It's a shame that the Somali rapper K'naan did the right thing and stayed at home in Canada for the birth of his second child. What a difference he would have made to an evening that didn't really ignite until the last act. The winner of the best newcomer award, with his powerhouse of a little band and his own force-of-nature presence, would have given proceedings a much needed contemporary edge.
That's not to say there wasn't plenty of exquisite playing on show. India's Debashish Bhattacharya summoned dreamy ragas from three home-made guitars. The most impressive was a 22-string monster, the smallest no bigger than a violin. But he made each sing like a chamber orchestra, teasing out cascades of notes that hung in the air like musical question marks.
Then there was the Middle East and North African winner, Ghada Shbeir, with her rich, warm voice that effortlessly ascended and descended melancholic yet passionate Arabic and Andalusian melodies.
Wonderful as these acts were, they were never going to lift an event that was already suffering from a move from the hip, unseated Brixton Academy, where it was held last year, to the more formal, seated Barbican.
We almost reached the 21st century with Gotan Project, who this year won the club global category and must now be the most famous world music band on the planet. But they sound tired. Those plodding programmed club beats don't help, dragging everything down, despite a ballsy female string section.
The 79-year-old Jewish-Algerian pianist Maurice el Medioni could certainly swing, and his gorgeous, rolling style was echoed by his percussionist. But still the audience remained physically unmoved. A short video of a live performance was all we got of the winner of best album of the year, the late great Ali Farka Touré. The night was saved by another great African.
Ethiopia's Mahmoud Ahmed has been doing what he does for decades, but the world music industry has only just found out about it. Ahmed accepted his award and kicked the party into gear. The bass circled, the saxes riffed, and Ahmed's vibrato-heavy voice settled somewhere between crooning and pleading. His sultry funk, still sounding fresh and relevant, unwound, and the audience got to their feet to demand two encores.