THE REFUGEE ALL STARS: The Sierra Leone group were the year’s surprise hit.
Top 10 lists are always arbitrary, especially when applied to a “genre” as sprawling as world music. Once again, my 2006 picks tilt toward Africa, especially West Africa. Accused of bias, I plead guilty. But the region has produced the most inventive African release of the year, Cheikh Lô’s Lamp Fall, as well as the landmark final recording of Malian icon Ali Farka Toure, new work from Salif Keita, and an astounding surprise: the Refugee All Stars. Just a few years ago, this group from Sierra Leone were languishing in the refugee camps of Guinea and the slums of Freetown. On December 4, they played live on Oprah.
1 The Refugee All Stars | Living Like a Refugee | Anti- | The group’s reggae/palm wine/gumbe blend is unpolished but irresistibly soulful. The spirit of the early Wailers lives again in their best songs. But now that life is good for these guys, will they still produce such powerful hooks?
2 Cheikh Lô | Lamp Fall | World Circuit | Lô’s blend of bracing Senegalese mbalax and sensuous Afro-Cuban strains takes on a Brazilian tinge on his third international release. But no genre classification does justice to these varied songs from one of the most original stylists in African music today.
3 Congotronics 2 | Crammed Discs | Roots pop transported from the Congolese interior to the big city of Kinshasa. This package offers trance music extraordinaire without an ounce of pretension, and an eye-popping DVD of the featured groups to boot.
4 Thomas Mapfumo | Rise Up | Real World | Although exiled and embattled, the lion of Zimbabwe still writes some of the best songs in African pop. There aren’t many African bandleaders of his generation still alive and in the game, certainly none who can match his creative drive.
5 Ali Farka Toure | Savane | World Circuit | Before he died of cancer at 66 last March, the reluctant guitar icon enjoyed one last burst of interest in the recording studio. His final work is his most elaborate, intertwining roots genres from his native Mali with passion and flair. And his craggy voice never sounded better.
6 Tom Zé | Estudando O Pagode | Luaka Bop | Zé is a Brazilian maverick, and this “unfinished operetta” takes on slavery, bondage, and love with eccentricity, grace, and humor. His melodic gift and delightfully offbeat arranging style shine in these 16 brief gems.
7 Salif Keita | Mbemba | Decca | The great chameleon of African pop at last seems to have found his true colors: meticulously produced, acoustic dance music. By avoiding formulas, one of the world’s most powerful singers has managed to keep the music fresh. Keita is at the top of his game.
8 Anga | Echu Mingua | World Circuit | Long a stylish sideman, this Cuban congero turns out to have an expansive, jazz-informed vision. Too bad this release — more fresh and inventive than anything in the Buena Vista Social Club catalogue — turns out to be his last. In August, he suffered a heart attack and died. He was just 45 years old.
9 Le Trio Joubran | Randana | Randana | Three virtuoso, oud-playing, Palestinian brothers join forces in an instrumental tour de force. Exquisite ensemble work proves that this fraternity share more than just chops.
10 Kayhan Kalhor/Erdal Erzincan | The Wind | ECM | Kalhor, a master of classical Iranian kamanceh (violin), delves into improvisatory music with Erzincan on the Turkish long-necked lute, the baglama. The result is gentle and introspective, and also exceptional, because all that classical technique in no way impedes invention.