Skip to content

Spin Record Guide: Essential World Music

By: Jon DolanBack in the 1980s, hippies made “worldbeat”–a catchallfor any music from outside America or England–a dirty word. Whichis a shame. From African funk to Asian punk, Cuban rumba toAlgerian disco, global pop is constantly mutating. In a small worldthat’s only getting smaller–and scarier–a little musicalmultilateralism goes a long way.

Various artists
The Indestructible Beat of Soweto
(Shanachie, 1987)

Like reggae or classic hip-hop in spirit, apartheid-era South African mbaqanga was party-rockin’ as political resistance. Its dust-bowl guitars, street beats, gravelly groaning, and ecstatically soulful voices pull revelation from oppression. The mood is buoyant yet bluesy, citified yet down-home, and diamond-mine deep.

Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical
(Luaka Bop/ Warner Bros., 1989)

This David Byrne-compiled set exposed Brazil’s rich avant-pop tradition. Veterans of the politicized (and criminalized) ’60s art-rock movement tropicália-song poet Caetano Veloso, soulman Gilberto Gil, Afro-groove aesthete Jorge Ben, golden-voiced diva Gal Costa-represent with songs so mimosa smoove that it’s hard to believe their creators once helped fire up a youth revolt.

Shoukichi Kina and Champloose
The Music Power from Okinawa
(1977; Globestyle/Shinko, 1991)

Playing a three-stringed banjo made of python skin and fronting a band named for a local stir-fry, Kina was a youth-culture ambassador for his tiny archipelago during its uneasy unification with Japan. How his crew ended up sounding like a girl-group-Stooges-gone-Buddhist is inexplicable, but this debut is one of the giddiest, greatest punk records ever.

Vijaya Anand
Asia Classics 1: The South Indian Film Music of Vijaya Anand: Dance Raja Dance
(Luaka Bop/Warner Bros., 1992)

These Indian film-music classics from mad scientist Vijaya Anand jump-cut from Atari funk to Van Halen guitar-mauling to Punjabi drum circles-all before your popcorn gets cold. It’s the sonic equivalent of a love scene in a burning helicopter flying sideways through a waterfall.

Legend precedes the Nigerian originator of Afrobeat-his two dozen wives, the military attacks on his compound, the Louisville Slugger-size spliffs he smoked onstage. Oh yeah, and he reinvented funk. Kuti shook some loose booty out of James Brown’s hot pants, giving the Godfather of Soul a Yoruban flow and Black Nationalist rhetoric a Mother Africa homecoming.

Orlando “Cachaito” Lopez
(Nonesuch, 2001)

Ry Cooder’s foreign-exchange program-the Buena Vista Social Club-fomented a Cuban-culture boom like nothing since Hyman Roth was pricing condos in Havana. This left-field gem, from a 70-year-old bassist, revives Batista-era ballroom jive and takes three generations of Afro-Cuban elegance for a hip-hop slide down those old parquet floors. Also Try: Cuba I Am Time, an indispensable four-CD retrospective of Cuban music.

Manu Chao
Proxima Estación: Esperanza
(Virgin, 2001)

An anarchist electro-busker packing a six-string and a lifetime Youth Hostel card, this quadrilingual slacker represents like Bob Marley for the anti-WTO posse. On his second album, he channel-surfs from folk to techno to punk to ska. Searching for hope in yesterday’s charred dreams, he sings his “merry blues” so maybe one day his kids won’t have to.

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
The Rough Guide
(World Music Network, 2002)

The late, great Khan was the massively popular-and just plain massive- Pakistani king of qawwali (Islamic devotional trance singing). Eddie Vedder dueted with him, Jeff Buckley worshiped him, and this compilation’s short (i.e., ten-minute) performances and rare crossover attempts will bridge any cultural divide.

The Rough Guide to Paris Café Music
(World Music Network, 2002)

A visit to the 1930s Rue de Lappe without the risk of catching the clap from a rundown Russian countess. This bal musette-smoky accordion swing that can sound like Italian ballads or Cajun boogies-glows with an old-timey charm that could turn even a hardened unilateralist into a baguette-scarfing, Pernod-sipping Francophile.

Tea in Marrakech
(Stern’s/Earthworks, 2001)

Pop from North Africa that dances along an impossible divide-the (literally) death-defying gulf separating pop-hating fundamentalist Islam and the pop-loving wider world. Male and female (!) singers from Spain and France, Cairo and Algeria, slink Arab melodies through gloriously cheesy, Euro-Arabic synth grooves, getting sloshed and sloppy on Allah’s own dance floor.