There are few more eye-opening experiences than a trip abroad. But if you got a little bit of cash for the holidays and don't have either enough of it or the time to hop a plane right now, a global musical journey is as close as a few mouse clicks and as cheap as a few bucks. Here are a three wonderful examples.
I adore African music and Jamal, a new release from the Malian band Alkibar Junior, is one of my favorite releases of 2016. A quick lesson for those less familiar with African music: In the West, melody and instrumental solos are usually dominant, with bass and percussion providing scaffolding. Much of West African music is the opposite. Singer Sekou Touré anchors this album. (Don't confuse him with the deceased Guinean dictator of that name. Touré is a common surname in West Africa.) Touré hails from the same commune in Timbuktu as the famed Ali Farka Touré (1939-2006) and several members of the latter's band appear on Jamal, an album of praise songs dedicated to those who guided northern Mali through recent political and economic crises. What a recording! On "Suka," Sekou Touré's voice mesmerizes and calms; on "Tjmi" he opens with a vocal blast, then settles into a groove in which all the voices, instruments, and percussion blend into a soupy mix. The overall effect is akin to having been forcibly hurled into a stream then deciding to just float along with the current. Instruments are played skillfully, but not in that look-at-me individual style of Western music. "Djugal" has a meaty bass part that opens the song, but it's just a start/stop/go framing device; "Kori" is like an electrified lullaby in which Diadie Bocum's guitar, Touré, and the backup singers rock us to serenity. And then there's the soulful and meditative "Daou," which is the kind of song that conjures Deadheads of a bygone era in a drifting circular dance, heads titled back, and eyes closed. The songs are mostly in Songhai, but you won't need translation—joy and tranquility transcend language. (PS: CD song titles and those on the download version don't always match, but I think they're the same tracks.)
The first question that occur when you hear Sandaraa is geographical. Is this a Middle Eastern band? South Asian? Balkan? A klezmer ensemble? The answer is "yes." It is Lahore-meets-Brooklyn in conception, a collaboration between Pakistani singer Zebunnisa Bangash and metro New York clarinet master Michael Winograd. The fiddler, guitarist, bass player, accordionist, and percussionist are also based in Brooklyn, though several of them have deep ethnic roots and none of them seem to be constrained by any particular national border when they pick up their instruments. Ms. Bangash is a marvel. We listen to her undulations, staccato cadences, and elides duel with Winograd's clarinet on a song like "Jegi Jegi" and hear klezmer strained through a world music filter. Nothing is hurried on their self-titled EP. There is the trance-meets-keening of "Mana Nele" clocking in at 7:20, and the trippy "Bibi Sanem Janem" at 5:40. The latter song is typical of how Sandaraa build compositions. It opens with a soulful clarinet solo and eases into swaying rhythms that explain why this ensemble's 2013 founding was partly underwritten by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance. "Dilbrake Nazinin" is a particularly lovely piece that unfolds to guitarist Yoshie Fructer bending the strings as if he were wielding a sitar and he commands the first minute and a half before Bangash sings. She stays quiet and wistful until the 3:50 mark when the song leaps into higher gear–only to have Ms. Bangash settle it back to a more contemplative level. I call this the feather-hammer-feather effect. The EP's final track, "Haatera Taiyga" spotlights tin-pan-style percussion from Richie Barshay that frames several instrumental surges bordering on wildness–but there is always Bangash's voice that invokes an angel standing pacific in the middle of hot oil. Sandaraa often reminded me of a South Asian version of Pentangle. That's a good thing–a very good thing.
Amira Medunjanin is a Bosnian singer from Sarajevo and is considered by many to be the world's finest interpreter of Sevdah, which doesn't have an easy English translation. Oddly, to get it, it's helpful to think of ancient Greek medicine. The Greeks thought there were four basic elements: air, water, fire, and earth. These corresponded to four bodily "humors:" blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. Sevdah derives from the last of these, the least plentiful humor in the body, but the animating force connected with melancholy, pensiveness, pragmatism, and pessimism. If you get the idea that Medunjanin's latest CD, Damar, is layered with dark tones, you're on the mark. One reviewer called her the "Bosnian Billie Holiday." I get that, but to my ear, fado legend Amalia Rodrigues is a better match. Sevdah is a music of sorrow–like fado or a less ribald version of Greek rebetika. Why would you wish to hear such music? Because Ms. Medunjanin's vice will freeze you in your tracks; because her songs will stir things in your soul. And because you had no idea that darkness came in so many shades. On Damar she works with jazz pianist Bojan Z and guitarist Boŝko Jovíc, the first of whom sets new moods with a single note or pause, and the latter of whom is steeped flamenco fingering. This album demands more that you feel what Medunjanin sings rather than understand the lyrics. I don't know any Croatian, but even good translation software struggles with titles such as "Pjevat cemo sta nam srce zna." (My best guess: "Sing What the Heart Knows.") I can tell you, though, that it's a soulful mid-tempo song in which Medunjanin's mildly operatic quaver oozes emotion. I can also tell you that "Tvojte ociLeno mori" is a Macedonian folk song that feels as if it were sung by a sad madrigal, and that "Ah sto cemo Ljubav Kriti" ("Oh, Why Should We Hide Our Love?") is a traditional Herzegovina song that unfolds deliberately and mournfully. I can also tell you that the title track demonstrates the literal depths of Medunjanin's range, as she dips down to smoky tones reminiscent of the husk of Marlene Dietrich. Pain has seldom sounded so good.