Best World Music of 2017

Best World Music Songs of 2017

by Jacob on December 19, 2017

I listen to a lot of music. According to Spotify’s annual summary, I listened to over 41,000 minutes of music in 2017. And that was not passive listening, meaning I don’t usually just put music on and let it roll in the background. When I listen, I don’t do other things. I scan songs, skipping many of them if they don’t grab me, and mark the ones I like for future projects. I skipped over 8000 songs this year, at least that what Spotify tells me.

These stats don’t include all of the music I listen to on other platforms such as Soundcloud, YouTube and Bandcamp, or on physical discs (sometimes I’m amazed what still isn’t available digitally), or live. I figure I must spend at least half of my waking hours listening to music in some form or another.

I do this because it is my job as a researcher for Putumayo World Music and global music producer, consultant, writer and lecturer, to stay on top of new music being released around the world. And in that role, I’m a completist: I try to listen to as much new music as I can. There’s nothing I hate more than not being aware of a great song that would have worked well on a particular project.

But even though I call myself a completist, I’m also a specialist, even though that’s a contradiction. I don’t listen to much mainstream, commercial American music (just what my kids make me listen to in the car). I’m not listening to the latest hipster indie band, the biggest rap hits, country radio staples or even much music that falls under the jazz or classical designations. You will find very little crossover between the artists on my best songs of the year list with those in most publications in the US.

I’m trying to listen to what the world listens to, to expand my horizons and listen to music from many different cultures, in many languages, many unique local styles, instruments, rhythms and flavors. Yet, I’m also looking for music that will appeal to people outside of that country or culture…something that resonates with people who don’t speak the language, don’t know much about the history or the traditions…but they like what they hear, and hopefully they will want to learn more.

In 2017, I added nearly 3000 new songs I like to my database. Of those, I chose these tracks as the ones that stood out for their catchy melodies, infectious rhythms or unique emotion. Turns out, I do actually like pop music, just not much American pop music. It also turns out, I don’t like a lot of stuff that other music reviewers seem to like.

There are songs from Sweden, Tahiti, Estonia, South Africa, Peru, Lebanon, Brazil and more. Some of these artists are famous in their home countries, some are unknown and I stumbled across them in random ways. You may notice some of the songs or videos came were released before 2017, but I included them because the albums they ended up being featured on were released in 2017, so I did cheat a little bit. I guess that compensates for all of the songs I discovered in 2017 that I chose not to include because the albums they were featured on came out in 2016. You can find some of those on a playlist I created latest year.

They are in no particular order in terms of preference or ranking, but the sequence moves from a mellower vibe to more mid tempo tracks to the more upbeat, danceable tracks at the end. As I was writing the supplemental info for this playlist I was amazed to see how many of the songs had music videos, some of which are truly fantastic.

In addition to including the videos in the article below, I’ve created a YouTube playlist here with most of the songs.

Also, not every one of my favorite songs of 2017 can be found on Spotify, so I’ve included some “bonus tracks” at the end of this post which includes a few songs that you will have to seek out in other ways.

I hope you enjoy them, and want to share this playlist with others. I’d love to hear what songs you think I missed. As you may have noticed, there’s not a lot of media in the US covering music from outside our mainstream, and while this playlist won’t do a lot to change that, hopefully, it will do at least a little.

as selected by Jacob Edgar

Laroz Camel Rider – Laila Laila

Laroz Camel Rider is a project led by Israeli producer and DJ Laroz Haim. This song has roots in Sudan. Thanks to my friend Makuto Kubota from Japan for hipping me to this track, which also has a lovely video for a more acoustic version of the song.


Bongeziwe Mabandla – Ndibuyile
South African singer and songwriter Bongeziwe Mabandla composes songs in the Xhosa language that mix elements of folk, indie pop and electronic music. His second album was released this year and features the haunting song “Ndibuyile”. Here’s a nice video of a live version of this song:

Kari Bremnes – Rim sin stemme

I spent a lot of time traveling in Scandinavia and the Baltics these past two years, and along the way I discovered a lot of excellent new music. Kari Bremnes has been performing for many years and is well known in Norway. “Rim sin stemme” has a cool downtempo flavor that would be the perfect soundtrack to a cold Norwegian winter’s day.

Sara Tavares – Coisas Bunitas

Sara Tavares, who lives in Portugal and has Cape Verdean roots, is one of my all-time favorite singers. She has been off the scene for many years…I think she just got burned out by the music biz. Happily, she is back with a new album, Fitxadu. While it is not as strong as her earlier work, it is still wonderful, and the video is fantastic as well. It has been viewed over a million times, so yeah, she’s popular.

Curly Strings – Miks sa murrad mind
I had the opportunity to present a private concert in Tallinn with this Estonian band recently, and they were full of energy and positive vibes. Inspired heavily by both American bluegrass and Estonian folk music, Curly Strings deserve much wider international recognition. This song, sung from the point of view of a flower, is from their 2017 album Hoolima.

La Lá – Bebés
La Lá is a singer from Lima, Peru who mixes soft, folky sounds with jazz, bossa nova, Afro-Peruvian rhythms and more. Nothing fancy, just very pretty and moving.

Vaiteani – Ua Roa Te Tau
I don’t come across a lot of new music from Tahiti, so I was excited to stumble upon the music of this Franco-Polynesian duet. Vaiteani won a big contest in France and thanks to a slow roll out of singles and music videos with exotic settings, they have developed a solid following in France.

George Dalaras & Miltos Pasxalidis – Sta tragoudia tha me vreis

There is no bigger music icon in Greece than George Dalaras, who has been a superstar at home since the late 1960s. He has long been inspired by traditional Greek music, but also writes popular songs that millions of Greeks know by heart. Still going strong, Dalaras has added to his roster of over 70 albums under his own name with the lovely 2017 release Pesto Gia Mina.

Danay Suárez & Idan Raichel – Closer Now
Danay Suarez is a rising star from Cuba and Idan Raichel is the biggest name in Israeli music (full disclosure, Idan is signed to my Cumbancha record label). After meeting and performing together, Danay decided to record and cover Idan’s song “Closer Now,” which originally appeared on his 2013 album Quarter to Six. Danay gives the song an extra boost with her laid back Spanish rapping, turning an already beautiful melody in a sublime cross-cultural, cross-genre mix.

Bubbi Morthens – Sól bros þín

Bubbi Morthens is Iceland’s most famous and beloved singer-songwriter. A household name in Iceland since the early 80s, when he was punk rocker, Bubbi is practically unknown outside of the country. But ask any Icelander who is Iceland’s most beloved musician and they will probably say Bubbi, not Björk, Sigur Rós, Of Monsters and Men or any of the other groups that are known internationally. I became a Bubbi fan when I was a foreign exchange student in Iceland in 1986-87, and I think his recent work is as good if not better then his early work.

Natalia Doco – Le temps qu’il faudra

Originally from Argentina and now based in Paris, Natalia Doco sings easy-going songs in Spanish, French and English. I preferred her 2014 debut album Mucho Chino to 2017’s El Buen Galicho, but both offer good rainy-day songs with a Manu Chao-like lilt.

Luz Pinos with Paquito D’Rivera & Luisito Quintero – Mozo

Singer and songwriter Luz Pinos is originally from Guayaquil, Ecuador and is now based in New York City. Jazzy and lighthearted, her songs are sweet and pleasant. The music video for the song “Mozo” is also a lot of fun.

Perotá Chingò – Peguei uma Chuva

Perotá Chingó is the duet of Lola Aguirre and Julia Ortiz, who both hail from Rio de la Plata, Argentina. They mix a lot of flavors into their sound, from electronic music to reggae, samba, Venezuelan joropo and more. They’ve built a large following on social media platforms and their audience is growing massively.

Gwyneth Glyn – Os na wela’i di

I love the new album Tro from Welsh singer Gwyneth Glyn. Her songs in the Welsh language are gentle, haunting and moving. I was walking through the rain in Bordeaux, France earlier this year when I first listened to this album, and it was the perfect soundtrack for a lonely walk through the mist. Glyn told me the song “Os na wela’i di” was written after her grandfather’s death. He would have turned 101 on the album’s release date.

Clea Vincent – Samba

The French have long loved Brazilian music and samba and bossa nova have blended seamlessly into the work of many popular French musicians over the years, from Henri Salvador to Laurent Voulzy. A relative newcomer on the French music scene, Clea Vincent manages to be both eclectic and original while drawing on sixties French ye-ye, 80s New Wave and modern Parisian electronica. I like that she doesn’t take herself too seriously and has a lot of fun in the video for “Samba“.

Sigrid Moldestad – Finne meg ein topp

For reasons I can’t fully explain, of all the music I have come across over the past two years, Norwegian singer Sigrid Moldestad is my favorite discovery. I was exploring Bergen, Norway with my family in 2016 when I saw a poster for an upcoming Moldestad concert and there was something about it that struck me, so I checked out her music and fell in love with it. She blends Norwegian folk music with sophisticated pop arrangements, and her melodies and voice move me deeply. While none of the songs on her 2017 album Vere her are as hauntingly powerful as her older songs “A kjaeraste” and “Brevet,” there’s plenty of Norwegian folk-pop gems here.

Julie Fowlis – Dh’èirich Mi Moch Madainn Cheòthar

Scottish singer Julie Fowlis has one of the world’s great voices, plus she’s a wonderful person and an important figure in the preservation and promotion of traditional Gaelic music. I’ve had the pleasure of presenting her numerous times on National Geographic ships, and she never fails to endear audiences with her gorgeous songs, stories and winning personality. On her new album alterum she sings in Galician and English, but its her Gaelic songs I still love the best. The video below is for a different song on the album, but it is such a fantastic song and video, I’ve included it here as a bonus.

Yasmine Hamdan – Douss

I’ve been entranced by Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan since I first saw her perform back in 2004 in Essen, Germany with her defunct duet Soapkills. Since then, her audience has grown tremendously and she was featured in the 2014 Jim Jarmusch vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. Hamdan sings with incredible restraint and purity, and her music is full of mystery and mystique.

Cuca Roseta – Balelas

Portuguese singer Cuca Roseta got her start in pop music before deciding to devote herself to fado, the dramatic ballad form that developed in the brothels and bars of Lisbon’s Alfama distract back in the 1800s. Roseta has always tried to bring fado to wider audiences, and while she respects tradition, she is far from a traditionalist. On her new album Luz, Roseta explores a variety of styles and flavors that will surely outrage fado purists, but I’m sure the public will love it just fine. I’ve presented Cuca Roseta a couple of times on Nat Geo ships, and she really is a fantastic person and multi-talented artist. Did I mentioned she has a blackbelt in tae kwan do and won the Portuguese version of Dancing with the Stars a few years back?

Alex Cuba – Todas las Cabezas Están Locas

Despite having lived way up in the remote regions of British Columbia, Canada for many years, Alex Cuba maintains strong musical connections to his Cuban homeland. I’ve loved his music since back before he was a solo artist, when he was in a band called the Puentes Brothers with his brother Adonis. Not only is he fantastic musician, singer and songwriter, Alex also has the best sideburns in music since Elvis. His 2017 album Lo Único Constante is filled with lovely and infectious acoustic songs.

Mallu Magalhães – Linha Verde

Both Brazilian singer Mallu Magalhães and Justin Bieber were discovered on the internet, but that’s about all they have in common. Magalhães got her start on MySpace, where she posted covers of English language songs. Her gentle, sweet voice earned her a wide following, and since then she is a legit star with tons of fans worldwide. She has also started singing in Portuguese, which I prefer. The fado-flavored “Linha Verde” is from her 2017 album Vem.

Lisa Ekdahl – När alla vägar leder hem

Swedish music is much more than ABBA, Ace of Base and heavy metal. Sweden also has a strong folk and singer-songwriter scene, and Lisa Ekdahl is one of the best known local singers. She has a distinctive, child-like voice and you don’t even need to speak Swedish to enjoy her songs.

Tito Paris – Mim Ê Bô

A legend of Cape Verdean music, Tito Paris has not been very visible in recent years. Like many great artists, he has always been better at music than navigating the music business. It has been a long time since I’ve heard an album of new material by Tito Paris, and his 2017 release Mim Ê Bô is a welcome return.

Paris Combo – Je Suis Partie
One of my favorite Frenchy groups, Paris Combo, released the new album Tako Tsubo in 2017 and after 20 years they are still going strong. Lead singer Belle du Berry and her Australian trumpet-player husband David Lewis are joined by Django Reinhardt reincarnate Potzi on guitar, Francois Jennin on drums and Benoît Dunoyer de Segonzac on upright bass plus some piano and tuba elements on their catchy song “Je Suis Partie.”

Julio Pereira – Praça do Comércio
A few months ago I was visiting a fantastic guitar shop called Porto Guitarra in Porto, Portugal looking at cavaquinhos, braguinhas and other varieties of Portuguese guitars. I picked up a few CDs there, including a beautifully packaged album (112 page booklet!) called Praça do Comércio by Julio Pereira, who was unknown to me. This was a fantastic stumble-upon-find and one of the best albums of the year in my opinion. Pereira is a wizard on the Portuguese cavaquinho, which is different than its Brazilian and Cape Verdean cousins, and the braguinha, a small four-string guitar that is the ancestor of the ukelele.

Criolo – Menino Mimado
Imagine if Lil Wayne decided to record a traditional zydeco album with old legends of the genre and you might get a sense of how unexpected Brazilian rapper Criolo‘s new album Menino Mimado is. One of my favorite things about music in Brazilian is that young people still think traditional music is cool and worthy of respect and enjoyment. I remember going to a concert by veteran samba singer Jorge Aragao in São Paulo once that was filled with teenagers singing along with  every song. You’d never see that in the US at a blues concert, unless it was the Black Keys or something. So Criolo proves that he’s got the vocal chops for samba and the self-confidence to diverge from his usual genre on this lovely album.

Idir – La corrida – Takurida
Idir is originally from Kabyle, a culturally distinct region of Algeria where they speak a Berber language and have unique music, traditions and beliefs. His 1976 debut album A Vava Inouva was a hit in France, where he remains a big star. His latest album, Ici et Ailleurs, features duets with major French stars such as Francis Cabrel, Patrick Bruel, Charles Aznavour and others, but my favorite track on the album is this moving Berber language version of “La Corrida,” a song against bullfighting that was originally recorded by Francis Cabrel with the Gypsy Kings in 1994.

Elkin Robinson – Creole Vibration
I first saw Elkin Robinson perform in Bogotá, Colombia a few years ago and I was instantly enchanted by this singer and his band. They come from the small Caribbean island of Providencia, which is part of Colombia, but much closer to Nicaragua. English is the main language, not Spanish, and the music is more closely related to Garifuna, Trinidadian and Jamaican music than Colombian music…but it has something unique that makes it very enticing. What’s not to love about this upbeat and irresistible party song from Robinson’s debut full-length album Sun a Shine?

Nidia Gongora & Quantic – Muevelo Negro
The music of Colombia’s Pacific coast is truly magical. The typical instrument, the marimba, is used to play complex interlocking rhythms with a strong African flavor. British producer Quantic lived in Cali, Colombia for many years and one of his big discoveries is singer Nidia Gongora who released her first solo album this year. She has been touring and recording with Quantic for many years, (and is featured on one of my all-time favorite songs and videos “Un Canto a Mi Tierra“), so it’s great she gets her moment to shine on the album Curao.

Elida Almeida – Bersu d’Oru
People often ask me what my favorite country for music is. While Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, Mali would have to be high up there, for sheer per capita production of amazing music Cape Verde wins hands down. How is possible that a remote archipelago with just over half a million people continues to churn out one incredible artist after another. The Lusafrica label has had a lock on the Cape Verdean music scene for many years and in addition to introducing the world to Cesaria Evora, they continue to develop striking young talents such as Elida Almeida. Almeida’s second album Kebrada is fantastic and her music is filled with joy and emotion. I love the video for “Bersu D’Oru” as well.

Maria Mulata – Calla
Not the first or the last Colombian artist to be featured in this list. Maria Mulata has moved beyond the traditional cumbia folklore style that launched her career. In addition to recording some great music for kids, Maria Mulata has a lovely new album called Idas y Vueltas. I almost selected another song from this album for this list, but I like the video for “Calla” so much I decided to change it to that song at the last minute. But do check out her song “Cumbia Salá” as the runner up for best song from the album.

Pietra Montecorvino – Dove sei
With her rough voice and “I could give a damn” attitude, Pietra Montecorvino is like the Tom Waits of Italian music. Her attitude is on full display on the cover for her new album Colpa Mia, which has got to be one of the boldest covers I’ve seen in some time. I know I sure wouldn’t want to expose myself in that way, and she brings that raw sentiment to her music as well.

Jane Bordeaux – כמו בהתחלה
Jane Bordeaux describes themselves thusly “We are a band from Tel Aviv, making Live-and-kicking american folk-country style music in Hebrew.” That pretty much sums it up. Their 2017 release “Ma She’Hashoov” is filled with catchy Americana songs with an Israeli twist.

Omar & Mayra Andrade – De Ja Vu
I pretty much love anything that French/Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade is involved with, so with no new album in 2017, this is the only material of hers I could include on this list. This is a soulful, slinky collaboration with British neo-soul singer Omar that was featured on his album Love in Beats.

Polo & Pan – Cœur croisé

As you can probably tell by this list, I love slinky French pop with a retro twist. The song “Cœur croisé” by French due Polo & Pan is catchy, fun and more than a little bit cheesy, but the video, with its inventive visual double-entendres a la Austin Powers, is really the icing on the gateau.

Republica Ideal de Acapulco – Atomic Lover
The brainchild of French pianist Nicolas Repac, who is known for his reinvention of classic swing and jazz with a hipster, modern vibe, Republica Ideal de Acapulco features the lead vocals of Cuban phenom Yaite Ramos. They don’t have a full album out yet, but their debut single “Atomic Lover” has a great boogaloo flavor and a cool black and white music video.

Sharon Shannon – Sacred Earth
Accordionist Sharon Shannon is very popular in her native Ireland for both her devotion to tradition and her ability to modernize it. The title track from her new album has a cool North African desert blues vibe meets Irish folk music and a hint of Cajun-flavored accordion.

Tinariwen – Nizzagh Ijbal
The pioneers of desert blues haven’t changed their sound much over the years, but if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Tinariwen‘s latest album Elwan doesn’t break any new ground, its just digs deeper into the seemingly bottomless well that is Tuareg music.

Marinah – Todo Es Ponerse|
While the Barcelona flamenco groove band Ojos de Brujo is no more, ex-lead singer Marinah is keeping the Ojos spirit alive with her album Afrolailo. Given that her voice was such a defining part of the Ojos de Brujo sound, listening to her album was like seeing an old friend again after a long absence. “Todo Es Ponerse” has a laid back groove with an Afro-Cuban flavor supplied by the bubbling batá drums that give it its rhythmic underpinning.

Mista Savona – Carnival (feat. Solis & Randy Valentine)
Havana Meets Kingston is a fantastic project that, as the name implies, brings together the two most musically influential islands in the Caribbean for a cool cross-cultural mash-up. Led by Australian reggae and dancehall producer Mista Savona, this ambitious album unites two great musical tastes, and yes, they do taste great together. The video for the song “Carnival” is also wonderful. It is one of my favorite albums of the year, even though I thought I could never listen to yet another version of Cuban chestnut “Chan Chan”…it turns out, I could…and enjoy it!

Orchestra Baobab – Foulo
Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab can do no wrong in my book. Their mix of classic Cuban music with African rumba is about as close to perfect as I can imagine any music to be, so of course I love their long-awaited new album, Tribute to Ndiouga Dien. One of the highlights of my life was presenting a private concert with Orchestra Baobab at Dakar nightclub Just4U for a tour group I was traveling with a few years ago. I haven’t stopped smiling since.

Amparanoia – El coro de mi gente (feat. Macaco)
2017 saw the welcome return of Spanish band Amparanoia, with their first album of new material since they essentially broke up in 2006. The single “El coro de mi gente” features another one of my favorite Spanish artists, Macaco. Throw in a great politically-timely video and this is a no-brainer for my best of the year list.

Locos Por Juana – Pal’ Caribe (feat. Akae Beka)

From Colombia, via Miami, Locos Por Juana have a great Latin reggae sound that is in full force in their powerful song “Pal’ Caribe”. The video features terrifying images of the destruction from the 2017 hurricanes and serves up a powerful tribute to the resilience of the people of the Caribbean.

Ozomatli – La Bamba (feat. Slightly Stoopid)
Another Latin reggae fusion, this time from LA-based Ozomatli whose latest album Non-Stop: Mexico to Jamaica looks for common ground between the sounds of Mexico and Jamaica. This reggae version of the Mexican folk song “La Bamba” features Southern California punk reggae stars Slightly Stoopid and gives this classic track a new flavor.

Naâman – I’m Alright
French reggae is a thing, and I’ve long been a big fan of Gallic reggae bands such as Tryo, Dub Inc., Kana, Sergent Garcia and others. You can maybe thank creepy French crooner Serge Gainsbourg for the reggae influence in French music, thanks to the album he recorded in Jamaica with the Wailers back in 1979. Martin Mussard, aka Naâman, is the latest French reggae singer to make it big, and his song “I’m Alright” is just plain fun.

Yvonne Catterfeld – Guten Morgen Freiheit
Ok, I’ll admit it…I have a soft spot for German pop music. I first heard about this song from a South African Facebook friend who was complaining because her son is featured in the video without her permission. Exploitation of children aside, I really like German singer Yvonne Catterfeld‘s funky song and upbeat Cape Town-filmed video.

Louane – On était beau
A massive star in France, Louane came to fame through the French version of The Voice…not normally an outlet I look to for global music talent. But it turns out, she really is fantastic, with a voice filled with soul and depth that belies her young age (she just turned 21 and put our her massive hit debut album when she was 18). Her second album has some great songs, my favorite of which is the African-flavored “On Était Beau.” Can we please get some American pop stars to effortlessly include African influences in their Top 40 songs too?

Mokoomba – Kumukanda
Zimbabwean band Mokoomba is known for their excellent live performances, and their albums are pretty good as well. This song is from their latest album Luyando.

Campo – Bailar Quieto
After working with Oscar-winning Argentinean composer Gustavo Santaloalla on the electro-tango project Bajafondo, and producing albums by Jorge Drexler, La Vela Puerco, No Te Va A Gustar and others, Uruguayan producer Juan Campodónico, aka Campo, mixes vallenato and reggaeton on the catchy hit single “Bailar Quieto”.

Eskorzo – La Tumba (feat. Amparanoia)
Formed in Granada, Spain in 1995, Eskorzo has been an important part of the Spanish mestizo scene for over two decades. On this cumbia rock song from their latest album La Tumba, they are joined by Amparanoia lead singer Amparo Sanchez on the title track.

Yemi Alade – Knack Am
The hip-hop, dancehall and R&B influenced pop music coming out of Nigeria and other West African countries has been dubbed “Afrobeats,” which seems like an odd name given there’s already a Nigerian genre called Afrobeat that is worlds away from the slick, commercial, Americanized modern pop sound that is hugely popular at home and abroad. Most of the Afrobeats stuff doesn’t do much for me, but one exception is Nigeria’s Yemi Alade, who seems to take herself less seriously than others in the scene.

Teddy Afro – Olan Yizo
The biggest star in Ethiopia, Teddy Afro‘s career was almost destroyed after he was involved in a hit-and-run accident and jailed for two years.Luckily for his fans, he has been able to reemerge and released a wonderful album in 2017 called Ethiopia.

Imarhan – Azzaman
More great Tuareg desert blues, this time from Algeria’s Imarhan. With members that are related to some of the Tinariwen crew, Imarhan brings a fresher, funkier vibe to their sound.

TootArd – Oya Marhaba
The band TootArd (which means “strawberries” in Arabic) call themselves a “mountain rock reggae” group. Based in the Golan Heights, the band considers themselves Syrian, even though they’ve never been to Syria and the land on which they live is controlled by Israel. They have started to make waves across the region and in Europe, giving voice to a new generation of politically active young people in the Middle East.


Juanes – Hermosa Ingrata
Yeah, Colombia again. This time, it’s international superstar Juanes, who manages to create music that is both poppy and rootsy, with strong influences from Afro-Colombian champeta and cumbia. The videos for the songs on his 2017 album Mis Planes Son Amarte are all chapters in a larger story that links them together.

Johnny Clegg – King Of Time
South African icon Johnny Clegg recently finished his last international tour, using it as an opportunity to possibly say farewell to his fans after being diagnosed with cancer. While most of his recent recordings don’t hold a candle to the work he recorded in his early days with the band Juluka, the title track from his latest album has a killer chorus and a lot of that great Johnny Clegg vibe that made him such a big star across the world. Here’s hoping he will be able to create more music long into the future.

Mannarino – Arca Di Noè
Italian singer Mannarino adds a Brazilian samba flavor to his slinky Italian pop song “Arca Di Noè” from his 2017 release Apriti Cielo. Mannarino got his start as an actor on Italian television before focusing on music. He brings a lot of world favors into his sound, including Roma, balkan, French, African and others.

!Dela Dap – Ring Me Up – Rejazzed
While I prefer Austrian group !Dela Dap‘s original Balkan brass meets electronica sound from their early days, their more recent focus on swing and jazz is undeniably infectious.


Sezen Aksu – Üfle De Söneyim
One of Turkey’s biggest stars, Sezen Aksu has reinvented herself as a bit of an electroswing artist on her latest album Biraz Pop Biraz Senem. Known for her dramatic, heart-wrenching vocals, she seems to be having fun on this album, which is fine by me. “Üfle De Söneyim” mixes Balkan brass with an offbeat, bouncy retro swing.

Kossi Apeson – Gazo cool catché
Technically, this song came out in 2012 but since it was just uploaded to Spotify in 2017, and because I love the song and video so much, I’m going to cheat a bit and include Togolese singer Kossi Apeson’s hit song “Gazo cool catché” on this list. A protege of King Mensah, a big star in Togo who I used to hang out with back when he lived in New York City for a few years, Apeson “cool catché” sound is a fascinating mix of modern and traditional sounds.

Nomad’Stones – Le monde danse
Based in Montreal, Nomad’Stones is a world fusion group that blends elements of Algerian, West African and Latin music. They just released their first full-length album, Et le monde danse…, which features the fantastic and funky song “Le monde danse.” There was a time when artists such as Khaled and Cheb Mami brought räi music to huge audiences, and I’ve really missed that sound, so its nice to hear echoes of it on this track. Its also nice to see some iconic Montreal locations in this video, as it is the largest major city near where I live and an under appreciated gem of a town.

Joy Denalane – Elli Lou
Yes, more German pop. I first discovered Joy Denalane when I was watching music videos on TV in a hotel in Paris and her song “Was Auch Immer” came on. I had no idea the German could sound so good! Born to a South African father and a German mother, Denalane proves that soul knows no language.

Systema Solar – Rumbera
What a great song and wild video from the Colombian electro-champeta pioneers Systema Solar. The band has always a had a great sense of humor and “Rumbera” is no exception. Like a an Afro-Colombian version of a Dove soap commercial, “Rumbera” celebrates femininity in all shape, ages and sizes.

Thornato – Deux a Deux (feat. Kongo Elektro)
Thornato is the stage name of Thor Partridge, a DJ and producer who was born in Sweden to a mother from Cyprus. His family moved to New York as a child, continuing his exposure to a variety of cultures and music styles. Now he is an in-demand producer, working on Bollywood films, remixes and his own work, while also touring with electro-tribal-fusion-bellydance stars Beats Antique. This track is from Thornato’s first full-length album, Bennu on NY DJ NickodemusWonderwheel label.

Chico Mann & Captain Planet – Y Ahora Que
Chico Mann grew up surrounded by the New York area’s thriving Latin music scene (his father owned a Latin music label based in Hell’s Kitchen) and is inspired by old-school salsa singers such as Celia Cruz and Willie Colon as well as Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaata. Mann teams up with the fantastic DJ and producer Captain Planet on the album Night Visions, which includes the funky track, “Y Ahora Que”.

Renegades of Jazz – Moyo Wangu feat. Hugo Kant (Bosq Remix)

German DJ and producer David Hanke is the mastermind behind Renegades of Jazz, which has been exploring the crossroads between funk, soul, jazz, hip-hop and African grooves since 2009. Janke spent the first five years of his life in Tanzania, and echoes of that early exposure to East African music still filters into his sound. The 2017 release Moyo Zaidi is a collection of remixes of tracks from the ROJ album Moyo Wangu that came out last year. Remixed by Boston-based DJ Bosq, I love the vibe of this track.

Hawa Boussim – Koregore
Hailing from Burkina Faso, Hawa Boussim was recently signed to help launch a new major label initiative by Sony Music into the bubbling West African music scene. Boussim draws on deep African roots blended with ultra-modern production values to create a new vision of African music and culture that respects the past, present and future of Africa. The video for this track is one of the best I’ve ever seen, and Boussim will appeal to fans of Angelique Kidjo, Oumou Sangare and other African pop divas.

Sol Okarina – Sangre Nueva
Originally from Venezuela and based in Bogotá, Colombia, Sol Okarina blends the upbeat flavors of Venezuelan calipso with a hipster, indie-rock spirit. I’ve been a fan of Sol’s music for many years and its nice to see her back in action with such a great track. While this single and video was released in 2015, it is featured on her 2017 album Planet4, so that means I get to include it on this list.

Poirier, Samito – Sowia
DJ and producer Poirier, who specializes in tropical bass and urban electro music, teams up with Mozambican singer Samito on this awesome Afro-electric track. Both Poirier and Samito are based in Montreal, which has become an important epicenter for the creation, cultivation and consumption of global sounds in North America.



Éilís Kennedy – Cailín Mo Rúnsa
Hailing from West Kerry, Ireland, Éilís Kennedy, along with Pauline Scanlon, is one half of the duo Lumiere, whose song “Fill Fill A Rún Ó” is one of my favorite songs of all time, so I was happy on my last visit to Dingle, Ireland this spring to find a copy of Kennedy’s new album Westward for sale at Mazz O’Flaherty’s famous Dingle Record Shop. You can also find the album on Kennedy’s website:

Tcheka – Kassarola

Another great singer-wongwriter from Cape Verde with a new album out in 2017. Tcheka‘s album Boka Kafe is available through his Bandcamp store here.

Toto Bona Lokua – Ma Mama
The supergroup Toto Bona Lokua, made up of French singer Gerard Toto, Cameroonian Richard Bona and Lokua Kanza from the Congo, is back with a follow up album to their magnificent 2004 eponymous album. Bondeko is not officially out in the US yet, but you can order it on their label No Format’s online store here.

Moh! Kouyaté – Vivons de l’amour

The new album Fe Toki by Guinean guitarist Moh! Kouyaté is not out in the US yet, but you can check out the nice single “Vivons de l’Amour” and its great video on YouTube. I saw Moh! Kouyate perform at WOMEX in Budapest a couple of years ago and it was one of the highlights of the event. Hopefully, he’ll make it over to the US to tour someday.


I was recently invited to give a lecture at the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont as part of their special exhibition:  Spirited Things – Sacred Arts of the Black Atlantic. While I have given lots of presentations over the years, mostly on National Geographic ships, this was the most “academic” lecture I have given in many years.

At the request of some of the attendees I have posted the lecture below and tried to incorporate some of the audio-visual components as best I could in this context.

While I did present this lecture to the public, I definitely consider it a very rough draft. It is filled with flaws and errors both factual and stylistic, which I hope to correct someday. Until then, I hope this will be of interest.


When the Spirit Moves Me: Music and Religion from Africa to the Americas


As is true for many people, my first exposure to the Afro-Cuban religion simplistically known as Santería came through music. When I was a student at Oberlin College in northern Ohio, I developed an interest in the music of Latin America (actually, my interest in the music of Latin America began with a girlfriend from Chile…but that’s a whole different story, and one my wife probably doesn’t want to hear repeated).

I heard that there was a significant Puerto Rican community in the nearby city of Lorain, a town whose social history was defined by the steel mill that attracted immigrants from all over the world. A friend gave me the name of a salsa band he’d heard of that played at local Puerto Rican community events.

They were called Orquesta Tuyeré. After a little sleuthing, I managed to get the name and phone number of the bandleader, a steelworker and union leader named Dominic Cataldo…Like me, Dominic wasn’t of Puerto Rican heritage, but he had fallen in love with the music and then with the culture and then with a Puerto Rican woman whom he married. I learned later that Tuyeré is not a Spanish word, Dominic decided to name the band after a specific pipe in the steel mill that was particularly challenging to fix…a reflection of his struggles to master the complexities of Puerto Rican and Cuban music. It turned out, and this seems to be common for salsa bands all over the world, while drummers are a dime a dozen, horn players, a necessity in any good salsa band, are in high demand. Even though I was a pretty mediocre trumpet player, I soon found myself playing in his band and eventually other local Latin dance bands in the Cleveland metro area.

Margie & La Nueva Banda, one of the groups I played with in Lorain. I'm in the center back, younger (and thinner) then I am today. Margie & La Nueva Banda, one of the groups I played with in Lorain. I’m in the center back holding the trumpet, younger (and thinner) then I am today.


So there I was, a white, Jewish guy from Vermont, dancing (poorly) and playing (only slightly less poorly) at the Puerto Rican social club of Lorain, Ohio, a run down and nondescript brick building in the shadows of the steel mill.

El Hogar Puertorriqueño - The Puerto Rican Social Club in Lorain, Ohio (Source: Google Street View) El Hogar Puertorriqueño – The Puerto Rican Social Club in Lorain, Ohio (Source: Google Street View)


Even though the mill, like so many American steel mills, no longer employed many people, flames still shot up from the blast furnace chimneys, even at night, serving as a fiery backdrop to the Puerto Rican dance parties. This was a decidedly secular setting…the men wore fancy polyester shirts with flowery designs and the ladies squeezed themselves into tight, sequined dresses and high heels. People drowned their daily troubles in drink and dancing.

This was the time, the eighties, when salsa erotica was all the rage. Songs with titles like “Ven, Devorame Otra Vez” (Come, Devour me again) and “Quiero llenarte toda” (I want to fill you all the way) were pretty clear in their intentions and where the night would hopefully lead.

Yet peppered amidst the romantic salsa tunes and upbeat merengues, I heard references to more profound subjects. There were often lyrics that clearly weren’t Spanish…they sounded African, but when I asked what they meant even the singers couldn’t really translate them. Names like “Chango”, “Babalu Aye”, “Yemaya” appeared regularly, often shouted out for emphasis. And every once in a while, there would be a rhythmic breakdown, a point at which the song would shift into a more complex 6/8 rhythm and everything seemed to get much more intense and powerful. The percussionists stopped looking bored and got into a groove, showing off their rhythmic firepower. Even the dancing seemed to get more serious…this was when fluffy stuff was put aside and the serious, hardcore dancing began. Dancers bent their knees, crouching down a little closer to the floor, and focusing less on fancy footwork and more on showing some soul. Eventually, we all shifted back to the schmaltzy lyrics and cheesy melodies. But during those intense musical moments, I knew something different was happening, something deeper and more heartfelt. I just didn’t know yet what it was or where it came from.

After a while, when the other members of the band felt closer to the stranger in their midst, I started to hear talk from the drummers about toques. As it turned out, besides playing in salsa bands, some of the more accomplished drummers were hired to play at ceremonies for a religion called Santeria…the worship of the saints. What these ceremonies where, and where and when they took place was kept very private. I could tell, this was secretive stuff and intended only for people who were authentically involved with the religion. In fact, the secretive part seemed to be part of the appeal, it was like a private club and in order to be allowed in you had to prove your sincerity and earn your dues.

These toques were also only for very serious musicians. Santeria drumming was far more complicated then salsa and merengue. It required years of training on the batá, hourglass shaped drums that allowed for intricate rhythms designed specifically to communicate with particular orishas, or saints.

A set of batá drums


Batá drumming is an essential element of Santería ceremonies, it is through the drums that the spirits are called, specific patterns for individual saints, encouraging them to possess one of the believers and make their presence felt. Given its specialized training and complexities, a skilled drummer can make decent money being hired to play at these events.

As I learned more about Santería, the more I started to notice other references to it. In addition to constant mentions in songs, I noticed a number of botánicas in Lorain and Cleveland.

A botánica in Lorain, Ohio (Source: Google Street View) A botánica in Lorain, Ohio (Source: Google Street View)


These are shops that sell candles, statues, medicinal herbs and religious items. Most of the iconography in these botánicas was Catholic…statues of St. Lazarus as a poor beggar, his wounds being licked by dogs. A beatific Mary, dressed in blue. The candles often had specific conditions written on them, the idea being that burning them would help attract a lover, fix a heart condition, win a court case, earn some money.

Botanicas also sold music, at that time on cassette, mostly of religious music, and it was at a botanica in Cleveland that I bought my first Celina & Reutilio album.

I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t African drumming and it wasn’t spiritual chants, that’s for sure. This was party music for the saints…music to get your feet moving and fill your spirit with joy. Yet the lyrics were a mix of Spanish and Yoruba languages, with passionate references to the orishas. “Long live, Changó”, Celina would sing, blending the rootsy sound of Cuban guajira music of the countryside with Santeria chants. Suddenly, Santeria didn’t seem so secretive anymore…the music opened the door and welcomed me in. I may not have been a believer, but the music still moved me.

Eventually, my folklore professor at Oberlin received a grant to study Afro-Cuban religious expressions in northern Ohio. She brought me on as a research assistant (mostly, I think, because of the personal connections I had cultivated through the music scene) and we spent one summer interviewing musicians, worshipers and even non-believers in the community for their take on the practice. Some people saw it as superstition; hocus pocus; a cult that had no real power. Others believed it connected them to their African roots, Santeria was a way to reclaim and celebrate their identity. Others didn’t want to talk about it, for fear of making someone upset or revealing too much. But even with people who dismissed it, there was respect and an attitude that even if Santeria was just superstition, it was better to be safe then sorry.

The first time I truly appreciated the power of Santeria and the impact it had on people was when we visited the home of a Cuban worshipper in Cleveland that many of my friends pointed to as “the real deal”. He was a ‘marielito”, part of the 1980 Mariel boat lift that had brought thousands of Castro’s castoffs to the states. He spoke very little English and he lived in a rough part of town. We climbed the rickety old stairs entered his apartment: it was like entering another world. Each room was filled with altars, religious objects, statues, candles, bottles of rum, sculptures.

It was an explosion of color and texture…even the kitchen counters were covered….with Barbie dolls, matchbox cars, stuffed animals and other everyday items that had been repurposed as orishas or symbols. There appeared to be no room for him to sleep or eat, although he must have found a way. Imagine entering the apartment of a hoarder, but in this case, every item had symbolic significance…and power.

In the middle of one room was a large cauldron with swords and other metal objects sticking out of it.

He lifted the lid, and cockroaches scurried out. I’ll be honest, a chill went down my spine. I knew this was something meaningful, something that embodied a deep spiritual energy. I learned later that in Afr0-Cuban religion, the cauldron is the symbol of the orisha Ogún.

The lord of metals, Ogun is known for his brusque personality, but he tempers it with a more peaceful side. He is a good farmer, animal breeder and hunter, and he knows the secrets of the natural world. He’s also known as the champion of the working man. Every practitioner of Santeria identifies with a particular spirit, and in the case of our host, his spirit was Ogún. I had the feeling that we were the first outsiders he had invited into his home, and the first to show us his most sacred altar.

From that day on, while I remain an unabashed atheist, I have felt a tremendous amount of respect for Santería, Vodun, Candomblé and other African religious expressions in the Americas. And over the next 30 or so years, as I have spent time working with musicians from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Trinidad, Belize, and, various West African countries, the impact of these beliefs, their complexities and the important role they play in maintaining cultural heritage and tying communities together has become ever more apparent.

I’d like to remind you all that this story I just told took place in northern Ohio, not some remote Caribbean village. For this Cuban guy who had been relocated to a cold city far from his beloved island home, his religion kept him connected to his roots, his ancestors and his culture.

I have since come across Santeria communities in many other places I have visited in the US, not to mention across Latin America and the Caribbean. These and other African religions have far more followers than most Americans realize, and there has long been a great amount of fear, misunderstanding and over-simplification of these beliefs. As time goes on, these religions continue to emerge from the shadows and earn respect and appreciation. And as I will discuss, music has played an essential role in the practice, maintenance and promotion of traditional African religious beliefs in the Americas. The influence of these ancient spiritual practices can be felt today in the popular music and mainstream culture of any country with an African population.


A Mongolian shaman using a frame drum (Photo by Alexander Nikolsky)


There has been an intimate connection between religion and music that almost certainly dates back to the dawn of humanity. Ancient cultures used music to communicate with the gods, and among a shaman or medicine man’s most powerful tools where the drums, rattles and whistles that facilitated this conversation.

For many religions, entering into a trance is the precursor to a state of higher consciousness that allows for a deeper connection to the astral plane, to altered states where higher powers reside. It could be the steady beat of a drum around a campfire, a Buddhist chant or a heavenly choir in a European cathedral…all are examples of music that help us enter a more open mental state for religious communion.

Music is also an important tool for passing on religious doctrine. Songs help people remember complex lines of text, or precise incantations, and music has long played a role in facilitating oral tradition.

A singer at a church in Corsica (Photo by Jacob Edgar) A singer at a church in Corsica (Photo by Jacob Edgar)


While religion is personal, it is also communal, and there is no better tool for fostering this sense of community than music. When people sing together in one voice, it binds them like nothing else can.

Musicians and dancers in Lobito, Angola (Photo by Jacob Edgar) Musicians and dancers in Lobito, Angola (Photo by Jacob Edgar)


Religion is also an outlet for deep human emotion…and music is one of the best ways of expressing that emotion. Music exists beyond words, it is an art form that reaches deeply into our soul…who among us has not shed a tear at some point when hearing a song that moved us, or been lifted to our feet to dance in joy when an irresistible beat beckoned us?

In the African religions of the Americas, music has played all of these roles and more. Indeed, without music to sustain them, it’s possible that these religious expressions would have died out completely among the descendants of Africa in the New World.

Slavery Map

The transatlantic slave trade lasted over two hundred years, starting in the late 1600s and ending in the second half of the 1800s, depending on the country. During that time 10 to 15 million Africans were brought in chains and with no possessions to a strange and oppressive world.

Separated from their communities, families and way of life, all they carried were intangible cultural expressions such as language, tradition, spiritual beliefs, dance and music. In most cases, they were forbidden from overtly cultural demonstrations, so they came up with creative ways to maintain these traditions and beliefs in ways that would be accepted by their overlords.

Africa is not a monoculture. Indeed, it is one of most culturally diverse regions on the planet, with hundreds of languages and a wide variety of social and political structures. This diversity extends to spiritual beliefs as well as, of course, to music.

So the Africans who were brought to the Americas represented a range of religious traditions, each with their own unique deities, rituals and core beliefs. There are, however, some common elements, which have also been passed down to the surviving expressions in the New World.

While many traditional West African religions do subscribe to a belief in a single supreme creator, they also revere a number of spirits or saints, each with their own personalities and identifying characteristics. Religious ceremonies almost always involved dance and drumming that would lead to trance states with the goal of encouraging one of the spirits to possess the practitioner and thus reveal him or herself to our world. Reverence for ancestors played a central role and in many cases ancestral spirits continued to impact the contemporary world.

Traditional West African religions usually feature healers or shamans that use their knowledge for medicinal purposes, to divine the future or to impact real-world events. West African beliefs were oral traditions, meaning they were passed on through demonstration rather then through written scriptures, testaments or doctrines.

As such, I should point out that makes it much more difficult to determine how old these traditions are, and how much they have changed or not over time. And because they were so poorly documented or understood by outsiders, not to mention the impact of Christianity, Islam and even Judaism on the African continent today, its also hard to say how closely modern expressions of African religions in the Americas reflect authentic African traditions and how much they have been adapted to their new circumstances, romanticized or been subject to other outside forces.

Once Africans arrived in the New World, their traditional religious practices were forbidden, seen as backward superstition by the colonial rulers. These attitudes continue to this day, as voodoo dolls, ritual sacrifice and witch doctors remain popular stereotypes, Halloween tropes and horror movie scare tactics.

Most of Latin America was Catholic, which in a strange twist of historical fate, turned out to be a surprisingly flexible religion. African slaves soon figured out that there were some common elements between Catholicism and traditional African religions that allowed for some subterfuge.

African spirits could be paired up with Catholic saints. In Cuba, for example, Chango, the orisha of thunder, fire and virility, took on Saint Barbara as an alter ego.

Babalu Aye, Orisha of healing, became St. Lazarus whose wounds were healed by divine intervention. The list goes on.

Traditional African religions give great resonance to physical objects as manifestations of spiritual energy. These could be hidden as Catholic religious icons and symbols, thus allowing for altars that incorporated a fascinating blend of Catholic and West African iconography.

The Catholic festival of Carnevale, which originated as a last hurrah of indulgence before the 40 day period of fasting and abstinence of Lent, became the one time of the year when Africans were allowed to express themselves.


They took this small opening and turned it into the colorful bacchanal of Carnival, aka Mardi Gras that explodes across Latin America and the Caribbean every February or March. I don’t need to mention how important music is to this religious festival, indeed African music and spirituality have hijacked these events transforming these Catholic holidays into powerful celebrations of African culture in the Americas.

The blending of Catholic and West African beliefs is an example of what’s called syncretism. The best-known syncretic religions of the Americas include Cuban Santeria, Haitian Vodun and Brazilian Candomble, but there are many lesser-known types, including Jamaican Kuminá, Winti in Suriname and Dugu among the Garifuna community of Central America. Each of these religions have their own musical styles and practices, but they are united by common African features such as the central role of the drum and percussion, call and response singing, communal dancing, repetitive and cyclical song cycles that encourage improvisation and personal expression over rigid structure.

This concept of syncretism, or mixture, is reflected in the music of the Americas as well. African rhythms, instruments and styles have been blended over the centuries with European ballroom dances, military brass bands and folk music. These cultural blends have led to most of the popular music we listen to today, from the blues and rock and roll, to jazz, hip-hop, salsa, samba, tango, funk and so much more.

British colonies, such as America, largely followed Protestantism, which turned out to be much less flexible then Catholicism in terms of allowing for unique African expressions. This is one reason we see fewer overt examples of syncretism in the United States today, except in traditionally Catholic areas such as Louisiana.

Even so, evidence of African religious traditions can still be felt in African-American churches. While Protestantism did not leave room for African deities and icons, it could not hold back the physical communal expression and trancelike states induced by gospel music.

Another reason we see less overt syncretism in the United States is purely demographic. A lot of Americans don’t realize this, but slavery was actually much less prevalent in the US then in other parts of the Americas. In countries such as Cuba, Brazil, Haiti and others, a much larger overall portion of the population consisted of Africans and their descendants. In America, we have come to recognize the central role African-Americans have played in forming our nation’s identity. Imagine how much greater that contribution is in countries such as Brazil, Cuba or Haiti, where African culture is not a minority…its part of the family tree of most citizens.

Music helped with this syncretism, providing the camouflage that kept African religious beliefs hidden under an acceptable veil. While drumming and dancing were discouraged, they were often allowed in order to placate restless slaves, or overlooked when heads where turned. While initially, Europeans reacted with horror at the physicality of African music and dance, they soon became intrigued by it, and African music was quickly impacting popular music across the Americas and even back in Europe. Because of the secular and spiritual duality of drumming, and the lack of understanding by the rulers, performers where able to incorporate religious rhythms overtly into their daily musical practice.

As in Africa, music played an essential role in the passing on of oral tradition, allowing the descendants of African slaves to retain aspects of their language, traditions and identity much longer then they might have been able to otherwise. The music of Santeria and other syncretic religions kept West African languages alive in the minds of the population. Even if people couldn’t communicate through speaking, they could retain elements of their native languages through their use in music. Origin myths, cultural histories and folktales are passed on through music. Music also continued to play an essential role in the ritual context of African religions. As was the case with the toques in Cleveland, a traditional African religious ceremony without music is completely unheard of…Indeed, without music to attract the deities, they would likely have never appeared.

Conversely, African religious expression has turned up regularly in secular popular culture. While ceremonies were restricted to the private realm, references to African religious beliefs and deities have been appearing regularly in commercial recorded music since the 1920s, if not earlier.

In Cuba in the 1920s, for example, musical ensembles known as sextetos or sextets began to form, performing mostly a style of dance music called “son” which has since gone on to serve as the foundation for contemporary salsa music. Included among the sextet’s instrumentation was a double headed drum called the bongó. While not used in Santeria ceremonies, the sound of the bongo allowed drummers to emulate some of the sounds and rhythms of the batá drums.

In 1927, Ignacio Piñeiro added a trumpet to his lineup, forming the first septet and marking the beginning of the key relationship between brass instruments and Latin popular music. Septeto Nacional‘s 1928 song “Mayeya, No Jueges Con Los Santos” (Mayeya, don’t toy with the spirits) directly referenced Santeria and was a popular and enduring hit for the band. “Mayeya,” he sings, “don’t deceive me. Respect the necklaces, do not toy with the spirits.” He goes on “He who does not wear yellow covers himself in blue,” referencing to the yellow of the orisha Changó and blue for the orisha Yemayá.

As writer Ned Sublette points out in his book Cuba and its Music, “It may be difficult to appreciate, nearly a century later, how unsettling and even threatening it was for the refined classes of Havana to hear the sounds of brujeria (witchcraft) in popular music; think of how gangsta rap sounded to polite American society seventy years later.”

Because of its religious connotations and the fact that it was played with hands and not sticks (European drums were allowed as they were played with sticks), there was even a law passed at one point requiring the use of sticks when playing the bongó. Eventually, “bongos” became accepted…to the point where thirty years later it was part of the image of the Lower East side beatnik, reading poetry in a beret accompanied by bad bongo playing.

And overt references to Afro-Cuban religions not only became more visible, they became exoticized by artists in the 1950s. Here’s Cuban-American TV star Desi Arnaz, aka Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, performing one of his signature songs. He calls out, “Babalu”, a reference to the orisha Babalu Aye.

By the 1950s, African religions in the Americas had moved from the shadows into a place of parody and stereotypes.

Haitian Vodun, aka voodoo, especially its notion of zombies, or the dead who have been reanimated through magic, became a staple of horror movies. The voodoo doll was out of the bag, so to speak.

Even when respectful and accurate attempts were made to portray African religious ceremonies, they still were used to spook viewers. This Brazilian Macumba scene from the 1959 Academy Award-winning film Black Orpheus actually does a good job of portraying the authentic power and beauty of Afro-Brazilian possession ceremonies, but when seen by a foreign viewer with no context or explanation, it is ripe for misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Compare that representation to this one from the 1973 James Bond film, Live and Let Die. Set in the fictional Caribbean island of San Monique.

Music played a role in this misrepresentation of African religions. The popularity of Caribbean music sparked by singers such as Harry Belafonte in the 1950s, led to a wave of imitators, many of whom used sensationalism and parody in an effort to reach mainstream audiences.

While Belafonte generally approached Caribbean folklore with respect and reverence, even he took part in some pretty goofy representations of the zombie myth and African culture.

By the 1960s, however, identity movements across the Americas sparked a reexamination of African heritage. African-Americans began to express pride in their African roots, and music was one of the tools they used to express that pride.

The 1960s and 70s salsa scene, whose epicenter was among the Puerto Rican community of New York, approached Afro-Cuban religions with more respect.

They incorporated imagery on their album covers that reflected that pride, and rather then catering to the simplistic stereotypes of audiences outside of their communities, they began to use Afro-Cuban religious terminology and rhythms in a studied way.

Meanwhile, back in Cuba, Santeria, which was initially frowned upon by the Castro revolutionaries, became reclaimed as a symbol of identity. In a country where religion was viewed by Marxist revolutionaries as “the opiate of the masses”, Santeria developed into an authentic expression of Cuba’s working class cultural roots…it was the voice of the people, not the oppressors.

This sparked a boom of Afro-Cuban influence in local music. The Cuban supergroup Irakere, became one of the first to use the batá drums in a secular musical setting, inspiring a wave of international interest in the style:

By the 1980s, the complex rhythms of Afro-Cuban religions had permeated and diversified Cuban popular music. Here’s NG La Banda, one of Cuba’s pioneering timba bands, reinterpreting “Que Viva Chango” the song I loved so much from Celina y Reutilio. They give it a sophisticated, virtuosic arrangement that brings Santeria sentiments into a modern context:

The same thing was happening across Latin America. In Brazil in the 1970s and 80s, samba singer Clara Nunes, a devotee of the Umbanda religion, brought Afro-Brazilian culture to the mainstream, becoming the first Brazilian artist to sell over 100,000 copies of a record. She was a devoted student, traveling often to Africa for research, and she helped popularize the notion that in Brazil, everyone had African roots no matter the shade of their skin.

On her song “Tribute to the Orixas”, Nunes calls to the African deities, singing “Brought by slave ships, From the African soil to the Brazilian fields. The black slaves, between groans of pain and tears. They brought in their suffering hearts, what is today so venerated in Brazil, the rituals of Umbanda and Candomble.” Then she pays tribute to the orixas, calling them out by name and character. It’s a powerful message: direct, to the point, yet beautifully poetic.

By the 1990s, this reevaluation of African heritage led to the formation of afoxés, or blocos afros in Salvador, Brazil’s most African city and a world musical hotspot. Some researchers have referred to afoxé as Candomblé with the religion taken out of it.

During carnival in Salvador, Candomblé rhythms and songs are performed by ensembles of hundreds of people, parading down the streets in costumes derived from traditional Afro-Brazilian ceremonies and imagery. This is the bloco afro called Ile Aiye, which was formed specifically to celebrate African culture in Brazil:

The power of hundreds of people drumming together sent a powerful message of community and heritage. Not to mention rhythmic virtuosity, a hand me down from African music. This is a clip featuring the afoxé band Timbalada, it was filmed for the Imax film Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey:

A more commercial style of carnival music developed that came to be known as axé, a Yoruba word meaning “soul, light, spirit or good vibrations”. Axé is also used in Candomblé to describe spiritual power bestowed by the orixas. The music is called axé not so much for its specific musical elements, but because of its direct connection to African spirituality and identity.

Even axe’s most popular light-skinned artists such as Ivete Sangalo and Daniela Mercury celebrate the African roots of their music…its what gives it cred. 

Today in Brazil, African culture and religion is celebrated by people of all shades and backgrounds, thanks in large part to its exposure through popular music.

Haiti offers a unique perspective, as it was the only country in the Americas where a slave uprising led to the defeat of colonial powers and full independence in 1804. There are plenty of Haitians today who attribute their victory over the French to the powers bestowed upon them by the African Vodoun deities.

Because of their early independence, Haiti is home to some of the strongest African cultural retentions in the Americas, and even though most people consider themselves Roman Catholic, they are also firm believers in Vodoun. Vodoun imagery is everywhere in Haiti, and that is reflected in its popular music, especially in the last 30 years or so as Haitians have sought to celebrate their African cultural roots.

Musical groups such as Bouken Ginen, Boukman Experyans and RAM have incorporated Vodoun ceremonial instrumentation, wardrobe, references and iconography into their sound. This musical movement is known as “racine” or roots, for obvious reasons.

I’ve personally had the pleasure of working with one of the hot new bands in the Haitian music scene, Lakou Mizik.

Lakou Mizik performs hours long concerts that blend the soulful spirit of a church revival, the social engagement of a political rally and the trance-inducing intoxication of a vodou ritual. The band Lakou Mizik considers it a mission to bring Haitian traditions to wider audiences and to keep it vibrant and alive among young people.

One of the band’s core members, Sanba Zao is a legend of the racine (roots) music movement in Haiti and a vodoun acolyte. He is a master drummer with an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional songs and rhythms; Zao’s deep knowledge of traditions immediately gave youthful rebirth to old songs that had long been relegated to the archives.

In Haitian Kreyol the word lakou carries multiple meanings. It can mean the backyard, a gathering place where people come to sing and dance, to debate or share a meal. It also means “home” or “where you are from,” which in Haiti is a place filled by the ancestral spirits of all others that were born there. Each branch of the Vodoun religion has its own holy place, called a lakou, where practitioners may come together in the shade of a sacred Mapou tree.

Last year, as part of their effort to bring Afro-Haitian traditions to a young audience, Lakou Mizik teamed up with the Haitian electronic music DJ Michael Brun to collaborate on the carnival song “Gaya”. While intended for mass audiences, the song craft fully blends old and new, making a connection between Haiti’s deep African roots and new technology. It’s title means “Healing” in Haiti’s Kreyol, and the lyrics tell the story of a unified people full of pride and positivity.

I have also had the good fortune to work with musicians from the unique Afro-Amerindian Garifuna culture of Central America, specifically the Caribbean coast of Belize, Honduras and Guatemala. The descendants of African captives who were shipwrecked in the Caribbean in 1635 and intermarried with local Arawak and Carib Indian populations, the Garifuna have a distinct language and culture as well as unique religious practices and enchanting music.

Garifuna styles, such as the Latin-influenced paranda, the sacred dügü, punta and gunjei rhythms, have been reimagined by contemporary Garifuna musicians such as the late Andy Palacio, leading to a revival of tradition in the Garifuna community.

When Andy passed away unexpectedly in 2008, he was honored with a traditional Garifuna “NineNight” ceremony, in which family and friends say farewell to the spirit (Ahari) of the deceased. The wake lasts for nine days of singing, drumming and dancing. It is only after that ceremony that the trip to the other world begins.

I could speak for hours on Andy and the Garifuna, but unfortunately that will have to be the subject of a future presentation.

Today, African religions in the Americas have come out of the closet. For centuries they have been scorned, misunderstood, and marginalized. In response, they developed a culture of secrecy and mystery, which, while adding to misconceptions, helped retain some of the power they had lost when they became the religions of a subjugated community.

Music has played a core role in the practice and ideology of these religions, not to mention being an essential factor in their preservation and survival over the centuries. Now that these religions are no longer conducted in secrecy, will they lose some of their power? What role can music play going forward in keeping these religions alive and meaningful into the future?

Of course, there remains a great deal of animosity towards African religion and culture across the Americas. As I was preparing for this lecture, for example, I came across a number of internet sites claiming that the song and music video for the big summer hit “Despacito” contains subliminal Satanic messages because of its use of lyrical and visual references to Santeria in the song and music video. Pretty silly, but a sign of how far African religions in the Americas still have to go to be understood and appreciated.

The sacred Mapou tree of the Haitian lakou provides an apt symbol for the African religions of the Americas. These are belief systems whose roots stretch deep into the past, across the ocean to the continent where these belief systems were born. They are supported by a solid trunk of community, faith and tradition. And their branches spread far and wide, connecting an African diaspora from Brazil to Belize, Cuba to…Cleveland.

This tree has survived oppression, war, brutality, neglect, discrimination, modernization, globalization, and disasters both natural and manmade. It seems likely to survive far into the future. And at the base of this tree, there has always been and will continue to be a drum beating, calling out to the spirits and beckoning them to join us in our world, to share their stories, wisdom, strength and inspiration for generations to come.



Getting Panned in Trinidad

October 1, 2013

Given the choice between Chinese water torture and being forced to listen to a recording of steel drums I might lean towards the former. The steel drum, or steel pan or just “pan” as most Trinidadians call it, is one of the instruments that just doesn’t translate very well to recordings and it is best […]

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I’m off to South America!

September 18, 2013

Dear Friends: I just landed in Port of Spain, Trinidad where I will be starting my epic South American adventure. On Friday, I embark on the National Geographic Explorer, which will be my home for over 30 days. The journey brings me to Trinidad, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, and the entire coast of Brazil. […]

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Mali All Stars DVD and 2CD

January 31, 2013

Mali has been in the news a lot lately and unfortunately, the news has not been good. While the north of the country is in turmoil, the music goes on on in Bamako. A new DVD and 2CD called Mali All Stars focused on the legendary Studio Bogolan has just come out. Here’s a taste […]

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Kélétigui Diabaté, Legend of Malian Music, Has Passed Away (1931-2012)

November 30, 2012

November 30, 2012 – Kélétigui Diabaté, one of the greatest figures in Malian contemporary music, passed away in Bamako on the morning of November 30, 2012. He was 81 years old, but his death was sudden and he had been performing as recently as last month. From 1998 to 2009, Diabaté was a member of […]

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AFAR Magazine Feature

October 26, 2012

AFAR magazine, a hip alternative to stodgy, upscale travel magazines, features an interview with yours truly in their current issue. Every issue AFAR profiles “a modern nomad, defined as someone who travels internationally (for long periods or non-stop) because of his or her job, lifestyle, or life situation. Nomads are exceptional people at the top of their […]

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Gangbé Brass Band in Ganvié and Other Benin Adventures

April 26, 2012

After departing Cameroon the National Geographic Explorer ship moved on to Benin, a small country with a tragic history. One of the epicenters of the African slave trade, Benin exported much of its rich vodun traditions to the New World, which transformed into syncretic religions such as voodoo in Haiti, candomblé in Brazil and santería […]

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Cameroon – Sounds of Makossa, Bikutsi and the Bagyeli

April 19, 2012

The first song my now 13-year old daughter ever heard was by a Cameroonian singer. Just a few minutes after her birth in our cottage in San Francisco we played her Henri Dikongue‘s “C’est La Vie”, which Henri had written for the birth of his child. I was working for the record label (Tinder Records) […]

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African Paradise – São Tomé & Príncipe

April 16, 2012

So far, my African voyage has taken me up the coast of West Africa, starting in South Africa and passing through Nambia, Angola, Congo and Gabon. After heading essentially due north for the past week, our ship took a sharp left turn along the equator and headed west en route to the former Portuguese colony […]

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