My selections can all be considered World Music - which seems to be what we call anything that does not have its roots in North America or Europe. I chose albums that strongly represent a traditional cultural identity, but have also stepped into the fusion category - adding elements like the drumset, electric bass, guitar, horns, etc. They are an easy transition into the unknown for the Western ear - World Music that is not difficult to listen to.
Oumou Sangare is known as the “Songbird of Mali”. She is famous for her gorgeous voice and for having a sensational international career, yet choosing to live in her homeland with her people. She sings about tough issues facing traditional African cultures - women’s rights, government corruption, etc. The language is Bamana. It is spoken in the city of Bamako. The band utilizes many traditional instruments, including the djembe drum and the Ngoni - a 6-stringed harp made from a gourd. Much of the music rides the line between 12/8 time and 4/4 time. There are no odd meters on this record, but it’s easy to get turned around in the funky ostenatos.
This album was on the radio a lot when I was in Bamako. In my neighborhood, there was one guy with a huge sound system in the middle of the block that played the radio all day every day.. a soundtrack for daily life. As heavy as this album is, it scratches the surface of the deep musical traditions found in Mali - traditions that have recently been outlawed and violently destroyed by extremists from the North imposing Sharia law.
Oumou performed at “Celebrate Brooklyn” in 2012.
2.La Rumba Que No Termina - Clave y Guaguanco
Clave y Guaguanco is a group that takes traditional Cuban street music called Rumba to a new level (guagaunco is a type of rumba). They have been at it since the 50s, when rumba was first recorded, and have stayed at the forefront ever since. Their layered vocal harmonies and outrageous percussion ensembles have made them one of the best Afro-Cuban groups ever. Rumba was the first non-Western music I learned about in college in Wisconsin.
Rumba is kind of like Hip-Hop in the U.S. - cultural, political, playful, and sexual. It is the secular counterpart to sacred Afro-Cuban music of Santería. Most Afro-Cuban music is influenced by the songs and rhythms of Santería - driving, African call and response sequences designed to spiral the listener’s energy upwards into a trance-like state. Rhythmically, it is absolute insanity. If you know the Rumba clave, you are on the same page as the performers, but be prepared to hang on for dear life. Track 9, my favorite, is “Respuesta da Maria”, which I transcribed and performed with a full ensemble in Wisconsin in 2009.
3. Tabla Beat Science - Zakir Hussain
This record was one of my first exposures to the Tabla drums from India. Tabla player Zakir Hussain is one of India’s most successful musical exports, collaborating with all types of artists all around the world. I don’t know how to play Tabla, and I don’t know enough about the music to truly appreciate the classical style. That’s why this album was perfect for me - Drum n’ Bass meets Tabla drums.. give it a listen.
4. The Best of Bamboleo - Bamboleo
If you read about Rumba under my Clave y Guagaunco heading, Timba is like Salsa music with a Rumba attitude. It incorporates funk. It may be thought of as a more African, more “street” version of Salsa. Bamboleo is one of the first bands I heard that played this kind of music. My wife went to their concert in Havana and brought me their CD. The soaring, virtuosic vocals and insanely tight horns that you would expect from Cuba sound effortless along with the congas and timbale-infused drumset. Several of these tracks had me rhythmically stumped until I literally counted along. Even with some prior knowledge of the clave patterns, I was blown away by the ensemble performance.
From what I have heard: if you live in Cuba and you are an excellent musician, you can audition to place into one of the national groups which is sponsored by the government as a cultural investment. You make your living rehearsing with your group.. EVERY DAY. Think about that next time you hear music from Cuba...
5. Dengo - Soungalo Coulibaly
From Djembefola.com - “Bouake (Ivory Coast) represents a cultural crossroads of music from Ivory Coast, Guinea and Burkina Faso. It was there that Soungalo invented "Flez" music - a fusion of djembe, dunun, tama, djidunun, balafon, kamelengoni, acoustic guitar, karinyan and song. Flez music draws on the repertoires of the Bambara, Malinke, Fulbe and Wasulunka traditions.”
Flez is my favorite music, ever. The first thing that stunned me about this album was the quality of the recording. Then after I saw some videos I realized the guy’s technique on the drum is what makes it sound that way. There are many traditional instruments used on this album, and they all sound amazingly rich and blend very well. This is the one album on the list that has no Western stylistic influence or Western instruments, but it is so balanced that it is totally palatable.
Soungalo is a djembe master. I would compare his playing to a Flamenco guitar player.. playing at full speed at a pianissimo dynamic. It is unreal. As a hand percussionist, this album helped me to learn my place in the world. Djembe is traditionally very loud and involves a lot of brawn and charisma. There are only three sounds on the drum. Soungalo’s charisma is a different kind. His understated phrases are hip, playful, and deep. In this track (only thing I could find on YouTube), he doesn’t even play until the song is halfway over.
John Doing is a drummer and percussionist located in Brooklyn, NY. Check out some of his music here.