Radio 3: Sounds of the planet

The Kronos Quartet play Bollywood? It's one highlight of a rich crop of Radio 3 award candidates, says Michael Church
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The Independent Culture

Well, blow me down: after setting our teeth on edge for their first four years, with CD after CD of global pop, Radio 3's World Music Awards have at last found their game. This time, almost every nominated record offers something arresting, or beautiful, or both.

Nowhere more so than in Africa, whence the Malian griot Salif Keita sends us M'Bemba, in which his slightly tremulous voice sails over soft-voiced backing singers, while his ensemble provides superb acoustic support. He's been castigated for staying in the comfort zone with this CD, whose melodies gracefully revolve in that quintessentially Malian manner - but frankly, where better to stay?

From Thione Seck comes Orientation: another griot, this time from Senegal, but hitherto under the shadow of Youssou N'Dour. Seck brings out an amalgam of Central African percussion, Egyptian strings and Bollywood melodies, which in his plangent timbre have great charm.

The blues guitar of Ali Farka Toure and the kora lute of Toumani Diabate combine in In the Heart of the Moon, an extraordinary confluence melding ancient Malian songs in improvisations. While the guitar lays down a bed of harmony, the kora spins its magic on top to create a gilded world.

The blind duo Amadou and Mariam celebrate their international success with Dimanche a Bamako, in which Mali's indigenous instruments are souped up with street sounds, reggae and funk. And, in the appropriately titled Ceasefire, that child soldier turned gospel rapper Emmanuel Jal teams up with an oudh player from the opposing side in Sudan's seemingly endless civil war to create an album whose sincerity doesn't upstage its convivial appeal.

And the year has seen the definitive emergence of Lura, whose voice has feline allure, and whose stage presence is electrifying. Her new album Di Korpu ku Alma (Of Body and Soul) showcases an expat Cape Verdean religiously digging back to her roots and bringing out women's songs hidden until now.

But Lura is in effect a Lisboan - as is the Mozambique-born Mariza, my bet to win the Europe category. On Transparente, her singing is as plangently perfect as ever. I don't think Enzo Avitabile will win, and nor should he; he entitles his new CD Save the World, but it's only dance music, and unremarkable.

The Romanian gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia repeat their winning recipe, but Balkan brass melds more interestingly with duduks and saxes in the Armenian Navy Band, who are as exhilaratingly unhinged as their oxymoronic title (Armenia is landlocked) might suggest.

Ciocarlia also appear in the Club Global category, courtesy of DJ Shantel, but blended this time with hi-tech effects to create club music of an unusually stylish sort. The other "club" contestants include Mercan Dede, whose success depends heavily on his Sufi stage presence, but his melding of clarinet, zither and Turkish vocalism with electronica on Su is powerful.

DJ Cheb Sabbah's CD is a surprise: club music that doesn't blast your ears, but swings along over ney, oudh, frame-drum and intermittent ululations. Even Ry Cooder adds his two-pennyworth here, but he figures in his own right in the Americas category with Chavez Ravine, in which he dives into the history of his native LA to celebrate the Mexican-American music that was always lurking on the fringe of his childhood consciousness. Laced with the voices of the past, this CD bowls irresistibly along.

I think Cooder will triumph over the other Americas contenders: El Rock de Mi Pueblo, by the Colombian Carlos Vives, combining 21st-century club-cool with a healthy respect for his local roots; Omar Sosa's Ballads, offering ultra-cool jazz pianism; and the Brazilian street-kid-turned-songwriter Seu Jorge, whose mischievously insinuating voice creates an engagingly sparky album.

Two expatriate Algerians star in the Middle East and North Africa category. The singer-guitarist-songwriter Souad Massi's Honeysuckle allows her to achieve much with little: her languid delivery never rises much above a whimper, but inventive studio backing does wonders.

Rachid Taha's Tékitoi is, in its rough way, compelling. Its turbocharged rap is delivered in an angry rasp that alternates with wistfulness. And the ecstatic craziness of the translated Arabic lyrics speaks directly out of the immigrant experience in France.

Meanwhile, Ilham Al Madfai - "the voice of Iraq" - has had to seek refuge in Amman. His music is quintessentially Arab; his warm, expressive voice is perfectly suited to the melismatic emotionality of the style, and his band offers the ideal foundation. His songs are about love - hoped for, remembered, lost, lamented - or the seductive charm of old Baghdad. And I fell in love with the music of the Tunisian Dhafer Youssef; his voice, plus his oudh, a trumpet, drums and electronica, creates an intensely ruminative stillness.

No surprises in the Asia Pacific category. Susheela Raman's Music for Crocodiles will delight her fans: it's an expert studio confection, with some suggestive interactions between her husky, sexy voice and the veena, or the guitar.

Faiz Ali Faiz may be the Qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's anointed successor, but there's something too willed in his divine hysteria. Sain Zahoor, a Pakistani shrine singer, offers Sufi music all the more powerful for its slow burn. Yat-Kha are here, led by Albert Kuvezin, in their album Re-Covers, which melds traditional Tuvanese folk styles with Western rock.

All the Newcomer contenders have something: Dobet Gnahore from Côte d'Ivoire melds a plethora of influences with infectious exuberance; Daby Toure's seductive sound sweetly reflects his Mauretanian nomad roots; and the Kinshasa band Konono No 1 press mbira thumb-pianos into service for a trance music of the streets. The "culture-crossing" category contains one really original stunt; Yasmin Levy, who skilfully blends Ladino and flamenco influences with a dash of the Middle East.

But the most remarkable collaboration is Asha Bhosle and the Kronos Quartet. You wouldn't expect Bollywood melodies to fuse with a Western string quartet, but that happens as India's favourite singer, at 70, runs the gamut from nostalgia to raunchiness.

Winners are announced on 25 February on BBC Radio 3's 'World Routes'