This outfit from the battered city of Kinshasa turned all the usual ideas of Congolese dance music upside down. No virtuoso guitar solos, slinky rhythms or slick harmony vocals, but a quite extraordinary, furious, complex musical onslaught. The music is based on the likembe, the traditional "thumb piano", distorted through a makeshift sound system, with furious drumming and vocals, echoes of dub and rap and bursts of improvisation. The album of the year. The disappointment of the year was the mysterious decision not to allow them visas to play here.
From elsewhere in Africa, the best new releases came from veterans, from the ever-intriguing Mali, where the blind husband-and-wife team of Amadou and Mariam at last got their break. They've sung together since the Seventies, but enjoyed only modest success with their R&B fusion albums until Manu Chao offered to produce, co-write and perform on Dimanche a Bamako (Because), which broke into the Top 20 pop charts in France and brought them a new audience. This was a great African cross-over pop record, and Amadou and Mariam's live shows proved they could do it without Chao's help.
A good year, too, for established Malians. Ali Farka Touré, the greatest exponent of African desert blues, took time off from his duties as Mayor of Niafunké to collaborate with Africa's finest kora player, Toumani Diabate. In the Heart of the Moon (World Circuit) was an instant classic, recorded in just three days, with Touré's stately, bluesy guitar lines matched with the effortless, rapid flurries from Diabate. The kora star also made an appearance on Salif Keita's M'Bemba (Universal Jazz) in which the great singer marked his return to Mali with a glorious set.
In the Latin scene, the year saw the death of the great Ibrahim Ferrer. New styles came from Mexico's Los de Abajo, with LDA v The Lunatics (Real World), in which salsa, reggae and Mexican styles mixed with ska. Even more quirky was Pink Martini's Hang On Little Tomato (Wrasse) in which retro-chic easy listening was matched with European balladry, ragtime and songs in six languages. And all this from an American band hailing from Portland, Oregon.
The Five Best
Konono No 1: Congotronics
Amadou and Mariam: Dimanche a Bamako
Touré/Diabate: In the Heart of the Moon
Los de Abajo: LDA v The Lunatics Pink Martini: Hang On Little Tomato