Rufus Wainwright’s world music playlist

Posted on October 8th, 2015 in Features, Recent posts by .


The talented singer-songwriter confesses his love of Oum Kalthoum, rebetika and country blues to Mark Ellingham

Perhaps the greatest of today’s singer-songwriters, Rufus Wainwright is a man whose music, right from the start, has been just that little bit more daring, more charged and more original than the rest. His songs are like operatic miniatures, the lyrics as captivating as the dramatically orchestrated arrangements. But then again, great things were always expected of Rufus and his sister Martha, being the children of the legendary songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle.

I catch up with him at Glastonbury just after his solo performance on the Pyramid Stage, “opening,” as he teases his audience, “for Kenny Rogers.” He’s only been offstage for half an hour, and is keen to go and watch Rogers himself, but is courtesy personified, immediately warming to the task of pinpointing world musicians that he loves and who have influenced his own music. As he acknowledges, his own background is international, having grown up at the McGarrigle house in bilingual Montreal, where musical visitors were as likely to sing Québécois chansons as American folk. He, too, sings and sometimes composes in French.

We begin by talking about African music and his enthusiasm for Amadou & Mariam, with whom his sister Martha played as part of Africa Express – a project he’d love to take part in himself sometime. But for his playlist, he looks not to Mali but to Egypt, in the form of the diva Oum Kalthoum. “I’m a big fan,” he asserts. “I saw a documentary on her in France when I was a teenager, and I had this immediate reaction – similar to seeing someone like Maria Callas or Tina Turner – where you realise this one person is the apex of her field and she knows it and everyone knows it. I have been fascinated ever since. There are actually certain songs of mine where I’ve lifted a little phrase of hers – because God knows she sung a lot of phrases! My song ‘Poses’ has a kind of undulating line that goes ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no’ – that’s one of hers.” The undulating lines are plentiful on ‘Tab en-Nasim al Alil’, which matches a decadent-sounding orchestra against Kalthoum’s serpentine singing. “An Oum Kalthoum performance is such a very emotional experience. Then there’s the whole myth, like how she played just that one gig outside of the Arab world – in Paris.”

He barely pauses for breath. “Staying in the same area – well, the Mediterranean – I’m also a big fan of rebetika. A Greek friend of mine made a CD of various artists and I was completely enthralled. I gravitated towards the whole ethos of that music. It’s so dark and so decadent and full of history and malice. I like to think there is something about the Greek ideal – the ideal beauty – and what’s so great with rebetika is that it dirties it up and brings out the imperfections.” Roza Eskenazi was a celebrated Jewish-Greek rebetika singer who recorded literally hundreds of songs in the 30s. ‘En Taxei’ has the loping, halting rhythm that is an irresistible characteristic of the genre. “It has this broken aspect to it, which is very nice, and very powerful.”

He is on a roll. “Of course, the big world sound which I really grew up with was Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares – the Bulgarian choral album.” ‘Pilenze Pee, Govori’ is perhaps the most haunting of the songs featured on the album. “For me it was a sound that correlated with a kind of sadness and longing but also a sense of forgiveness and warmth. Maybe it was about my troubled teenage years. I was gay – I’m still gay – and I led a somewhat dramatic, wild youth. Maybe there was a ‘mother’ aspect to the music, the acceptance. It was calming – like a retreat. And the entirely different harmonies and ways of singing… I still don’t know how they do it!”

For his next choice, Wainwright moves closer to home. “Going back to something very familiar, I grew up with a lot of country and blues music. This was stuff my mother played all the time at home and it was one of the building blocks on which my own music was based. My mother knew that whole canon – the Harry Smith archive of American recordings – but for me Doc Watson was the one who struck a really deep chord. And particularly his song ‘Saint James Infirmary’, which is about a cowboy who has syphilis. I kind of related to that as a young gay person. And to the whole Gothic drama of it all – the storytelling. That was a big song for me.”

From classic old-time US roots, his playlist ventures south, down to Brazil. “For the fifth song, I really must have a Brazilian,” he confides. “I love Brazilian music and probably my favourite is a guy from the 70s called Tim Maia. He was this incredible singer – a big, fat guy, and really funky – kind of like the Stevie Wonder of Brazil. There’s an album of his called Cultura Racional that I love.” The track ‘Bom Semso’, taken from that album, has funkiness in abundance, proving that psychedelic soul works beautifully in Brazilian Portuguese. “Maia seems to have been forgotten these days but he was such an extraordinary musician. The album was made at a point when he got into this whole cult thing, ‘Rational Culture’, which had a system of beliefs based around energy and crystals and rainbows. It was all very Glastonbury, really.”


The Playlist

Tim-Maia-The-Existential-Soul-of-Tim-Maia-Nobody-Can-Live-ForeverTim Maia ‘Bom Senso’

From Nobody Can Live Forever on Luaka Bop

“Tim Maia was this incredible singer – kind of like the Stevie Wonder of Brazil.”






rozaRoza Eskenazi ‘En Taxei’

From Voices of Rebetiko on Ta Nea

“I’m a big fan of rebetika. It’s so dark and so decadent and full of history and malice.”






le-mystre-des-voix-bulgares-4e1d82ffc1631Various Artists ‘Pilenze Pee, Govori’

From Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares on Nonesuch

“The entirely different harmonies and ways of singing… I still don’t know how they do it!”






oum-kalthoumOum Kalthoum ‘Tab en-Nasim al Alil’

From El Sett on Buda Musique

“I love that people applaud in the middle of her songs. And her look, too – those sunglasses were rock’n’roll!”






doc-watsonDoc & Merle Watson ‘St James Infirmary’

From Remembering Merle on Sugar Hill Records

“Doc Watson struck a really deep chord, particularly his song ‘Saint James Infirmary’. That was a big song for me.”





This article originally appeared in Songlines #95. Subscribe to Songlines

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