If I had one advantage coming into this pandemic (where, in Dubai, we’ve been on a shelter-in-place lockdown since March 26), it’s that I got shut away into my flat with decades of experience listening to music with global, exotic musical inspiration. Sure, it’s not as good as hopping on a flight and finding yourself in Polynesia or Marrakech, but it’s pretty much the next best thing. Especially if you don’t want to veg out in front of Netflix all day.
What I’m sharing here isn’t necessarily “world music.” I’ve tried to avoid simply listing music from other countries or music in other languages and go with my faves, which are albums that feature music inspired by travel or destinations exotic to the musician, or are more conceptual in nature. There’s a mix here, and hopefully between the American folk, electro-Brazilian, globe-hopping symphonic, and dance-floor-ready North African, there’s something you’ll dig.
Exotica This has to be the first mention. A whole genre that was created in the 1950s and ’60s with the Mid-Century armchair traveler in mind. Out of everything on this list, it was the first that I started listening to a long, long time ago, and I don’t doubt my love for it played a part in the wanderlust that resulted in me becoming an expat. Though named for composer Martin Denny’s Exotica album, Les Baxter is another composer known for the genre, and both have albums filled with campy sounds (birds hooting, drums, chimes) that are inspired by Polynesia and Asia—perfect for pairing with a tiki cocktail. The inspiration is global, however, and even goes beyond for some space-age tunes (in fact, you probably know an exotica track whether you’re aware of it or not: the Star Trek theme).
Jet Sounds, Nicola Conte I’ve long been a fan of DJ/producer Conte’s acidy, jazzy tracks with a retro inflection. I probably discovered him through this album (which also happens to be his first), and it remains a fave with its old-school Italian cinema feel.
Sympathique, Pink Martini There’s so much to discover and enjoy when it comes to Pink Martini, but again I’m going to go with the group’s debut album. With amazing vocalists (China Forbes can belt in 15 different languages) and a half-orchestra, this is a globe-trotting romp from South America to France. I also recommend seeing them live—pianist Thomas Lauderdale is a character as well as being a fantastic musician, and I remember my show in Philly being one of the best live performances I’ve experienced. (Go to the 01:08:30 mark for “Brazil,” my recommendation from this album.)
Nu-Med, Balkan Beat Box You probably know BBB (or at least are familiar with one of their samples) from Mac Miller’s “Goosebumpz” or Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” but this Israeli hip-hop/gypsy/electronica group more than stands on its own. Nu-Med takes its “new Mediterranean” sounds to create a pretty eclectic album that spans Middle Eastern, Eastern European, and Jamaican dancehall influences. If you like your music with lots of horns, this is for you. (They also pop up in the Nickodemus set I list later on.)
Illinois, Sufjan Stevens This guy has been making music for a while—electronica to folk—but I only discovered him in the past year, when watching The Politician on Netflix (the opening song, “Chicago,” is his). I was immediately obsessed, and ever since Illinois and The Age of Adz have been on constant rotation in my playlist. I’m recommending folk/indie-rock Illinois here not only because it’s gorgeous (Stevens’ music is often achingly beautiful, with emotional, sweeping melodies and lyrics), but because, as the name suggest, it’s an album of Illinois-centric tracks, from “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” (yes, the serial killer, that’s right) to “Casimir Pulaski Day.”
“Rhapsody in Blue,” George Gershwin Did you know that this classical jazz and piano composition was inspired by a train ride to Boston? Once you do, it’s hard to imagine the music, which chugs along with the excitement of being on-the-go and the heft of an engine rolling into its next stop, could be inspired by anything else.
The Power of Suggestion, Karminsky Experience Inc. We’re getting a little bit campy here (no surprise, my music often skews camp and kitsch), and this electronic-lounge album uses the power of aural suggestion to transport listeners to the Middle East, North Africa, and Istanbul.
Skeewiff in Brazil, Skeewiff I love Skeewiff and I love breakbeats. I particularly love this group for its often-kitsch bent (albums cover it all, from Alice in Wonderland to dubstep-ballroom), but this album is a bit more straightforward with upbeat, Latin American-inspired electronic-dance tunes that take from bossa-nova and samba beats.
April 2020 set, Nickodemus This NYC-based DJ and producer always throws down a good set. Pre-pandemic, he was scheduled to play his very first gig right around now in Marrakech. Like so many of our travel plans, his too were canceled. But there’s a silver lining: he was instead inspired to throw down and share this North Africa-inspired set that just got uploaded, so that even if we can’t travel to Morocco, at least we can enjoy what a night out at Comptoir Darna might have sounded like.
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