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The best world music recordings released in 2021 so far

A list of the greatest albums of world music released in 2021, as chosen by BBC Music Magazine critic Michael Church and Jon Lusk

The best world music recordings of 2021


Ritual Traditions of the Bonpos
Ocora C 583016   63:27 mins


Even before the pandemic, the flow of ethnographic recordings had declined to a trickle, and it’s now almost drying up. That is why this page focuses on the products of just two labels, and why some of the contents were recorded 40 years ago: Ocora is having to ransack its archives, as field recordings have become a public-health no-no. Moreover, present-day China wouldn’t have allowed the recordings in Tibet to have been made: the Bonpos were a Tibetan minority sect who have now dispersed to the West, where they are attracting devoted adherents.

Bon is a religion which predates Buddhism, and its rituals included exorcism and divination, but as in Buddhism its adherents believe that meditation and rituals are the path to enlightenment. The rituals here are based in chants whose repetitive simplicity makes a perfect background for meditation. You will go – as I did – into a trance, out of which the final track will wake you with its exultant cymbals, pipes slowly ascending in unison, a grainy bass horn, and the regular thud of a drum, all combining to create a wonderful feeling of release.


Armenia: The Art of the Duduk

Ocora C 560287

This album reflects a venerable instrumental tradition in its purest form. This apricot-wood oboe has ten finger holes and the span of a mere octave plus a third, and its unique double-reed mouthpiece requires much skill to master. Performers come in twos, one providing the melodic line and the other a drone, but the palette of colour is remarkable: it can be hard as iron or caressingly sweet, with a gamut of emotion in between.

Haig Sarikouyoumdjian is the soloist here, and gives us a taste of traditional Armenian improvisation as well as examples of regional styles. His sound seems infinitely malleable, and his improvisations roam thrillingly.


Cape Verde: An Archipelago of Music

Ocora C 561146/47

This album is the result of a recording trip through all the inhabited islands of Cape Verde in 1998, impelled by the desire to preserve sounds which even then were on their way to extinction. The incomparable Cesária Évora is not present – presumably because in 1998 she was at the height of her fame, and would have cost too much – but the talent and variety is nonetheless dazzling.

As the microphones hop from island to rocky island, the meld of Portuguese and African influences comes over with sunburnt infectiousness. Some tracks have a let-it-all-hang-out village charm, others testify to the refined sophistication of the solo singers, with the lazy, regretful sweetness of the morna style being all-pervasive. 


Iran: Talai, Musavi, Kiani – The masters of music

Dariush Talai, Mohammad Musavi, Jamshid Mohebbi, Majid Kiani
Ocora C 561024

Ocora have re-released their excellent Persian classical CD Iran: Talai, Musavi, Kiani – The masters of music. As the celebrated musicologist Jean During points out in his liner-note, some of the earliest song collectors were the 19th-century master-musicians of what is now called Iran. Realising that their ancient oral tradition was evaporating, they collected modes and melodies from all corners of the country, and wove them together in a seamless web which they called the radif.

With Dariush Talai on the tar and setar lutes, Mohammad Musavi and Jamshid Mohebbi on percussion and Majid Kiani on the santur zither, During called together a top-notch ensemble who on this CD traverse the radif, exploring its many forms. This is austere music, but its distilled passion makes it gripping. 


Fra-Fra Funeral Songs

Glitterbeat GBCD 089

Glitterbeat is continuing to put out arresting stuff, with its intrepid globe-trotting recordist Ian Brennan. Hidden Musics is the title of a series of field-recording albums with which Brennan is illuminating some little-known musical by-ways, two of which I have already praised in these columns.

Fra-Fra Funeral Songs come from northern Ghana and are led by Small, a man who trades on his diminutive size rather than apologising for it, and whose riffs seem to go on for ever. He is supported by other players on tiny bone flutes which they call ‘horns’, because that is what they are made of. There is nothing funereal here in the Western sense of the word: this strikingly unadorned music is irrepressibly cheerful.

Pakistan is for the Peaceful

Ustad Saami
Glitterbeat GBCD097

Last year I hailed the Pakistani singer Ustad Saami’s CD God is not a terrorist. Here he comes again, thanks to Ian Brennan, with a new album entitled Pakistan is for the Peaceful, and the message is the same. Accompanied by his four sons, he offers three extended improvisations in which his microtonal world expands with luxurious grace.