I think it’s a shame that more fine, upstanding, music-loving Americans don’t listen to much music made across the oceans (except, of course, music from the UK—yeah! yeah! yeah!). There’s a lot of wonderful stuff being played and sung around the globe at any given time, and it should be heard—if not as musical staples, then as an interlude to break up the Taylor and the Kanye, the Boss and the King. Here are a few of my favorites, worth looking into, if you haven’t already.
From: Cape Verde, an island off of the African west coast; it was once a colony of Portugal, so Ms. Evora sings in Portuguese.
Why it doesn’t matter that you can’t understand what she’s singing: Cesaria Evora (who performed barefoot) had such a rich and silky tone that you could listen to her voice all day, even if someone told you she was singing absolute gibberish.
Where to start: The late singer’s albums (she died in December 2011) have been remarkably consistent in sound and quality since the ‘90s. Café Atlantico (1999) is my favorite, alternately gorgeous and joyous. For gorgeous, try “Paraiso di Atlantico”; for joyous, try “Carnaval de Sao Vicente.”
Where to go from there: Another silky-toned singer of Portuguese is Brazilian male vocalist Caetano Veloso. Try “Sampa.” For something just as beautiful, but a little more pensive, check out “De Cara a la Pared” by the late, great Lhasa de Sela, who sings in Spanish, French and English.
Taraf de Haidouks
Why it doesn’t matter that you can’t understand what they’re singing: These twelve “gypsy” musicians and singers make so much music, usually frenetic but occasionally sublimely melancholy, that you’ll be carried away by the emotional energy. You can imagine the flowing, spilling liquor and the clapping and singing as the violins and cimbaloms do their stuff.
Where to start: The 1999 album Taraf de Haidouks is a whirlwind of pleasure, and the 2001 follow-up, Band of Gypsies, is just as good. Standout songs are “Dumbala Dumba” and “Spune, Spune, Mos Batrin.” A fine instrumental performance captured on video is this one.
Where to go from there: There are quite a few other Balkan artists that make music in a similar vein, predating Taraf de Haidouks, like “God of the Cimbalom” Toni Iordache (“Ca la Breaza”), or following in their footsteps, like the Hungarian rock/jazz band Besh O Drom (“Csavas”).
From: The desert of northern Mali. (Tinariwen means “deserts.”)
Why it doesn’t matter that you can’t understand what they’re singing: It’s the hypnotic rhythm that’s the key to their music, and the call-and-response vocals. Perfect for going into a trance while working on your arts-‘n’-crafts or repainting the kitchen—or, even better, for your iPod while you’re hiking in the Mojave.
Where to start: The former rebel nomads got just a tad more westernized on their 2011 album Tassili, which features guest artists from the U.S. The song “Tenere Taqqim Tossam” even has a chorus sung in English by TV on the Radio members Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone.
Where to go from there: Ali Farka Toure, also from Mali, does guitar-based music that sounds like African-style Delta blues. Try “Soko.” Or, for some raw, earthy singing and ululation, check out West Saharan Mariem Hassan’s “Yasar Geidu.”
From: Italy, where he’s been a big star since the early ‘80s
Why it doesn’t matter that you can’t understand what he’s singing: Mr. Conte’s voice suits his music—an amalgam of smoky night club, cabaret and Italian bistro—wonderfully, but you couldn’t say that he’s a great singer. It’s charitable to say his vocals are gruff. They fit right into the idiosyncratic arrangements of piano, horns, accordion, guitar and vibes.
Where to start: I discovered him on his “breakthrough” album, The Best of Paolo Conte (1996). It collects many of his best songs—and it includes English translations of his atmospheric lyrics. One of his best-known songs is “Via con me.”
Where to go from there: Since there really is no one very much like Paolo Conte out there, I’d suggest: more Paolo Conte! Aguaplano, Tournee 2 and Reveries are all favorites of mine.
These artists are all immensely popular in their own countries, and among world music-lovers. If any are new to you, give them a try and broaden your musical horizons.
Do you have favorite music-makers from faraway lands? Let me know—I’m always looking for more to listen to.