World Fusion Radio
What the future sounds like
(December 2010) Six Degrees Records sent out a request for Top Ten of the Decade lists and I promised I would put something together. The biggest problem with Top Ten lists is you have to leave out some tremendous music and artists. I have done that to be sure, and even leaving out so much I still insist on spilling over beyond ten. I’ve eliminated any anthology and remix albums, though there are many great ones, and focused on what I feel are the best ten albums of the first decade of the 21st century. Tell me what you think, I know any Top Ten list is little more than an argument starter.
First, some Honorable Mentions:
* Tinariwan - Aman Iman: Water Is Life (2007)
* Oojami – Bellydancing Breakbeats (2002)
* Joi – We Are Three (2001)
* Karsh Kale – Liberation (2003)
* Transglobal Underground - Impossible Broadcasting (2005)
* Spaceport Orchestra of Benares - The Ganesh Beat Club Sessions (2003)
* Terry Hall & Mushtaq - The Hour Of Two Lights (2003)
* Pedra Branca - Pedra Branca (2005)
#10: MC Rai – Raivolution (2005)
This is not your father’s rai music. Yes, you hear music reminiscent of Cheb Khaled, Cheb Mami, and Rachid Taha on “Raivolution” but MC Rai has updated and expanded the rai sound. There is funk, blues, and trip-hop here too. The fact that he can add the layerings and energies that he does and yet manages to keep it pure rai is an amazing accomplishment. Originally from Tunisia, MC Rai is now based in Los Angeles.
#9: Midival Punditz – Midival Times (2005)
The dynamic duo of Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj followed up their eponymous 2003 CD with this release. The debut was tremendous but Medieval Times is slightly more mature and full in its explorations of a range of Indian themes and narrowly edges out their recent “Hello Hello” as their best album. Midival Times features the soulful songs “Saathi” and “Rebirth” and the club-oriented “Ali” and “Enemy.” All the songs, no matter how high-tech, are lovingly based on traditional raga styles. Maybe it’s the faithfulness to the raga that makes their music sound purer. Though there are many fabulous Desi DJs world wide, these New Delhi-based guys are, in my opinion, the best.
#8: Azam Ali – Elysium for the Brave (2006)
Iranian-born, Indian-raised Azam Ali has the most amazing voice I have ever heard. It soars and dives with such incredible depth of feeling and smoothness. We have been blessed to hear her in the groups Vas and Niyaz and with her solo career. Everything she graces with her presence is pure magic. “Elysium For The Brave” is the album that shows her broadest range and perhaps at her most accessible. Elysium definitely transports one to a higher realm. The remix album is also amazing.
#7: Jef Stott – Saracen (2008)
Let’s see, he founded Stellamara, then Lumin, and then went solo. Quite the career. “Saracen” is his first full-length solo album, an exploration of North African and MIddle Eastern music. Stott is an amazing musician and producer (he produced #10 on this list) with a love for North African music. The tracks on Saracen are clean and crisp displaying Stott’s mastery of percussion, strings, and electronics. He shifts easily from light acoustic music to techno and back again but is always deeply emotional.
#6: Cheb i Sabbah – La Kahena (2005)
It is very hard for me to pick a best Cheb i Sabbah album but he has to be in any world fusion top ten list for this decade. I go with La Kahena because it has such a strong feeling of tradition with an indomitable spirit. While his albums “Devotion” and “Shri Durga” are much dreamier, La Kahena’s songs are at times haunting, but usually sound more like a party somewhere on the fringe of the desert. Much of Cheb i Sabbah’s music is Indian fusion, but this album goes back to his North African roots. The singing is marvelous and as always his arrangements are sublime. The remix album is also amazing.
#5: Ryukyu Underground - Ryukyu Underground (2002)
Almost completely unknown in the U.S., the duo of Keith Gordon and Jon Taylor combines Okinawan folk and contemporary music, with traditional instruments, with electronic ambient, chillout, dub, and drum-and-bass. Collaborating with native artists from Okinawa (the largest of the Japanese Ryukyu Islands) they craft a unique blend of modern music with deep folk roots and an amazing vibe: a more jazzy Yoshida Brothers, or a much hipper Thievery Corporation. Their first full-length album is an inspiration for how traditional music can be reimagined. Also check out their amazin two-CD remix release.
#4: Recycler – Iboga (2003)
Big, bang, boom. Recycler is always beyond high-energy percussion, but “Iboga” is their most rambunctious album. No doubt the best pan-African fusion ever is being made by these French guys. Recycler answers the question of what would African music sound like played in a post-punk rave style heavy on the electronics and high on the volume. What emerges is a cross of Konono No.1 with Killing Joke. Recycler is high and hard energy without negativity; ecstatic dance music with heavy bass, strong African rhythms, and electronic rifts morphing into the psychedelic. Not sure what more there is to say than that except that “Iboga” is not for the faint at heart or for when you want to relax. This is music to help blast you through any obstacle in life and come out smiling, even if your ears are bleeding.
#3: Martyn Bennett – GRIT (2003)
It was Martyn Bennett’s 1998 CD “Bothy Culture” that, more than anything else, led me onto the path of world fusion music after I became a world music DJ. Though 2000’s “Hardland” also deserves to be on this Top Ten list, I pick GRIT because I still choke up a little whenever I think about it. He produced he album when he was gravely ill with Hodgkin's lymphoma and felt he had only months to live (he died in January 2005). Throughout his career, Bennett was on a campaign to preserve and reinterpret his ancestral musical traditions. As he puts it succinctly: his music is “free from the influences of commercial new-age, 'Celtic' or tie-dyed fantasy.” Or, as he states in the liner notes of his album, GRIT: “GRIT is a serious artistic attempt to bring my own Scottish heritage forward with integrity. Many of the tracks on GRIT could be termed as quite 'hard'. Again this is just my own means of reflecting realism in a stark and uncompromising way. I find so many modern representations of Celtic culture careless and fanciful to the point that the word 'Celtic' has really become quite meaningless to me. As globalization is set to expand, I feel it's time for us to face our own reflections in the great mirror of our cultures.”
He achieved this and then some.
#2: Loop Guru – Loopus Interruptus (Forgotten Treasures & Lost Artifacts) (2001)
As I gladly tell everyone, Loop Guru is perhaps the single most important and influential world fusion artist. When you hear about an album that are the previously unreleased “extras” of a group you can usually expect a collection of table scraps that only a hardcore fan would find appealing. While I have long been a Loop Guru hardcore fanatic, strangely Loopus Interruptus is not only not table scraps, it is probably their best album. It’s classic Loop Guru: the ambient grooves, the heavenly chants, the exotic rhythms, but somehow Loopus just has something extra, a certain charm and energy that takes their sound to another level. Personally, I think they are joking about the subtitle. Elderberry Shiftglass (2006) is also a marvelously fun retro-futuristic bit of fun. But buy every Loop Guru album. You won’t be disappointed.
#1: Fun-Da-Mental - There Shall be Love! (2001)
I think Fun-Da-Mental is like Friedrich Nietzsche—brilliant, brash, and beautiful but usually known for the brashness rather than the beautiful. I tremendously respect Fun-Da-Mental’s “fuck racism and fascism” attitude that they have always had, but “There Shall be Love!” is their most beautiful album. I love their in-your-face political anthems elsewhere, but their musical talents shine brightest here. The album begins with a Negro spiritual version of “Amazing Grace” which is soon channeled into “The Last Gospel” where Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali is blended with heavy bass and atmospherics. Shifting effortlessly like call and response between Pakistani Qawwali and African tribal rhythms, all of the songs on “There Shall be Love!” are just absolutely brilliant. Rizwan-Muazzam appear on several songs, “The Last Gospel,” “Pollution,” Spy-Cat,” and the title track, and Huun Huur Tu on one, “More Than A Hundred Times.” The song “Sunday School” is a gorgeous arrangement of South African singing. “Fire Water” and “Tagai Soul” are ecstatic African drums. “Wandering Soul” an infectious rift-filled chant. The tone throughout the album is always spiritual, regardless of the tempo or energy level. Perhaps this is their heart and core beneath the justified anger at society--the album cover is a little boy giving an obscene gesture and the liner notes reminds us of the need to struggle against oppression (ironically the album went to press the same month as the 9/11 attacks). I get angry at the injustice in the world too, but there is also love.