Traditional Music From Pakistan
Asif Bhatti and Ensemble
We say: Boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy becomes . . . miserable?
Music from the Pakistani Punjab region is strongly influenced by Sufism and Islam, so there is powerful poetic and metaphorical quality to the lyrics. However this album is more than a mere collection of local songs by a Punjab-born singer, because the much acclaimed Bhatti has woven them into a song-cycle which tells of discreet and unrequited love between a village boy and a beautiful girl.
The songs move from joy to sorrow, through a dream sequence and on to some lively flirtation. So far, so familiar -- but there is a dark twist: boy gets the girl, they marry, and the girl turns out not to be the woman he imagined. So it all ends badly and he is doomed to a life of unhappiness: "My life has become like a dry leaf in the river, which neither drowns nor reaches the bank".
With mesmerising music from the ensemble of tabla, sarangi, sitar, flute and harmonium, this sad story is played out with the singer's emotions right there on the surface. With the plot outline helpfully offered in the informative booklet, this album -- a Pakistani folk-pop opera perhaps? -- really draws you in.
I imagine the girl has her own version of their life together however.
Seckou Keita Quartet
We say: Try as you might, you can't ignore a kora.
There are some instruments which are so mesmerising they entice you to listen closely. The tingling and melodic sound of the kora -- the lute-like West African string instrument -- is right up front on this warm, charming album which sooths and seduces in 10 glowing tracks which sometimes also feature the rich but laid-back vocals of kora master Keita from Senegal, who these days makes his home in Britain.
Also in this group are an Egyptian violinist, an Italian double bassist and a Gambian percussion player. World music doesn't come much more global in its reach than that. When violinist Samy Bishai or guest player Juldeh Camara (on single-string fiddle, the riti) come in there can be a melancholy tone which has a counterpart in Keita's vocals, but mostly this is hypnotic and open-hearted music which consolidates Keita's reputation after his excellent Mali album of three years ago.
Hit repeat play and settle in for journey around the soul.
We say: Palestinian songs which will tear your heart apart, beautifully.
Subtitled "Palestinian Songs from the Motherland and the Diaspora", this sometimes astonishing album is breathtaking in its scope -- from a lullaby to a moving song of mourning, to tracks with jazzy saxophone or mournful piano, and lengthy explorations of melody and emotions. And singer Kelani possesses a keening, hypnotic voice as she weaves around the microtones.
There is pain here obviously (have a handkerchief on hand for Yafa sung over spare piano) but there is also a celebratory spirit (the uplifting title track which she learned from some women in a refugee camp in South Lebanon -- and where might they be today?)
The whole thing -- which feels far too brief at 75 moving minutes -- ends with an optimistic and chant-like glimpse of a peaceful future ("Thank God, my heart's patience is rewarded . . . Praise God that sorrow is no more").
This is an extraordinary album, full of poetic lyrics (in translation in the handsome booklet), heart-grabbing emotion and thrilling music. Almost avant-jazz in places too. And there aren't too many albums with a song entitled The Cameleer Tormented My Heart.
Frankly, my nominations for World Music album of the year start here.
The Rough Guide to the Music of Malaysia
WWe say: A musical feast of many exotic flavours. And fun too.
It would take someone more expert than me to tell you whether this is a fair or failed overview of Malay pop and roots music. All I know is that it's pretty enchanting, and all over the place. There is big band Bollywood stuff, beautifully exotic ballads, some Indo-pop and Arabic folk-rock, beguilingly romantic instrumentals -- and a 70s band called Fredo and the Flybaits who mixed Malay music with Western pop on cheap instruments.
This mash-up of styles figures when you consider the vast region of Malaysia contains about 25 million people who includes Malays, Chinese, Indonesians, Thais, Indians and so on. Each group has its own traditional and popular music (being mostly Muslim there are strong Middle Eastern influences).
The instrumentation on this wobbly, diverse and often beguiling album includes accordion, oud, violin (from the Portuguese colonisers), harmonium, gambus (like a sitar) and so on. Kind of anything goes, but this is also great pop music and has a summery, exotic feel to it.
Sandii -- late night lounge anyone? -- is my new favourite Malay singer, and in places Fredo and the Flybaits' Nasib Si Gadis sounds like it fell off the back of a Malay version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It's ridiculously catchy.
The album comes with excellent liner notes, and if you shove it in your PC or Mac you get an interview with the compiler, plus travel information from the relevant Rough Guide. Now that's the way to present world music.
Go on, you know you'll love it.
Graham Reid is an award-winning travel writer, music writer and journalist based in New Zealand. His book Postcards From Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year award, and his website www.elsewhere.co.nz features travel stories, photos, rock'n'roll reminiscences, and a weekly music review in which he posts tracks from albums which have gone past radio programmers and other reviewers.