10 Unexpectedly Awesome Foreign Musical Genres


“World music” is a ridiculous label for any number of reasons, but perhaps the most pernicious is its us-and-them implication — the idea there’s our music and there’s their music, and never the twain shall meet. In fact, music is a constantly flowing and evolving thing, and the ever-increasing flow of Western culture to the rest of the world — and vice versa — has made for some fascinating musical hybrids, as well as some entirely new sounds. Some of these are well-known, but others have languished in relative obscurity over the years. So here are some of our favorite unexpectedly awesome genres from around the world, past and present.

Indian psychedelic fusion

We touched on this genre a few months back in our East-meets-West mixtape. Bollywood producers have long been fond of “borrowing” Western sounds, and with the sheer weight of music they have to turn out year after year, it’s hard to blame them. In the same way that Western food on the subcontinent always ends up being spiced up and Indo-fied, however, whatever Western sounds get used are eventually infused with a distinctly subcontinental flavor, and the results are often awesome. Indian fusion sounds have been the subject of some great compilations over recent years, and they’re also turning up as samples here and there (like the song above, which was sampled by Madlib a few years back).

Suggested compilation: Sitar Beat! Vols 1-4 (Guerilla Reissues, 2006)

East German proto-electronica

Germany has a long and proud history of association with electronic music, from NWDR’S Elektronische Musik studio and Kraftwerk to Robert “Ableton Live” Henke and labels like Kompakt and Poker Flat. However, before the wall fell, there was an entirely separate electronic music scene in the East, heavily influenced by Tangerine Dream (who in 1980 became the first band from across the wall to play in East Berlin) and distinctly psychedelic. It sounds like music for inner travelling, music for escaping reality — which, given the police state where it was recorded, is hardly surprising.

Suggested compilation: Mandarinenträume (Permanent Vacation, 2010)

Chinese experimental electronic music

You often hear about the rise of a nascent “new China,” wherein the autocratic grasp of the country’s post-Mao history is finally starting to loosen. But even so, it’s a bit of a jolt to discover that there’s apparently a small but flourishing avant-garde electronic music/sound art scene in the urban landscapes of Shanghai and Beijing. This music is still relatively obscure and hard to find information about — the best compilation was made back in 2002, and a great website called Chinese New Ear has sadly disappeared — but what we’ve heard sounds fascinating.

Suggested compilation: China: The Sonic Avant Garde (Post-Concrete, 2002)

Japanese hardcore noise

Meanwhile, across the Sea of Japan is the country that’s given us everything from Shonen Knife and The 5,6,7,8’s to the indescribably awesome Boredoms. But what the Japanese truly seem to specialize in these days is brutal, destructive noise. When Japanese bands go crazy, they go really crazy — we once saw an Osaka-based band called King Brothers put on what remains the single most demented live show we’ve ever seen (and believe us, we’ve seen a lot of shows). They’re one of a bunch of contemporary Japanese bands who specialize in making music that may well make your speakers melt. You have been warned.

Suggested compilation: Misono Days (Studio Warp, 2006)

Scandinavian space disco

This one won’t be particularly unfamiliar to anyone with a fondness for spaced-out dance sounds — if that description fits you, you’ll no doubt have noticed that there’s been a consistent flow of goodness coming out of Scandinavia over the last few years. Producers like Lindstrøm, Prins Thomas and Todd Terje create sounds that are steeped in the dancefloors of the mid-1970s but also hyper-modern, unfolding slowly over the course of tracks that often stretch well past ten or 15 minutes. Lindstrøm’s Where You Go I Go Too, in particular, is one of our favorite electronic releases of the past couple of years, and there’s plenty more where that came from.

Suggested compilation: Scandinavian Disco Heat (Boomkat, 2009)

Angolan baile funk

He might come across as a bit of a tool at times, but Diplo has a genuinely inquiring musical mind, and has been responsible for bringing some truly unlikely sounds to US dancefloors. He championed baile funk — the Brazilian favela-based mutation of Miami bass — with his “Favela on Blast” mix and his production on MIA’s early work. But even better was kuduro, the Angolan melange of African percussion and Western dance sounds. The genre has been popular in Angola and its former colonial master Portugal for decades, and recently Portuguese-based groups like Buraka Som Sistema have started taking it to the world.

Suggested compilation: Dança Kuduro (Bizness Music, 2009)

Turkish psychedelic weirdness

In a similar vein to the Indian psychedelic funk we discussed above, this music combines Turkish sounds with the Western jazz and funk sounds that started to trickle across the Bosphorus in the early 1970s. As with many of these regional curiosities, the music created by musicians like Elsen and Zafer Dilek was largely unheard outside Turkey until the 2000s, when the power of the internet and a few curious record collectors started to open it up to the world. Occasionally, sounds from diverse regions just somehow mix perfectly, and so it was with the mixture of Turkish arabesque melodies and intoxicating instrumentation with funk basslines — 30 years on, the results still sound remarkable.

Suggested compilation: Turkish Freakout (Bouzouki Joe, 2010)

African blues

The historical links between African music and the Delta blues are well-documented, but the fact that the cultural interchange goes both ways is perhaps less widely acknowledged. Over the years, there have been plenty of African artists who have re-appropriated the sounds of the blues and mixed them with the indigenous sounds of their countries. Occasionally, one such artist receives acclaim and recognition — names like Baaba Maal and the late Ali Farka Touré spring to mind — but there’s a nearly limitless amount of music out there. (You can find some of it, along with a bunch of other weird and wonderful African sounds, on Brian Shimkovitz’s fantastic Awesome Tapes from Africa blog.)

Suggested compilation: The Rough Guide to African Blues (World Music Network, 2007)

Ethiopian jazz

Another genre that languished in relative obscurity for decades before being rediscovered in the 2000s. The most famous name in the genre is Mulatu Astatke, who studied music in the US and brought the Latin jazz sounds he came to love back to his native land, where he combined them with traditional Ethiopian music to create Ethio-jazz. The music flourished in the early 1970s, until the coup that ousted Emperor Haile Selassie and brought the communist Derg regime to power. Ethiopia was plunged into civil war and a disastrous famine, and Ethio-jazz was forgotten — or, at least, virtually unheard outside a country from which emigration was nearly impossible. Happily, the music has again found an audience in recent years, thanks at least in part to the soundtrack to Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, which used seven Astatke compositions.

Suggested compilation: New York–Addis–London: The Story of Ethio Jazz 1965–1975 (Strut Records, 2009)

Brazilian post punk

Brazil has given the world all sorts of wonderful music, from the smooth sounds of the bossa nova to the frenetic rhythms of samba. The most famous Brazilian genre of the past few decades, and rightly so, has been tropicália, the politically-infused psychedelic rock played by artists like Gilberto Gil (later to become the country’s Minister of Culture) and bands like Os Mutantes. However, the music that came after tropicália is less well-known. In particular, a pretty fantastic post-punk scene flourished in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro during the 1980s — sadly, it never enjoyed the global acclaim that tropicália did, perhaps because unlike tropicália, its proponents were never forced into exile.

Suggested compilation: The Sexual Life of the Savages (Soul Jazz, 2005)