We’re delighted to announce the winners of the eighth Songlines Music Awards which aim to put a much-deserved spotlight on some incredibly talented artists from around the world.
This year we’ve shaken up our awards, so as well as our usual Best Artist and Best Group awards – as voted by Songlines readers – we have five new geographical awards based on our reviews sections, as well as the World Pioneer and Newcomer Awards chosen by our editorial team.
Join us on October 3 at the Barbican in London for this year’s Songlines Music Awards Winners’ Concert, featuring performances by Mariza, Debashish Bhattacharya and others still to be announced. Tickets go on general sale at 10am on Friday (For more details visit www.barbican.org.uk or call 020 7638 8891
Hear editor-in-chief Simon Broughton introducing and playing music from all of this year’s winners, on the Songlines podcast, available as a free download on iTunes.
Words by Nigel Williamson
Mariza (Mundo on Parlophone)
Back after a five-year recording hiatus, Mariza returned in 2015 with an album that was not so much a reinvention as a bold expansion of her role as fado’s foremost global ambassador. Adding sparkling pop ballads and subtle washes of electronica to her traditional roots, Mundo was an unalloyed triumph, her artistry hitting dynamic new heights and her voice expressing every emotional nuance, whether singing a gentle and intimate lullaby for her young son or melodramatically letting rip on the high notes with the force of an operatic diva.
Sympathetically helmed by the Spanish world music producer Javier Limón – whose previous credits include Buika and Anoushka Shankar – it’s an album that she describes as “the most personal I’ve ever made” and an invitation into her most private world. “I didn’t want any effects on my voice,” she told Songlines. “I wanted people to feel I was singing just next to their ear, like I’m right beside them, each listener as my solo audience.” Now in her early 40s, she emerges not only as the finest fado singer of her generation, but one of the world’s most charismatic artists, bridging traditional and popular forms in transcendental style.
Africa Express (Terry Rileyʼs In C Mali on Transgressive Records)
The notion of unleashing a group of West African musicians playing traditional instruments on the music of the American composer Terry Riley was an audacious piece of lateral thinking and arguably the most satisfying project yet to emerge under the banner of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express. Dispensing with the conceptual score and allowing the Malian musicians to interpret German conductor André de Ridder’s violin notations as they saw fit, the results were revelatory as centuries of African trance ritual add a warm looseness to Riley’s minimalist 60s composition. Albarn, Brian Eno and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs represent the Western contingent but it’s the African cohort on kalimba, balafon, kamelengoni and kora who provide the magic and fill the work with light and space as flutes, strings and chiming guitars join the African percussion as the ensemble reach the most thrilling of climaxes.
Although it sounds like no other version of Riley’s work, it remains true to its spirit as shifting polyrhythms and tonal and timbral changes create a sense of constant evolution, even though the same base note repeats insistently throughout the performance. Riley himself was delighted with the result, enthusing that it sounded as if his composition was “taking flight with the soul of Africa.”
Songhoy Blues (Music in Exile on Transgressive Records)
We have the armed jihadists who banned music when they took control of northern Mali in 2012 to thank for the existence of Songhoy Blues. Guitarist Garba Touré – whose father was a percussionist in Ali Farka Touré’s band – realised it wasn’t going to be a safe or pleasant thing to hang around Timbuktu, and like thousands of other refugees, he grabbed a bag and his guitar and boarded the first bus to Bamako. There he formed Songhoy Blues with fellow exiles Aliou Touré and Oumar Touré, subsequently joined by drummer Nathanael Dembélé.
Their first recording with American guitarist-producer Nick Zinner was trailed on the Africa Express compilation Maison des Jeunes, to which they contributed the standout track. Music in Exile, their full-length debut – again produced by Zinner, with assistance from their French manager Marc-Antoine Moreau, fully lives up to their promise as the new, rocking sound of Mali, dramatically propelling traditional African desert blues into a 21st-century urban setting. It earned them the front cover of Songlines, but the dynamic rock’n’roll heft of the recording also crossed over to receive rave reviews in rock mags such as NME, Uncut and Mojo.
Africa & Middle East
Seckou Keita (22 Strings on ARC Music)
Having won the Cross-Cultural Collaboration award in the 2014 Songlines Music Awards for his album with Welsh harpist Catrin Finch, the Senegalese-born but UK-based kora player Seckou Keita picks up another richly deserved award for 22 Strings, a mostly instrumental set of exquisite solo kora playing, full of meditative grace, sublime poise and consummate elegance and which combines traditional tunes with his own compositions. Born into a griot family in Casamance in southern Senegal in 1978 but now living in England, he started playing the kora when he was seven and after backing various other acts including Baka Beyond, he released his debut solo album in 2000.
After his current solo kora album, his next project will find him returning to the collaborative path on an album of duets with the Cuban pianist Omar Sosa. “Everything in music has to be honest, and the deeper meanings of the songs and melodies must be preserved,” he says. “This is why it’s important that collaborations should be right for the music. There are connections between, say, Cuban and Indian and Welsh sounds and the repertoire of the kora. They can be explored without losing the distinct flavours of the different traditions and styles.”
Lila Downs (Balas y Chocolate on Sony Music)
Born in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, the daughter of a Mixtec Indian mother and an American university professor, Lila Downs grew up with a multicultural vision drawn from both sides of the Rio Grande. Her nine studio albums over the course of a 22-year career have defied categorisation, weaving traditional Mexican and native Mesoamerican music with blues, jazz, cumbia, rock and finding her singing in Spanish, English and various native tongues.
Inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead celebrations, her current release Balas y Chocolate is a sizzling, gutsy, joy-giving dance album, as martial beats, rousing choruses, mariachi moods and agit-pop raps lend a festive brio. Her expressive, multi-octave voice arcs impressively from airborne falsetto to sultry contralto as she sings about subjects ranging the erosion of civil rights to political corruption, while the title-track is dedicated to migrant children. “I’m an artist and not a politician,” she says. “But music offers us the ability at desperate moments to feel the emotion that we haven’t been able to express.” Superlative sax, accordion and brass accompaniment provides a robust soundbed with stirring cameos from guest vocalists Colombian superstar Juanes and Mexican crooner Juan Gabriel as additional bonuses. Lila Downs features on the cover of the new issue (June, #118).
Asia & South Pacific
Debashish Bhattacharya (Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn on Riverboat Records)
The pioneering Indian slide guitarist has been playing for more than half a century; his father gave him a Hawaiian lap steel guitar at the age of three. By the age of 15 he had designed his own Hindustani version of the slide guitar, which he called the chaturangui. He’s since created the 14-string gandharvi and the anand, a four-string lap steel ukulele, to forge what he calls “the Trinity of Guitars” and with which he has created a new instrumental language for traditional Indian music.
His 2009 album Calcutta Chronicles earned a Grammy nomination and he’s recorded collaborative discs with the late Bob Brozman and with John McLaughlin. On Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn he traces a musical journey from dawn to dusk. As emotionally compelling as it is technically impressive, his creative virtuosity makes it easy to forget that he’s playing a guitar rather than a more traditional Indian stringed instrument. “The music I play is universal, rooted deep in thousands of years of tradition,” he says. “It has the essence of peace, harmony and bliss. But it’s essentially modern, engulfing the mood of reggae, hip-hop, rock, jazz and blues. That’s what my music is all about.”
Sam Lee (The Fade in Time on Nest Collective Records)
Born in North London to Jewish parents, after studying at Chelsea art college and working as a burlesque dancer, Lee discovered the arcane but resonant heritage of the UK and Ireland’s Gypsy culture and then ‘went native,’ spending several years collecting and learning songs and ballads from Traveller and Gypsy communities all over the UK and Ireland. He also picked up the lilting vocal style of Gypsy song and the fruits of his research were heard on his 2012 debut album Ground of its Own, which was shortlisted for the Mercury Music Prize.
On The Fade in Time he gives the stories and melodies he collected an ambitious and imaginatively modern platform, backed by a band that comprises violin, cello, piano, percussion and Japanese koto (zither), and adding everything from Bollywood beats and Polynesian textures to the reek and smoke of our own island’s living traditions. “There’s a difference between songs the Gypsies sang and songs you learned at Cecil Sharp House,” he says. “I decided I’d throw flames on what tradition is left out there. I’m a tree-climber and this music is for me like being up in the branches, knowing you are connected by its roots, deep into the earth.”
Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal (Musique de Nuit on No Format!)
Malian kora maestro Sissoko and the French cellist Segal were first heard playing together on 2009’s exquisite Chamber Music. Their second album of stringed magic, Musique de Nuit, sparkles with an even greater lustre, drawing organically on the twin heritages of West African oral tradition and European conservatoire classicism, spiced by the innate musical curiosity and openness of two musicians who appear to respond almost telepathically to each other. That’s hardly surprising as between the two discs they toured the world, playing more than 200 concerts as a duo and refining and developing their collaboration in countless hours spent jamming, experimenting and improvising. “We wanted to go further with the second record,” Sissoko told Songlines. “The magic of the first album lay in the meeting itself and our coming together. We didn’t know how it was going to go. This record has come out of our shared experience since then, although it’s also very improvisational and natural.” Mostly recorded under the stars on Sissoko’s rooftop in Bamako, the setting lends an exotic ambience to an album of subtle arrangements and inventive improvisational interplay that feels as fresh as it is timeless.
World Pioneer Award
Island Records’ founder Chris Blackwell was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001 for having discovered and signed Jethro Tull, Free, Roxy Music, Grace Jones and U2 among numerous other rock legends. But his citation also described him as ‘the person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music’ and it is for his incalculable contribution to promoting Jamaican and African artists for which he is honoured here. He launched Island Records in Jamaica in 1958 and was soon exporting early ska recordings to the UK, topping the charts in 1964 with Millie Small’s ‘My Boy Lollipop’, arguably the first ‘world music’ crossover hit.
His signing of Bob Marley & The Wailers in 1973 was a seminal moment and he then went on to introduce Nigeria’s King Sunny Adé to an international audience. After selling Island he established the Mango and Palm Pictures imprints with a stellar roster that included Salif Keita, Baaba Maal and Angélique Kidjo. Blackwell’s 80th birthday next year is certain to prompt a host of industry tributes that will inevitably concentrate on his rock’n’roll triumphs –hence our decision to recognise separately his immense contribution to world music by making him the inaugural recipient of the Songlines World Pioneer Award.