catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 9, Num 1 :: 2010.01.08 — 2010.01.21


Global Spirit

Calling a certain genre or genres “world music” doesn’t sit right with me.  I find problematic such an “othering” of various kinds of music. as well as the implication that America and English-speaking societies are then somehow not part of the “world,” or even without ethnicities and cultures of their own.  Yet here is a list of my top ten “world music” albums — a personal and, I imagine, rather American list. 

Several things struck me as I compiled this list.  First, nearly all the music on this list sports an amazingly eclectic pedigree, even that music which has evolved into very specific forms or become identified with specific cultures or geographic areas.  These sounds are a gorgeous miscegenation of, for example, European and African musical traditions or traditional ethnic forms with more recent pop, jazz and classical.

Secondly, and perhaps relatedly, I realized how wide and varying were the ways in which I came to know and love these albums.  For example, I was introduced to luminaries such as Cui Jian and Thomas Mapfumo by attending their concerts, invited by others who knew their music better.  Likewise, I cannot say if I would enjoy The Ivory Consort nearly as much had I not first seen them in concert.

Thirdly, much of this art has been intended and used for political purposes.  Music has the power to promote freedom, understanding and peace, or it can be propaganda, perpetuating prejudice, nationalistic pride and violence.  Sometimes the same songs do both at once.

Finally, in this season when we contemplate God’s incarnation as one embodied person embedded in a specific culture, time and place, I was blown away by the fact that this music is the music of God’s actual, beautiful world!   This music, so full of energy, wonder and delight, is part of humanity’s response to God’s Spirit in creation.  The very music on this list is part of what it means to be human and thus to bear God’s image.

I have naturally had to leave off many worthy potential entries.  Some are artists I admire such as Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masekela of South Africa.  Some are artists who were left off simply for being too similar to others on the list:  Capercaillie of Scotland, Ottmar Liebert or Sting with his recent Songs From The Labyrinth.  Some who are left off represent whole genres such as the extravagantly danceable music of the Indian Bollywood film industry.  Some represent whole countries or regions with fascinating and varied musical traditions: Argentina, Mexico, Iceland, the Middle East, and many more. 

The purpose of this list is for you, the reader, to seek out some of this music and actually listen to it!  The albums are listed chronologically, but here in broadly descending order are the albums by how highly I personally would recommend them, though in terms of order the middle six are pretty much interchangeable:  Soviet Army Chorus & Band, Cui Jian, The Chieftains, Thomas Mapfumo, Buena Vista Social Club, Gipsy Kings, Tinariwen, Jazz Samba, Getz/Gilberto, Steve Reich, The Ivory Consort.  Enjoy!

Soviet Army Chorus & Band: Soviet Army Chorus & Band (USSR, 1956) — I grew up with my dad’s copy of this 1956 recording of the Cold War Soviet Army’s 200+ touring cultural ambassadors singing Russian, Ukrainian and a few English folk songs.  This album contains some of the most climactic musical moments I’ve heard on record, and evokes widely, deeply varying emotional responses.  This album never gets old and is one of my favorite albums of any genre, if not my absolute favorite.

Stan Getz and Charlie Byrd: Jazz Samba (1962) & Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto featuring Antonio Carlos Jobim: Getz/Gilberto (Brazil/United States, 1963) — These albums were the twin pillars of the bossa nova jazz craze that hit the U.S. in the early 1960s, just before Beatlemania.  These collaborative albums translate modern, samba-influenced Brazilian folk music into (hugely successful) jazz. Jazz Samba started the American excitement with bossa nova. Of the two albums, it is a more straightforward instrumental jazz album, though it has been much more personally meaningful to me.  Getz/Gilberto features the songs (and piano) of the great Antonio Carlos Jobim, including “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Desafinado” and “Corcovado.”  The vocals in Portuguese sung by Gilberto and in English by his wife Astrud are superb, though as background music, this album can sound like elevator music.

Steve Reich: Drumming (United States, 1970-71) — Much as Paul Simon would do for his Graceland album, minimalist composer Steve Reich spent significant time in Africa learning from the native musical traditions that influence this work.  This piece features a large chorus of bongos, marimbas, glockenspiels and other instruments playing variations on one musical phrase “phased” in and out to create complex, intricate musical patterns and mosaics.  While categorically classical, I count Drumming and, for example, Reich’s Different Trains, a moving response to World War II and the Holocaust, as “world” music, since the music has diverse, international influences, and they amply demonstrate how music as a medium can transcend cultural and national boundaries.

Cui Jian: Rock ‘N’ Roll on the New Long March (China, 1987) — This is one of the first Chinese rock albums, and Cui Jian is the Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Bruce Springsteen and David Byrne of Chinese rock.  His music combines aspects of Chinese culture with traditional and experimental Western rock to very interesting results.  The song “Nothing to my Name” (on this album), a love song with a political double meaning, became an anthem for the democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.  After the protest was crushed and Cui’s popularity kept growing, he and his music were totally banned by the government.  He has, however, been gradually reintroduced, and in 2005, I happened to be at the first major concert he was allowed to headline, at the Beijing Capital Stadium.  It was the biggest, most exciting concert I’ve ever attended.

Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited: Chamunorwa (Zimbabwe, 1989) — Thomas Mapfumo, “Mukanya,” the “Lion of Zimbabwe,” is an absolutely amazing musician.  His chimurenga (“struggle” in the Shona language) style of music is Afro-pop at its finest.  When I listen, my body can barely keep from moving in rhythmic, yet unexplainable ways!  Like some the other artists on this list, Mapfumo has used his music for political purposes — first to encourage the overthrow of the British from colonial power, independence coming under Robert Mugabe in 1980.  But Mapfumo soon began to sing of the corruption and exploitation of Mugabe’s government, for which he has been exiled.  I enjoyed this album in particular, but I’d also recommend a greatest hits album of his.

Gipsy Kings: The Best of the Gipsy Kings (France, 1995) — This group of Spanish speaking, ethnically Romani (Gypsy) musicians delivers a tidal wave of guitar, heavily influenced by Latin dance rhythms such as the rumba flamenca.  For more songs, check out their Very Best Of

The Chieftains: Santiago (Spain/Ireland, 1996) — The widely collaborating Chieftains, perhaps the most prominent interpreters of traditional Irish music, take on the music of Galicia in northwest Spain, second cousin culturally to the Celtic nations of the British Isles.  (Gaelic, Galicia, Galatians, Celt-all manifestations of the same word referring to the language/ethnic group that dominated much of Europe before Christ but were eventually pushed to Europe’s fringes by the Germanics and Romans.)  Santiago de Compostella in Galicia is the destination of one of the most important Christian pilgrimages.  The beautiful Spanish/Irish intermingling makes this easily my favorite Chieftains album. 

Buena Vista Social Club: Buena Vista Social Club (Cuba, 1997) — The Buena Vista Social Club was a membership-only club in Havana during the 1940s and 50s.  This album gathered aging Cuban singers who had been popular at that time to record music they had performed then as well as their own more recent compositions.  The music of these old men is intense even by Latin music standards, brimming with energy.  It puts the specious, derivative, overproduced music that is standard fare nowadays to shame.

The Ivory Consort: Music in the Land of Three Faiths (Spain, 2002) — This medieval music ensemble presents 10th-13th century Spanish songs on period instruments in a host of languages including Hebrew, Arabic, Latin and its descendents.  This music is representative of the cultural period in what is now Spain broadly between the Islamic conquest in 711 and 1492 when the Christian reconquest culminated with the expulsion of all Muslims and (perpetually minority) Jews.  This period of flourishing saw the forging of Christian, Islamic and Jewish musical traditions into one.  Most songs are narrative or religious and exist along a continuum between bearing very specific communal identity and bearing significant and varied outside influence.

Tinariwen: Aman Iman: Water is Life (Mali, 2007) — Tinariwen is a group of Tuareg musicians who write music in their culture’s traditional style for electric guitar.  The Tuaregs, a nomadic Berber people of the Sahara, are in a constant state of political rebellion against the countries that their land covers.  Before becoming world-respected musicians, the members of Tinariwen spent years in exile and participated in an armed rebellion in 1990, bootleg cassettes of their music circulating to foment revolutionary spirit.  Now they stick to a “guitars, not guns” policy and are an important cultural icon.  The similarities between their music and American blues are noteworthy.

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