Tourists and travelers have one common desire: to ‘see’ the world. We visit countries and cities to see their monuments, museums, mountains, beaches, and everything else we can feed our eyes with. But how often do we think about how a specific place ‘sounds’? How does its language sound, how do the streets sound, how does nature sound in a particular cultural or geographical area? Sonic sensations and impressions are among the strongest of memories and yet people are least aware of them.
On the top of the sonic identity scale is undoubtedly music. According to E. D. Hirsch, music and art are “essential symbols that have helped define what we collectively are.” Throughout most of human history, music making was as natural an activity as breathing and walking, in which everyone participated. Traditional (and non-traditional) music is an integral part of a specific culture. Traditional songs are among the founding pillars of a nation’s identity, while non-traditional music is a bonding force of a particular cultural group. Getting to know the music of a specific area will bring you much closer to learning about its people and their way of life. In this article, we present you our choice of the most vibrant world music artists that can take you on a journey through their cultural heritage without physically visiting their countries. But just before that, lets explain in short what ‘world music’means.
What is ‘world music’?
The term ‘world music’ was coined in the Western culture with the intent to describe music that encompasses non-Western ethnic and indigenous music, folk music, neotraditional music, and music where two or more cultural traditions intermingle. It’s a wide term that, despite the criticism, managed to remain relevant in the international music vocabulary. Lots of world music artists tend to amalgamate their music traditions with the popular Western music forms such as rock, jazz, and classical music, which makes them far more accessible to a wider international audience. Without further adieu, here is our choice of ten exceptional world music artists that present their homeland traditions in a most captivating, mesmerizing way possible and can bring you closer to their respective native cultures.
1. Ravi Shankar (India)
Ravi Shankar is the best-known proponent of Indian classical music (and the sitar in particular) of the 20th century. He influenced many musicians throughout the world, such as George Harrison of The Beatles and American singers Roger McGuinn and David Crosby. His influence helped popularize the use of Indian instruments in pop music in the 1960s. Later in his career, Shankar engaged Western music by writing compositions for sitar and orchestra and toured the world from the 1970s on.
When I first heard a Ravi Shankar’s record, it blew my mind instantly. The sound of the sitar was something I have never experienced before. It opened a whole new sonic universe and got me highly interested in Indian music and culture. For the younger generations, I would highly recommend his daughter Anoushka Shankar. Besides being a sitar-maestro like her father, she also recorded music which is in touch with contemporary popular genres. Check out her collaboration with the electronic artist Karsh Kale.
2. Ali Farka Toure (Mali)
If I had to choose a music tradition that would represent humanity in its purest and most vibrant manifestation, that would definitely be the Mandinka music tradition of Mali. There are many great artists from Mali that came to prominence on the international music scene. Among the most popular are Salif Keita, Oumou Sangaré, Afel Bocoum, and the kora player Toumani Diabaté. They are all phenomenal musicians who present their musical heritage at its best. Other musicians that belong to the Malian tradition but come from neighboring countries are Mory Kanté (Guinea,) Foday Musa Suso and Sona Jobarteh (Gambia,) and Tamikrest (Algeria.)
Our choice from this rich musical tradition fell on Ali Farka Toure, probably the most internationally renowned Mali musician. Martin Scorsese described Touré’s music as constituting “the DNA of the blues.” The parallels between his music and the blues were drawn early in his international career, often depicting Toure’s tradition as the source of blues. His influence is huge, both internationally and in his own country. His son View Farka Toure is also a renowned musician, developing further his father’s work.
3. Huun-Huur-Tu (Tuva, Russia)
Situated in the far south of Siberia, Tuva lies at the geographical center of Asia, on the Russian border with Mongolia. It is home to the widely popular throat singing, tradition shared by both the Tuvanians (Turkic ethnic group) and the Mongolians. This type of singing was inscribed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity of UNESCO, under the name Mongolian art of singing, Khoomei.
From the highlands of Tuva comes a group of musicians that bring the breath of the mountains to the Western audiences in a postmodern package, appealing to the soft ears of Westerners. The vast and rich Tuvan musical tradition is presented to us by four superb musicians, descendants of isolated Siberian herdsmen, who decided to transform their national cultural wealth into a piece of universal music. 25 years ago, Huun-Huur-Tu picked up their traditional instruments and together with their landmark overtone singing showed the world that any music could become popular if you have the right amount of imagination.
For me, one of the most powerful pieces of music I have ever heard in my life is their collaboration with the Bulgarian singing group “Angelite” (The Angels) – a true meeting of Heaven and Earth, very intense but meditative at the same time.
4. Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Pakistan)
Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is considered one of the greatest voices ever recorded. He was born in a family with a 600-year old Qawwali tradition and is considered the biggest ambassador of this musical heritage. As a singer of Qawwali, a form of Sufi Islamic devotional music, he toured the world but from the early 1980s, he engaged in collaborations with Western artists, which put him at the forefront of the blooming world music industry at the time. He toured extensively over the decades, becoming known for his extraordinary range of vocal abilities. Khan could perform at a high level of intensity for several hours during his concerts, which earned the title “Shehnsha-e-Qawwali”, meaning “The King of Kings of Qawwali”.
5. Antônio Carlos Jobim (Brazil)
Bossa nova developed and popularized in the 1950s and 1960s and instantly became Brazil’s most popular music style abroad. The new genre (‘bossa nova’ means literally “new trend” or “new wave”) was created as a lyrical fusion of samba and jazz, which became increasingly popular among young Brazilian musicians in the 1960s. Two people are credited as ‘fathers’ of the new style – Antônio Carlos Jobim and João Gilberto. They were peers and its hard to say which one of them is more praiseworthy for the development and popularization of bossa nova.
Antônio Carlos Jobim, also known as Tom Jobim, internationalized bossa nova with the help of American jazz musicians in the 1960s. He merged it with jazz to create a new sound with enormous popular success. As a primary force behind the creation of bossa nova, Jobim’s songs became highly praised by many musicians across the world. Thanks to both Jobim and João Gilberto, bossa nova is one of the most popular styles of music that emerged from a non-English speaking tradition.
The 1964 album ‘Gets/Gilberto’ by American saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian guitarist oão Gilberto, featuring pianist and composer Antônio Carlos Jobim, won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year for the song “Garota de Ipanema.” It is a perfect example of this refined music and a great introduction to bossa nova.
6. Dadawa (China)
Dadawa was the first Chinese musician to receive international attention, beginning with “Sister Drum”, distributed by Warner Bros in 1995. Her music is a blend of the rich Chinese musical tradition and a modern eclectic approach. As an avant garde pioneer of contemporary Chinese music, her studio work and live performances exceed the borders of music by incorporating visual and performance art. Dadawa takes Chinese millenial heritage into the future, bringing Chinese culture closer to a worldwide audience. Its no surprise she is a National Goodwill Ambassador of the United Nations Development Programme, devoted to preserving ethnic music and handicrafts that are at risk of being lost.
7. Buena Vista Social Club (Cuba)
The globally popular ensemble Buena Vista Social Club, named after a Havana members’ club which was a popular music venue in the 1940s, started as a collaboration between the American guitarist Ry Cooder and the Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González. It was established in 1996 to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. The orchestra gained worldwide acclaim soon after its formation and became a global phenomenon, especially after director Wim Wenders made a documentary—also called Buena Vista Social Club—that included interviews with the musicians conducted in Havana. The film was nominated for an Oscar in 1998 Best Documentary feature.
The ensemble inspired a great interest in traditional Cuban music and Latin American music in general. Many retired musicians were enlisted in the orchestra and they brought their first-hand knowledge of the old styles, such as son, bolero, and danzón. As of now, several surviving members of the ensemble, such as singer Omara Portuondo, trumpeter Manuel “Guajiro” Mirabal, laúd player Barbarito Torres, and trombonist and conductor Jesús “Aguaje” Ramos, alongside new members, currently tour worldwide by the name Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club.
8. Trio Mandili (Georgia)
Georgia is a country with rich and vibrant traditional music. Many experts consider the renowned Georgian polyphonic singing as the earliest tradition of that kind in the Christian world. The nation’s musical heritage has deep roots that predate the introduction of Christianity in Georgia in the 4th century AD. Georgian multi-voiced singing is inscribed on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list. Among the best performers of this ancient vocal tradition are the State Academic Ensemble of Folk Song and Dance ‘Rustavi’ and the Anchiskhati Choir.
Numerous musicians perform on the vibrant folk scene in the country. We chose the charming Trio Mandili because of their recent success in promoting Georgian music through their self-made YouTube videos. They became an internet hit when their first uploaded music video in which they perform the Georgian folk song “Apareka” gathered over five million views in a short time. Their subsequent videos followed its success and they became widely popular in Georgia as well as globally. They record themselves singing in rural environments and in nature, which gives the songs an authentic feeling and a ‘taste’ of the picturesque Georgian tradition and natural scenery.
9. Mari Boine (Norway)
Coming from the far north of the world, Mari Boine is one of the best-known representatives of the culture and tradition of the Sami people. Sami are indigenous Finno-Ugric people living in the northern parts of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula within the Murmansk Oblast of Russia. The Sámi have historically been known in English as Lapps or Laplanders, which they consider a derogatory term. Boine was born and raised in the far north of Norway. She grew amidst the strict Laestadian Christian movement whose members discriminated against the Sami people. Early in her life, she started to rebel against the prejudices of the Norwegian society and her music is shaped by the experience of belonging to a despised minority.
Boine sings in a traditional Saami style, using the ‘yoik’ voice. She recorded several albums that gained her international popularity. Boine became famous for her blend of traditional Sami music, with jazz and rock added to the yoiks of her native people. ‘Rootsworld’, interviewing Boine in 2002, described her as “an unofficial Sami cultural ambassador”.
10. Rabih Abou-Khalil (Lebanon)
The sound of humanity wouldn’t be complete without the hot, staccato flavor of Middle Eastern music. And what better artist to bring Arab music closer to the Western audiences than Rabih Abou-Khalil, once described as a world musician years before the phrase became a label. His mixture of Arab music, jazz, rock, and classical music became his trademark which brought him to international prominence. Alongside the Tunisian oud master Anouar Brahem, Khalil rose the role of his instrument as a vehicle of world fusion.
Rabih Abou-Khalil not only blended classical Arabic musical ideas with western improvisational music but also got musically involved with traditional musical genres from other parts of the world. He hosted Visions of Music, a 13-part documentary series in which he explored the merging of jazz with traditional music.
These ten awesome musicians constitute our list of what we think that best represents the sound of humanity. Of course, this is far from being a complete list – many musical traditions are worth exploring in depth. If you want to explore world musical heritage, then you should pay attention to styles like Caribbean salsa, Brazilian samba, Argentine tango, French musette, Spanish flamenco, Jewish klezmer, Australian didgeridoo music, Japanese Taiko drum music, the Gamelan music of Indonesia, and many more. The world is a beauty, both for the eyes and the ears!