Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Top 10 World Albums of the '90s

Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and David Byrne were wrong--world music/beat did not take over the world. But as its next-big-thing hype entered the buzz-bin of history, cargo holds of superb . . . "non-`Western'"? "exotic"? how 'bout "Third World"? albums washed up on the U.S. marketplace. Take as a working assumption that when a Third World artist consciously works for the Yankee dollar, the compromises will be awkward at best. Much better if he or she is attracted to elements of rock or disco or movie soundtracks and adapts them to the needs of a known, indigenous audience.

The prototype is the way the Belgian Congo's trade relations with Cuba eventually produced the Afro-rumba that begat Zaire-based soukous, which overran the continent in the '50s. The great '90s example involved one of many further adaptations. On Guitar Paradise of East Africa (Earthworks, 1991), Kenyan and Tanzanian guitarists superimpose local rhythms on soukous's chattering billow to invent a relaxed, utopian dance music that stands as a great argument for witting escapism. Compiler Trevor Herman also had a hand in the West African The Music in My Head (Stern's Africa, 1998), where kora-derived guitarists and muezzin-derived vocalists develop Senegal's salsa derivative into a kitchen-sink Afropop that combines the raucousness of rock and the interactive unpredictability of jazz, a music every bit as competitive and urban as the East Africans are blissful and bucolic.

The master of this West African sound is world-music totem Youssou N'Dour, whose two tracks on The Music in My Head declare his genius more forthrightly than any of his Yankee-dollar fusions. But the fusion worked by a young Sahel woman was a braver leap. Oumou Sangare's "Wassoulou sound" electrified and funkified the pentatonic melodies and circular structures of griot tradition as it spoke out against Mali's entrenched polygamous sexism, winning over not just European sisters but Malian men. Worotan (World Circuit, 1997) is powerful evidence that "global divas" actually exist. Even more political is Tings an' Times (Shanachie, 1991), in which the Jamaican-born British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson dispatches all cheap bromides about the irreconcilability of ideology and aesthetics. LKJ may well be the subtlest political thinker in pop history, and bandleader Dennis Bovell's urbane skank proved '90s reggae's most imaginative alternative to dancehall boom-bah.

Another brainy antidote to First World condescension came from Brazilian avant-pop eccentric Tom Zé, whose '70s catalogue was resuscitated by Byrne on Brazil Classics 4: The Best of Tom Zé (Luaka Bop, 1990). More abrasive than fellow Bahian Caetano Veloso, Zé is essentially an art-rocker with a jingle pro's hummability and a samba adept's sense of rhythm. No popster anywhere was writing songs so irresistible yet far out. Byrne also backed the kitschier experimentalism of Asia Classics 1: The South Indian Film Music of Vijaya Anand (Luaka Bop, 1992), which presages the pomo eclecticism of France's Air and Japan's Pizzicato Five at a double-dare-you level of complexity. No effect is too corny, pretentious, or weird, and like every Bombay music director, Anand works with sopranos who make Betty Boop sound like Bessie Smith.

But the Asian music that impacted hardest in the West was decidedly less secular. The late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the world music star of the decade. His Sufi qawwali was all God and no Mammon, maybe all form and no content, but on a myriad of cameos and albums he did something like make music a universal language. Fans of his Peter Gabriel-inspired market ploys are ready for the four long, unfaded meditations of Intoxicated Spirit (Shanachie, 1997). Nonfans may also be ready. And if you OD on ecstasy, the Sufi quietism of Turkish doctor-academic Orüj Güvenç's Ocean of Remembrance (Interworld, 1995) is waiting to heal and soothe, its trance far more organic than any chill-out room digitalis.

If Khan was the star, then the Ry Cooder-hosted Buena Vista Social Club was the album. It's sold its million, so pardon me for finding Ry and his drummer son Joachim impossibly gawky. Instead try Rubén González's Introducing . . . (World Circuit, 1997). The clavé-cured montunos and classical flourishes of this 77-year-old piano virtuoso, who had never recorded as a leader until Cooder's Havana taping expedition, mesh into a supremely romantic instrumental pop, sensuous and genteel. For well-meaning Americanskis who know how to meddle, try David Lindley and Henry Kaiser's A World Out of Time (Shanachie, 1992). Collected in a Madagascar that's part African, part Asian, part Polynesian, and as fucked over by white people as the continent proper, the album's tuneful, pop-yearning syncretism is nonstop bliss. Somebody's trying to fool somebody for sure--most likely Malagasays trying to fool themselves. And as usual, the well-meaning world-music consumer can only hope they get away with it.

Rolling Stone, May 13, 1999