With so much musical travel this year—Accra, Beirut, Montreal…—and so much producing around Ghana and Lebanon, I have not been as focused on current releases as usual. So I am even less inclined to call this a true “Best Of The Year” list. But here, in no particular order, are 10, mostly African, releases that I did find time to enjoy and admire amid the hubbub of 2013.
Lala Njava, Malagasy Blues Song (Riverboad Records): Mesmerizing songs from a deep-voiced siren of Madagascar. It’s a spectacular voice—craggy, earthy and real—mostly backed by acoustic guitar and light percussion. Despite the overworked “blues” reference in the title, this is a great album.
The Creole Choir of Cuba, Santiman (RealWorld): Christian vocal music, Haitian folk songs, and deep voudou ceremony come together in this gorgeous choral set, much advanced since the group’s 2010 debut. Tasteful instrumental backing lifts these tracks, but fabulous, passionate voices are the show.
Houria Aicha, Renyate (Accords Croises): This grand dame of Algerian song makes a “journey into heritage” here, interpreting the work of 10 female singers of Algeria’s past. Her sources are not well known, but her refined, soulful renditions of women’s popular song and folklore dignifies their memory, and makes for one of the most satisfying discs I’ve heard out of North Africa this year.
The Pedrito Martinez Group, The Pedrito Martinez Group (Motema): Cuban music doesn’t get any hotter than this. The group is small—just four—but the sound is enormous! Singer and percussion genius Pedrito has been a beloved secret for New Yorker music mavens for yearss. Now, the world can share in this expansive set of songs ranging from Santeria roots to a Robert Johnson cover.
Mamadou Kelly, Adibar (Clermont Music): Of all this year’s great releases from the north of Mali and neighboring Niger, this is my favorite. Song after song, singer/guitarist Kelly’s group seduces with crisp grooves, brilliant playing and arranging, and a vibe that just won’t let go.
Bombino, Nomad (Nonesuch): The Tuareg singer/guitarist from Agadez, Niger, gets a stylish, but restrained, makeover from Grammy-winning guitarist/producer of the Black Keys, Dan Aurbach. Robust guitar sounds and tasteful additions, like pedal steel guitar, enhance rather than compromise Bombino’s rootsy folk-rock appeal.
Tal National, Kaani (FatCat Records): Not a new band, but a discovery for many of us this year, Tal National are a multi-ethnic electric guitar boogie band from Niamey, Niger, led by a local judge! What animates these tracks is the polish and drive that comes only from playing long gigs before adoring dance audiences five nights a week. Too rare these days!
Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba, Jama Ko (out here records): Ngoni pioneer Basssekou Kouyate’s third album was recorded amid the troubles in Mali in 2012, and the musicians’ love and hope for their nation comes through on every track. Not a lot of new ground here, but powerhouse acoustic grooves, joyous riffing by a team of ngoni aces, some choice guest spots, and the sublime voice of Ami Sacko are quite enough.
Rokia Traore, Beautiful Africa (Nonesuch): Too much Mali, I know. But there’s no way to ignore new work by one of this hyper-musical nation’s most innovative singer/songwriters. Finding new colors in her voice, new themes, even humor, in her songs, and continuing her fascination with classic guitar sounds, Rokia has taken 5 years to make this album, and the care and attention to detail show. Like Bombino, she is working with a rock producer (John Parish), and like Bassekou, she made this record amid the 2012 crisis in Mali. For all that, it’s 100% Rokia, and brilliant.
Kobo Town, Jumbie in the Box (Stonetree Records/Cumbancha): This disc is guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Though based in Toronto and multi-national, this group delivers the classic sound of Trinidadian calypso. Smart, witty lyrics delivered with a wink and a nod; strong, spare grooves that will make you want to dance like it’s 1966; understated passion in every track—what’s not to love?
Two Special Prizes:
First, a shout-out to a landmark 2013 release, NOT from Africa:
Voices of Afghanistan, Love Songs for Humanity (World Harmony Studios): A new benchmark in Afghan music recordings. Veteran singer Ustad Farida Mahwash still has an immeasurably beguiling voice. Rubab maestro Homayoun Sakhi plays with the elegance of an old master and the fiery inventiveness of a young lion. The ensemble has deep chemistry, and guest artists—including Angelique Kidjo—make this set of songs a lush, sweeping journey through Afghan folklore and art music. Highly recommended.
Second, although I did not include William Onyeabor’s, Who is William Onyeabor? (Luaka Bop) on my top 10 list, I note here that this is one of the most surprising and successful releases of the year. Onyeabor’s synth-driven, studio grooves and proto raps (produced between 1978-85) are good fun, but the real genius of this release is the way Luaka Bop has gotten us all interested in the artist’s mysterious story. One wonders how the Born-Again Christian recluse can keep quiet amid the global buzz surrounding this release. And the possibility, however remote, that he might be enticed to emerge—to speak, record, even tour?—keeps us all paying attention. But my prize goes especially to what is hands-down the most creative piece of album promotion I have received in my 25 years as a music journalist (see below). This gem came in the mail, actually posted from Nigeria, months before Onyeabor’s record dropped, and I will cherish it forever.
Happy New Year!