“World Music.” Just say those two words and you’ll make some people go all glassy-eyed.
It’s not that these folks are against obscure foreign-made music. There’s just something off-putting about the category. For some people, it may call to mind deathly dull New Age meditation stuff. For others, it could suggest something like homework or brussels sprouts (i.e. stuff you’re obligated to appreciate). And admittedly, it can be a little hard to get into music you don’t know the words to (though this never seems to bother hardcore or death metal fanatics).
Anyway, the point is that there’s plenty of amazing music from around the world. It can just be a little hard sometimes to know where to start. If you haven’t listened to much international music, here’s some stuff to check out.
Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis (Brazil, 1968)
Some truly far-out music came out of Brazil in the late 60's. A few avant-garde, anti-authoritarian artists joined forces to form the Tropicália movement, which blended traditional Brazilian art and music with American and British influences, especially psychedelic rock.
This 1968 album served as Tropicália’s musical manifesto. It features many of the movement’s key players, including Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Tom Zé (who became the first artist signed to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop label) and the rock band Os Mutantes (whom Kurt Cobain unsuccessfully tried to reunite in 1993).
The Big Gundown Soundtrack by Ennio Morricone (Italy, 1968)
Even if you’ve never seen a Sergio Leone movie (you poor, culturally deprived individual), you probably know some of the music that Ennio Morricone wrote for them. If there was a Mount Rushmore for film composers, he’d be up there with John Williams and Bernard Herrmann.
Morricone’s scores for Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly are classics. However, he did equally fine work on the soundtrack for the 1966 film The Big Gundown, which some consider the best non-Leone spaghetti western.
For many years, the movie’s soundtrack was hard to find on vinyl. It came out in the US in 1968 and 1974 but was then out of print for about 40 years. Happily, Mondo released The Big Gundown soundtrack as a double LP in 2015.
Satori by Flower Travellin’ Band (Japan, 1971)
The Flower Travellin’ Band never hit it really big, but they earned a lot of praise for mixing Black Sabbath-esque metal with Japanese music. Their 1971 album Satori is now considered one of the best Japanese rock albums of all time. Its wailed vocals, eerie melodies, and droning riffs still sound menacing today.
Wenu Wenu by Omar Souleyman (Syria/US, 2013)
Syrian-born Omar Souleyman got his start performing at weddings. Judging from the hard-driving beats and hyper hooks on this 2013 album, Syrian couples really know how to get it on. Not recommended for anyone with a heart condition.
Zombie by Fela Kuti (Nigeria, 1977)
Fela Kuti mixed funk, jazz, and African music to create the style of music known as Afrobeat. His politically charged lyrics made him a target of the Nigerian government. After this album came out in 1977, soldiers stormed Kuti’s compound, threw his mother out of a window and almost killed him.
Kuti survived and kept making music until his death in 1997. Today, Zombie stands tall as possibly the hardest hitting work of his career.
Get Out and Explore the World
There’s literally a whole world of great music out there. These five albums are just a starting point. If you like them, proceed further and go globetrotting on your record player!
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