Earth songs

From Kaushiki Chakrabarty to Björk, the Radio 3 awards span the globe
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The Independent Culture

At this month's world-music nominations for the Grammy awards, two of the six finalists are ethnomusicological CDs from the Smithsonian label. Last year, Radio 3 had one such, and for this year's awards there is again a solitary example of music from an uncontaminated indigenous tradition, in Kaushiki Chakrabarty. "Boundary crossing" is an almost universal aspiration now, and many of the supposedly regional contenders here are deep-dyed mongrels, so rather than stick to Radio 3's official categories, by continent and genre, I've sifted the contenders and come up with four alternative categories for the most deserving nominees: major voices, ensemble sounds, DJ virtuosity and unalloyed pleasure.

At this month's world-music nominations for the Grammy awards, two of the six finalists are ethnomusicological CDs from the Smithsonian label. Last year, Radio 3 had one such, and for this year's awards there is again a solitary example of music from an uncontaminated indigenous tradition, in Kaushiki Chakrabarty. "Boundary crossing" is an almost universal aspiration now, and many of the supposedly regional contenders here are deep-dyed mongrels, so rather than stick to Radio 3's official categories, by continent and genre, I've sifted the contenders and come up with four alternative categories for the most deserving nominees: major voices, ensemble sounds, DJ virtuosity and unalloyed pleasure.

Major voices: both Youssou N'Dour and Khaled have to be in there, and both are now reverting to their roots. N'Dour's voice has never been in better shape, and his return to acoustic music yields fine dividends with the aid of souk sounds and massed Arab strings. Khaled's "rebel" music is now irredeemably cosy, but at least the voice is still his own. The South African Thandiswa Mazwai's earthy timbre, with township vocal backing, and her meld of traditional Xhosa rhythms with reggae and gospel offers lovely music to sway along with. Björk gives a light electronic dusting to her Icelandic choir's a-cappella performances, which can weave unusual spells.

There are also minor voices blessed with Rolls-Royce studio backing: Rokia Traore, Souad Massi, Bebel Gilberto and Lhasa. Whatever pleasures their recordings may yield, none has a voice that can stand alone, shorn of studio embellishments, which is the acid test.

The "ensemble sound" category is led by the Chehade Brothers; their highly enjoyable album is like Palestine crossed with Thessaloniki. Meanwhile, Ba Cissoko offers high-octane kora-playing and cleverly preserves the traditional charm of that instrument, despite up-to-the-minute presentation. Bajofondo Tango Club's contemporary take on the tango makes The Gotan Project seem meretricious, while Gotan offer a very cool jazzification of their bedrock style. The once outrageous Ojos de Brujo are now so well established that their "city" flamenco sounds almost sedate - and none the worse for that. In the world of DJing, Gilles Peterson and Clotaire K are masters.

For unalloyed pleasure, there's Bebo (an 84-year-old Cuban pianist) and Diego "El Cigala" (a 36-year-old flamenco singer) with their wonderful Lagrimas Negras. The music of the Ukrainian-Argentinian Chango Spasiuk comes straight out of the parched red earth of Argentina's northern deserts. The expressive and versatile voice of Yasmin Levy singing Ladino songs lingers in the mind, as does the unique voice of the half-Scottish, half-Mexican-Indian Lila Downs. Ivo Papasov's virtuoso clarinet-playing could have been recorded anywhere in the Balkans, any time in the past 100 years. Meanwhile, the khayal singer Kaushiki Chakrabarty is a revelation. She may be only 24, but she's a supremely accomplished exponent of this ornamented Hindustani style.

The winners of this year's Radio 3 awards will be announced on 'World Routes', 3-4pm, Saturday

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