January 2014: The Problem with "World Music"

Medusa – Neheb N3ch Hayati When trying to fulfill a New Year's resolution, it helps mightily if you've chosen to nudge yourself in the direction of something pleasurable, rather than trying to force yourself on an odious task. With one of my two musical resolutions in mind, I've been spending some time checking out Bandcamp as a resource for new music, and it's been pretty rewarding, turning me on to this incredible collection and more. The scoop on this album (called Sawtuha, which is Arabic for "her voice") is that it came out of the meeting of nine female musicians and singers from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria - along with American hip-hop artist Oddisee and Olof Dreijer from the Swedish band The Knife. I instantly fell in love with the album, both in theory and practice - the diversity present, the way potentially clashing cultures blend incredibly well. I wish I could understand what Medusa's saying here, but I definitely like the way she says it, and the spare, sharp production does a great job of placing her rapping in a cultural context without overstating it. Could a Tunisian woman be the next big rapper? Love that idea. And, as a bonus, this helps me satisfy my second musical resolution: listening to more rap.

Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings – Genuine Pt. 1 On a trip to New York with a bunch of friends in 2010, I got to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings play a mind-blowing show in Prospect Park. Seeing them live, it's not hard to understand why the Dap-Kings are the go-to band for anyone trying to recreate this style of retro soul. (They were the secret weapon behind Amy Winehouse's Back to Black.) But, the genuine show-stopper was Sharon Jones herself, serving as the band's red hot engine - belting, teasing, dancing, just pure joy. The show in Prospect Park (which drew probably three times the capacity of the bandshell - many, many thousands of people) served as a kind of homecoming for her, and at one point she stopped the chugging Dap-Tones train and hushed that giant crowd for some heartfelt words about what it meant to be welcomed with such enthusiasm. It was a startlingly raw moment in the middle of such a well-rehearsed show, and when she started crying I'm sure I wasn't in the minority with my own tears and goosebumps. In 2013 Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. In the video for the new album, it's clear she's not going to let a little life-threatening disease slow her down. Gabe and I are taking my parents to see them in March, and I can't wait.

Donso – Rock le kalaban Another discovery from the "New and Notable Records" on Bandcamp. Structurally, this album from the Malian/Parisian collective shares a lot in common with Sawtuha, representing a the melding of traditional music with electronic and hip-hop sounds. This kind of mash-up technique has been a standard move in World music for a long time, typically with the result of watering down what is best about each contingent part, rather than capitalizing on them. Donso has struck on a winning formula, maintaining the best of both electronic and traditional music, and also representing several different musical strains from around Mali. Plus, the cover art is great.

Asaf Avidan – Cyclamen Bob Boilen gushed about Israel's Asaf Avidan in a recent podcast, with good reason. It shouldn't be important to know that this is a man singing, but it really does push the music over the top. He's a tremendous singer and the music is good. He's about to do a short solo-acoustic tour the U.S. (Chicago - February 27 at Old Town), so check him out while you have the chance.

Maryam Saleh – Nouh Al Hamam The lead-off track from Sawtuha. It kind of makes me think of what it would have sounded like if Portishead was from Cairo instead of Bristol. And, you know - who doesn't love Portishead?

Laura Marling – Master Hunter The pairing of excellently recorded acoustic guitar with topnotch drumming, and a female vocalist, reminds me of the Nina Nastasia/Jim White collaboration You Follow Me, one of my favorites. Laura Marling seems to be one of those annoyingly gifted and precocious young musicians (her first album came out when she was 18), who popped into the world (in 1990!) with a fully-formed, idiosyncratic voice. Her guitar playing is pretty great, too. Oh, she's also hyper-prolific.

Martin Carthy – Shepherd O Shepherd Great googly-moogly I love Carthy's guitar playing. So strange. Simultaneously slippery and crisp.  For me, this kind of playing and singing represents the best of the English traditional music and clearly belongs in the World music category, if anything does.

Sibylle Baier – Tonight Lost recordings from a little known cousin on the early '70s international folk family. One part Nico, one part Nick Drake. I love the self-confident simplicity of this song and the way it's recorded. There's scuttlebutt on the web that she's working on new music, over forty years later.

Beck – Blue Moon I just can't help adding this new single from Beck's forthcoming album Morning Phase. 

William Tyler – A Portrait of Sarah There was a lot of press last year about the resurgence in John Fahey-inspired guitar playing, what is commonly called "American Primitivism." Against the angels of my better nature, I'm kind of skeptical about the young guitarists lumped into this current renaissance, mainly because it seems like music journalists' delight over having a concise, "cool" genre definition has infected their discriminatory ability in this case. I haven't delved very deep, but most of what I've heard has struck me as not technique-ly dazzling enough to compensate for the lack of originality. Of course, most likely I'm just being defensive because of my own dabbling in this style of guitar playing. That being said, I have recently gotten over myself enough to enjoy this album, which pokes into all the deep corners implied by the history of American instrumental fingerpicking, capitalizing on the distinct qualities of both electric and acoustic guitars. I would really like to see Tyler play live. Dude's got some serious chops.

Howlin' Wolf – Wang Dang Doodle On our recent record store romp in Memphis, Gabe picked up a split record featuring Muddy Waters' Fathers and Sons (featuring young, white bluesmen like Mike Bloomfield, Duck Dunn, and Paul Butterfield) on one side, and Howlin' Wolf's London Session (similarly, Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts) on the other. Listening to it got me in a serious Wolf mood, and I spent the better part of a day traipsing through his catalogue on Spotify. This was my favorite discovery of the day. Immediately distinctive. Utterly silly and frightening all at the same time.

El Rego – Djobime A recent reissue from the Daptones label (home to Sharon Jones, Charles Bradley, Budos Band, etc), explicitly acknowledging the connection between this Benin-born funk and its American cousins, both then and now. It's fun listening to this back-to-back with Howlin' Wolf, hearing what each accomplishes with essentially the same sonic palette. I love El Rego's strangulated "Yow! Yow!"

Tune-Yards – Lady I fell deeply, swooningly for tUnE-yArDs' Merrill Garbus when I saw her open for Dirty Projectors a few years ago, and she has continued to woo me ever since. A titan of musicality. This track is from the most recent addition to the "Red Hot" lineage of compilations, being a tribute to Fela which is chock full of really great collaborations, including this fantastic song. I knew most of the players, but had to look up rapper Akua Naru - a formidable female voice out of the east coast. For me, this song really captures the best talents of everyone involved: Garbus' post-modern pygmy stylings and fuzzy bass, ?uestlove's insistent drumming, Kidjo's tough earth-mother smoothness, and Naru's nearly androgynous punch.

tUnE-yArDs and Dirty Projectors, two bands who lean heavily on African musical traditions but are never invited to any World music family reunions, highlight some of the problems with World music I'm talking about. Their fluency in rock and punk rock idioms definitely goes a long way towards explaining their prominence in the indie rock scene, but I can't help but imagine how different things would be if they weren't young white Americans.

Al Madrigal – I No Do The Drogas Just because, you know, it's funny.