section below!

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