Despite the ease of making, buying, carrying, and sharing music, the insular listening experience of iPods and the fade to the background of radio can make it hard to stumble across new music. This distresses me sometimes. I found some of my most favorite tunes while abroad. Sometimes local, sometimes just a “Western” thing that hadn’t popped up on my radar back home. (I found Jamiroquai and Daft Punk on Mexican MTV in a hotel room while I was chaperoning a group of students on a 10-day trip. Pretty amazing, huh? Not the MTV part, but someone letting me be responsible for a group of high schoolers in Mexico. Insane.)
I love music and always have, spinning 45s and LPs when I was a child. Listening to the Beach Boys while still in the womb. (Ask my mother. She swears, and I had collected a dozen albums before I was 10. Coincidence?) So I’d like to share a little bit of the awesome here and where I was when it blew me away. These, I suppose, are just the greatest hits, the artists who delivered more than just a single song to the soundtrack of my journeys…
Sertab Erener – Turkey
Turkey was an adventurous year in music for me. I found I really enjoyed Turkish pop, with the Middle Eastern rhythms, the various divas’ voices, very catchy melodies. And a nightclub singer for a house band in Ankara sang medleys of the best songs. We became friends and I got the names of my favorites from her. That’s how I found out about Sertab. And from the first songs I heard, I went out and bought what I could. I was gobsmacked by this woman’s voice, and she was pretty easy on the eyes as well. All my students in Ankara teased me about her. “You will marry her, Teacher.” She is the most amazing voice in Turkey, and a contender for about anywhere else. Gives me chills. Her album Lal is fantastic. Sertab Gibi is another great one.
Manu Chao – Guatemala
Former front man for a 90s group Mano Negra, Manu Chao mixes a whole bunch of styles and languages instruments and even video game noises. The first album Clandestino runs together, song to song, sort of the way McCartney liked to do things by the time the Beatles did Abbey Road. And themes repeat in reprises or are weaved into other songs. That’s even true into the second album Proxima Estacion: Esperanza. Clandestino was played often at Bar Tecun in Xela, Guatemala. And when the second album came out, “Me Gustas Tu” was all the rage. Catchy, and everyone with Spanish at the “I like X” level could sing half the song. And DJs would set it on a short loop for a few moments at the favored line: “Me gusta Guatemala” (me gustas tu!)
Roy Paci & Aretuska – Italy…er, scusi, Sicilia!
Paci is a jazz trumpeter with an awesome booming and sometimes smoky voice joined by a Sicilian ska band with horns. Fuggetaboutit. Tutto bene. Tutt’aposto. So. Totally. Fun. Interestingly enough he has played with Manu Chao before. In 2003-2004 I was living in Reggio Calabria in the deep south with a view from both balconies of Paci’s Sicily across the water. My good friend Davide got me a copy of Tutt’aposto and I have been hooked ever since. Yettaboom!
Johnny Clegg / Juluka – South Africa (sort of)
I actually hadn’t gone anywhere yet in life. Not yet. An exchange student from South Africa brought it to my little hometown in Wisconsin and left it with the brother of my good friend. A year later someone pointed the LP out in a bargain bin in Madison, asked if I remembered it (I didn’t), and told me I soooo had to buy it for $2.99. So I did. And everyone who stuck their head into my dorm room that first week in college and asked me what the heck it was became a good friend for the next four years and a serious Juluka and Johnny Clegg fan. Paul Simon lists him in his acknowledgments on Graceland. I love Graceland, but it was what Wings is to the Beatles, IMHO. And Clegg lamented that the success of Graceland, borrowing from music they were doing 5-10 years past, made the record companies want them to make more of it, while Clegg and the scene were already way beyond that. I’ve seen him 4 times in concert, shook his hand, got an autograph, and kicked a hacky sack to Stand Your Ground for hours through college. Clegg, a white guy, and Sipho Mchunu, a Zulu were childhood friends and became a musical duo performing illegally together under Apartheid. As a band they were Juluka. Music of revolution, of hope, of love, of pride and dignity, and all of it as uplifting as it gets. Scatterlings of Africa, another excellent album.
Ruben Blades – Panama
Sure I knew who we was before I lived in Panama. “He’s that actor that always plays the wise, patient Mexican sheriff. Milagro Beanfield War. Often he dies in the movies. He was on X-Files once. He’s a great actor. Wait, I think he is also a musician too.” That’s about what I was thinking and it is the equivalent of saying: “Fidel Castro? Man, that guy can play baseball. He’s got one helluva fastball I hear… And, he what? No kidding? Cuba, you say? Huh.” Yeah, Ruben Blades (Blades like in English or BLAH-days – I’ve heard it both ways at his own concert) is essentially a musical genius and a giant in the salsa world, taking it to that Bob Marley level out of the rest of the stuff by the usual suspects. “Pedro Navaja”? Like “Jack the Knife.” A clever tribute to his time in Nueva York. “El Padre Antonio” can bring a tear to my eye. And many more send me to the dance floor with whatever poor woman was at hand and too surprised to resist.
Jarabe de Palo – Guatemala / Italy
I thought this was a guy’s stage name. Nope, it’s a band from Spain. We heard “La Flaca” over and over again in Xela and the rest of the same CD as well. A couple years later I’m at a party in Calabria in Italy and his then latest comes on: Bonito. Groovy and upbeat and the rest of the CD didn’t disappoint. Turns out they also collaborated with Jorge Drexler (Oscar winner from Brazil, Best Song for “El Otro Lado del Rio” from The Motorcycle Diaries. He allegedly penned it in Madison, Wisconsin and I saw him live at High Noon Saloon there. Small world.)
Juan Luis Guerra – Guatemala
What can I say? Guatemala was a musical year for me, out at Casa Verde every Wednesday night for salsa dancing, radios blaring on the chicken bus or at Bar Tecun. Juan Luis Guerra is a master of bachata and meringue, with a super voice and surrounded by great musicians. Listen to enough salsa/meringue/bachata and it has that quality of reggae to it: the mediocre stuff all kinda sounds the same. Then you hear Bob Marley and you can’t believe the depth and diversity it can offer. Juan Luis Guerra did that for me with music coming out of Dominican Republic. The song will always remind me of a dear Guatemalan friend I first met on a flight to Cuba. And I shall remember this with a sigh, somewhere ages and ages hence.