The beginner's guide to world music

This weekend's sell-out Womad and Cambridge Folk festivals will celebrate the incredible variety and energy of roots music from the four corners of the globe. Yet despite its growing popularity, the genre known as 'world music' - everything from Balkan choirs to Brazilian jazz - can seem impossible for novices to navigate. So if you're bored by Western pop and looking for something new, Charlie Gillett introduces the essential sounds to get you started
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When people think of the Americas in a world-music context, they tend to think of the rhythms of Cuba or the Dominican Republic. Perhaps they think of Brazilian music, or tango. But down the west coast of Central America is a spine of countries, such as Ecuador, with equally interesting traditions, and music that to which we've not really been exposed. So, it's an imbalanced picture in the Americas. And the most musically established country in the region, Jamaica, doesn't really "do" world music anymore. It got out of the box - it became bigger than world music.


'40 Temas Originales' by Carlos Gardel (RCA)

Both the range and quality of songs on this album is amazing. Argentina is the source of tango. This music is still played all the way through Europe, and it started pretty much at the same time as jazz, which was born in New Orleans. In the same way that jazz started out in the whorehouse, so tango began in the underbelly of Buenos Aires. Because of its associations, polite society used to disdain this music. But the main man, in terms of tango, is Gardel. Tango was originally instrumental music, but he was the first to introduce songs into it, in the 1920s and 1930s. Fact: at one point Gardel was married to Edith Piaf.

'Beleza Tropical', compiled by David Byrne in 1987 (Luaka Bop)

A definitive and wonderful compilation. There is a generation of Brazilian singers who are parallel in age and status to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. One of them is Gilberto Gil, another is Jorge Ben, and the third is Caetano Veloso. They're all on this album. They were aware of The Beatles and what was happening in Europe, so their music is a take on the rhythms of Brazil in a song that is structured in an American/British way. They are still as popular as they were in their youth, and much more interesting than Paul McCartney. I've tended to find Brazilian music quite bland - like the stuff you hear in the foyers of hotels - but this is one record that got through that resistance of mine.

'The Buena Vista Social Club' (Nonesuch)

Cuba is very influential because Cuban rhythms spread around the world - Africa, the whole of Latin America, and even India. This album cemented Cuban music's global appeal, selling eight million. A beautiful record, like a friend, that sounds good whenever you hear it.

'The Mighty Sparrow and Lord Kitchener' (Ice)

In the Fifties and Sixties, the Caribbean music that was everywhere was calypso. Reggae eclipsed it a little, but back then, calypso was as popular as reggae is now. This album is 16 carnival hits, and sums up that period superbly.

'Grandes Exitos by Juan Luis Guerra' (EMI Int'l)

This guy from the Dominican Republic has been everywhere, and is incredibly popular in Europe. He plays the merengue style of his country, and had one huge hit with "Ojala que llueva Café".


Lhasa, who has an album out called The Living Road (Nettwerk), lives in Montreal, but one of her parents is Mexican and the other is American, and they were storytellers on the road with a circus. Lhasa grew up travelling around America, and has a huge range of influences. The album is roughly divided between French, Spanish and English. You can't put this record in a box, but it's certainly interesting.

A guy called K'naan is appearing on my show this Sunday. He was a boy soldier in Somalia, managed to get out and move to Harlem. After a year he moved to Toronto. His album is called The Dusty Foot Philosopher (BMG). I think he is one of the great people of our time. He tells the story of his early life in a non-judgmental, poetic style. He uses proverbs in very interesting ways, as do many African artists, and has retained his Somali eloquence and intelligence, even when he sings in English.


You can't talk about African music without leaving somebody out, and in my case, it's Fela Kuti, who, in many people's eyes, is a huge star. None the less, Africa's is the music I feel most comfortable with. It was the music that rescued me from Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. I thought, when I listened to those bands, that it was the end for me and pop music, but then Island Records put out a record by King Sunny Adé from Nigeria, and everything changed. I started all over again, and looked into all these African artists. I'm of a generation who discovered this music at that same time - around 1982, or 1983. We'd go to a gig in London and see all these Senegalese people there in their finery, looking fantastic, dancing in a way we could never hope to.


'The History of Township Music' (Wrasse)

For various reasons, South Africa has long had a more organised record industry than most of Africa. From the early Sixties, black music, heavily influenced by American jazz, has been heard on the radio there, and that is the only interesting music from South Africa. White South African music is inexplicably terrible. This album features Miriam Makeba, who went to live in America in the Sixties. She's famous throughout Africa - in Guinea and Kenya particularly. And someone slightly older was Dorothy Masuka. They're both on this album, along with a more contemporary outfit, The Soul Brothers, who sound like the South African Sam and Dave. A useful compilation.

'Golden Afrique, Volume II' (World Network)

Congolese music from the Fifties and Sixties spread through Africa - it was incredibly influential. This album features a band leader called Franco, who was a physical giant and a man who dominated Congolese music in the Seventies and Eighties. He was a band leader in the American big-band sense, and his band was called OK Jazz. It wouldn't necessarily sound like jazz to you and me, but to a Congolese person, it does. His big rival was Tabu Ley, and there are beautiful tracks by both of these guys on this album.

'Golden Afrique, Volume I' (World Network)

This is the music of francophone West Africa, and this album surfaced in the Seventies, including tracks by The Rail Band (with the young Salif Keita), and Etoile de Dakar (with the young Youssou N' Dour).

'Immigrés', by Youssou N'Dour (Celluloid)

This came out in 1983 and is one of my Top 10 records of all time. It has never lost its power to amaze me. When I first heard it, I couldn't figure it out - where the beat was, how it all fitted together. But then I saw him live and it was a revelation, it all started to make sense. It had aspects of reggae, funk and Senegalese rhythms. He invented a type of music called "M'balax" - a modern Senegalese style with horns, electric guitar, and percussion laid on top.

'Moffou', by Salif Keita (Decca)

Keita's an unusual figure in African music. He's an albino, for a start, and is descended from Malian nobility. He spent most of the Eighties and Nineties mucking about with synthesisers, trying to make a Phil Collins record, much to the despair of most of us. But Moffou is different. It's all acoustic, there's more air and space in it, and his voice sounds all the better for that.


Amadou and Mariam: a blind couple from Mali who met each other through studying music. They released an album last year, produced by Manu Chao, called Dimanche à Bamako, which sounds very much like Chao's Clandestino. It has already sold 500,000 copies, and with good reason. You can't help but feel good when you listen to it.

Konono No1: these guys, from the bushland of the Angola/Congo border play a version of their traditional Bazombo trance music, and are selling records like nobody's business. They're a street band with electric instruments badly amplified, which is why so many people love their Congotronics record.


In Europe, there's obviously a huge number of different influences, and I'm most interested in European "world music" when I discover groups that are finding and exploring connections between genres that hadn't met each other before, or hadn't been recorded in that way.


'Rumba Argelina', by Radio Tarifa (Nonesuch)

This Spanish band put out an album that imagined a music that was a meeting-point between flamenco and the music of North Africa. Tarifa is the southernmost point in Spain - so what would a radio station sound like in Tarifa? Well, a bit like Rumba Argelina. This record was made in 1992. It's a little bit like The Band's first album, Music from Big Pink, which created a mystical notion of the American South.

'Clandestino', by Manu Chao (Ark 21)

Lots of great records come out of France - it's an incredibly interesting place, musically. But this record is Manu Chao taking a trip around Latin America, a diary of his travels, with him strumming his guitar. It's pretty minimal, instrumentally, and has sold three million copies in Europe without him doing any live work. Word-of-mouth on a huge scale, still sounds good.

'Musique des Tziganes de Roumanie', by Taraf de Haïdouks (Cramworld)

This record shook us all. These Gypsy guys from the Balkans are a group with a fiddle, a cimbalom, and lots of other stuff - they play at an unbelievable speed, and change gear at the same time. Exhilarating.

'Napoli Mediterranea', by Pietra Montecorvino (L'Empreinte Digitale)

She took the famous songs of Naples such as "O Sole Mio", and interpreted them with a North African influence in the instrumentation, and a voice that sounds like she smokes 60 cigarettes before breakfast.

'The Art of Amalia', Amalia Rodrigues (Blue Note)

She's wonderful, and makes me very happy. And Portuguese fado is incredible anyhow.


I love Camille, a French singer with a new album out called Le Fil (Virgin), which means "the thread". The comparison that everyone is inclined to draw with Camille is that she is France's answer to Björk, but she's much better than that. She's very experimental, and this is a patchwork of her own vocals. Along with K'naan, this is the most interesting record of the year. It's sold 400,000 records in France alone, which is extraordinary.

Fanfare Ciocarlia, from Romania, are a Gypsy brass band who have something like five tubas, which is an incredible thing to see. Their recent album, Gili Garabdi (Asphalt Tango), is as good a place to start with them.


The most extraordinary thing with some sections of Asia is that you are dealing with musicians who are adored by hundreds of millions of fans, not undiscovered artists, hungry to find an audience. There are huge numbers of pop singers in Asia. They often have similar production values to artists in the West, and can be quite gimmicky. (I tend to steer clear of anything with a drum machine.)

I've yet to get to grips with China's music. It just doesn't sound very appealing to my ears, and I can't see how it will any time soon. Perhaps, if someone were to encounter a Chinese artist and lay their vocals over backing tracks with which I was more familiar, I could crack it.


'Musst Musst', by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Real World)

The sole purpose of life for a certain generation of world-music fans was to see this man sing live. He was an extraordinary talent from Pakistan, whose songs were sometimes up to 18 minutes long. The last track on this album is a remix of "Musst Musst" by Massive Attack, with heavy bass, and it's my favourite track by them, too. Nusrat's singing touches you like no one else. Its not a solo thing, its how he relates to other singers in his group, a little like gospel or Ray Charles. It reaches parts other singers don't reach

'Lata Mangeshkar: The Legend' (World Music Network)

She's dead now, but from the late Forties until the Eighties, she often sang on the Bollywood soundtracks, no matter who the actress was. So all these different actresses sounded like Lata. This album came out a week or so ago, and has all these tracks from her work in the Forties. It's amazing how she controlled a huge orchestra. She sounded the same all her life, beseeching and beguiling like a teenager, even in her sixties.

'The Very Best of the Far East' (Nascente)

I've never got on with Chinese music, but there are some other great things on this double CD. It includes a woman from Indonesia called Detty Kurnia, who sounds, to my Western ears, very agreeable. Also included are tracks by Takashi Hirayasu, from Okinawa in Japan, who plays something like a guitar with an American called Bob Brozman.

'The Gabby Pahinui Hawaiian Band' (Nonesuch)

He made this album back in the Seventies with Ry Cooder, and it's a brilliant way of getting into Hawaiian music. Beautiful.

'The Rough Guide to the Music of Thailand' (World music Network)

This is a surprisingly nice record with a Firiporn Aumpiapong track on it. She's a marvellous singer. It's music I knew nothing about until this album.


Hotel Bangkok, a project by Blue Asia's producer Makoto Kubota, who went to Thailand to discover who the interesting traditional musicians were. He heard a woman in a bar called Lady Nan, whom I think could be one of the world's great singers. And I love the idea that this guy is fulfilling the romantic ideal of producers scouting for talent. This is a remarkable album.


In every sense, Africa north of the Sahara and the Middle East are at one, musically. The people of Egypt and Lebanon are listening to the singers from Morocco, and vice versa. The thing that I, and a lot of people, had a problem with, when we first came to world music, was the Arabic style of singing that one encounters. It is sung over quarter notes, and can sound out of tune to Western ears. I've since grappled with it, and now find it compelling. It fills the air with a sense of wonder. When you listen to religious singers in a place like Marrakesh, you realise where the melodies come from.


'Khaled, Khaled' (Cohiba)

This Algerian singer is the biggest music star from this area, and you have to listen to this album because of a song called "Didi" on it, which was a huge hit in Colombia, Brazil, India, and around the Med. The album was recorded by Don Was, an American producer who worked with The Rolling Stones. Khaled has one of those voices that fills whatever space it is in. It is only when you see him live that you realise he has one of the all-time great voices, like Nusrat.

'Fairuz: The Lady and the Legend' (Manteca)

The current great singer of the Middle East is a Lebanese woman called Fairuz. All young female singers in this region seem to be clones of her. This album is a mixed bag of live recordings and studio stuff, but it's the best account of what Fairuz is about - and she's such an important artist that you have to get to grips with her.

'Ilham al Madfai' (EMI Arabia)

He lived in London in the 1960s and played in places such as The Troubadour in Earls Court. The Beatles and The Stones would pop by and he became known as "the Iraqi Beatle" because he knew all their songs. He can still sing in English, any song you throw at him.

'Yemenite Songs', by Ofra Haza (Globestyle)

When the world-music thing first happened in 1987, when that label was first coined to include all these musicians, Ofra Haza had a hit on British radio. In France and Germany, she had a No 2 hit single. It was from this album, so called because she was a Yemenite Jew, as was her partner. She had been Israel's Eurovision entry, and this album was a complete detour from that. It was a disaster in her own country, but introduced her to the world.

'Tea in Marrakesh' (Earthworks)

A compilation from the North African region, including Sudan, that is worth listening to. It includes a wonderful singer called Setona from Sudan, and an Egyptian group called Salamat who are great, but the main reason for buying this album is that it includes the biggest hit from this region for the last 10 years: "Nor El Ain". This flamenco-influenced guitar track by Amr Diab is a favourite in any Middle Eastern restaurant in London.


Amira Saqati, a band who have released an album called Destination Halal (Barraka). Yousuf El Nejjad, a Moroccan singer, features in this hybrid of Moroccan, orchestral and dance music. It's extremely well done.

Hakim is a young Egyptian pop singer, sometimes called "the Lion of Egypt", heavily infused with Middle East influences, who's sold more than six million records. His Greatest Hits (PeKo) is premature, but worth a listen.

Charlie Gillett is a writer and broadcaster who has compiled five annual CDs of world music since 2001. The latest, World 2006, a double CD on Rhino, was released on Monday Gillett has hosted a long-running music show on Radio London, and has a weekly programme on the BBC World Service - Charlie Gillett's World of Music - which can also be heard on BBC Radio 4. His website is

Womad: the highlights by Robin Denselow

This year's Womad, the 17th in all, will have 80 bands on show, coming from 40 countries, and performing on seven stages. One of the more intriguing bookings is Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of Ravi Shankar. Anoushka, who played sitar when she played Womad nine years ago, will be playing classical improvised ragas, but is likely to add some experimentation of her own - her new album Rise starts with the sound of an electronic drone and piano.

Also taught by their famous father, Amaan Ali Khan and Ayaan Ali Khan have followed much the same route as Shankar. Amjad Ali Khan is a master of the sarod, and his sons promise to continue the dynasty.

Also worth checking out is extraordinary Indian guitar virtuoso Debashish Bhattacharya, who designed his own 24-stringed instrument so he could match Indian influences with a slide guitar technique. There's also the virtuoso flautist Guo Ye, who records and writes about music and cooking.

Also appearing will be Salif Keita, now surely Africa's best known singer, who uses his passionate soaring vocals to explore a whole variety of styles, from chanson to jazz.

Fans of Ali Farka Touré should check out Niger's Etran Finatawa. They feature loping, bluesy electric guitar riffs, drums and chanting vocals, with some interesting lyrics added in. My favourite, "Ildeman", is an inspired desert song about a famous sand dune.

The festival's star attraction was to have been the exiled Zimbabwean Thomas Mapfumo. Based in Oregon, he had planned to perform songs from his new album Rise Up, which call on people to stand up against Mugabe. It's ironic (and worrying) then that he has been unable to get a visa to come, apparently because "the British Embassy is not satisfied that he intends to leave the UK".

Last year the Congolese band Konono No 1 were told they couldn't come to Britain. Now, after playing at the World Music Awards, that problem has been overcome, and they'll be playing their traditional trance music this weekend.

The idea of African rap is nothing new, following the success of bands such as Senegal's Daara J, and this year's line-up includes Emmanuel Jal, who raps in English, Swahili and Arabic, and whose lyrics are concerned with such issues as child slavery and peace in Sudan. He sings from experience, having spent his early life as a child soldier, forced to fight in Sudan.

This year's line-up also includes the ever-barefoot Susana Baca, and Colombia's master timbale player Roberto Pla along with his brass-based band. Best of all, there's Mexico's Los De Abajo with their mixture of local influences with salsa and ska, from both Jamaica and the UK.