Huong Thanh and Nguyen Le
We say: An exotic broth of European, Asian and beyond.
Last year's interesting Rough Guide to the Music of Vietnam might have been many people's first encounter with the famous singer Huong Thanh and her producer/guitarist Nguyen Le, but the France–based duo have worked together on numerous albums, although this is the first to be co–credited.
Fragile Beauty –– which draws on Western instruments as well as those from Africa, Japan and of course Vietnam –– is aptly named: Thanh possesses a hypnotic voice which curls around the gentle bird–like sound of Le's fretless guitar; they float over evocative soundbeds from electronic keyboards, and there are discreet touches of traditional instruments from balafon, Vietnamese zither, koto and bamboo flutes. The result might be described as pop–jazz world music, and it is also beautifully produced (Should world music always have to sound like field recordings?) which only adds to the allure.
Fragile Beauty will not be the most authentically Vietnamese album you ever hear but it is something more than vacuous fusion. In fact it is quite special.
Sahel–Rythmes Du Desert
We say: Put scepticism aside and immerse yourself in the blues, Sahara–style.
The current world music excitement over "desert blues" from the sub–Sahara––artists like Tinariwen, Malouma, Vieux Farka Toure and Etran Finatawa––might make cynics look sideways at this collection which appears to be a quick cash–in.
But the Marabi label behind this is also the one which brought those people to attention so they are allowed a few bragging rights, and this sequel to their earlier and equally fine Marabi Africa collection is an excellent overview of the music from the region. It includes material by all of those mentioned plus more than half a dozen names which will doubtless become familiar over time. Let this be your gateway into albums by the extraordinary Malouma and Tinariwen, and if Etran Finatawa's Ildeman doesn't grab you then you might need to check your pulse to see if you are still alive.
The sound of Sahara blues is compelling, let this collection be your guide into it if you aren't already in there.
The Best of Korean Gayageum Music
We say: The master of the resonant Korean instrument presents some of his finest tunes.
In the early 50s when Hwang started learning gayageum (a stringed instrument like a zither) his country had just come through the cultural deprivations of the Japanese colonial period, then in rapid succession the devastation of the Second World War and the Korean War. There were few musicians left who knew and could pass on the traditional court music of the gayageum (it was rarely written down, nor was gayageum folk music) and so Hwang had his work cut out.
Through diligence, patience and years of study he recovered an impressive body of work and then, unlike his predecessors, he began to compose (controversially) in the traditional style. Today the resonant and restful sound of the gayageum is heard everywhere (10,000 are sold annually) and Hwang, now an esteemed professor, can reflect of a lifetime in which he almost single–handedly rescued his country's music from being lost forever. This excellent collection includes many of his own compositions and is the ideal introduction to music which has an almost meditative quality but which also evokes the elements and seasons. When the master is at work, it is rewarding to pay attention.
We say: A risk–taking singer whose heart is in the right place.
This Paris–born singer–songwriter of Nigerian descent (who has opened for Snoop Dogg and broke through in Britain on the strength of one television appearance) channels equal parts Bob Marley, Joan Armatrading, Tracey Chapman and Minnie Riperton –– and yet comes out with something all her own.
Mostly sung English (some Yoruban), her subjects are universal injustice tempered with glimpses into the personal, and although the strings swell the arrangements in a couple of places which tip it towards the overly sweet, her soulful voice ––confident, enticing, full of emotion –– is the constant you keep coming back to. That she also has her political sentiments sometimes hitched to a gentle reggae bounce or soulful shuffle only adds to their appeal. Asa (pronounced Asha) is still young but obviously well on her way.
Graham Reid is an award–winning New Zealand travel writer, music writer and journalist. His book Postcards From Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year award, and his website Music from Elsewhere features travel stories, photos, rock'n'roll reminiscences, and a weekly music review in which he posts tracks from albums which have often gone past radio programmers and other reviewers.