You've seen that familiar New Year's greeting card. A baby in diapers crawls into the spotlight as a symbol of the year to come, while a white-bearded great-grandfather with a cane hobbles away. But in 2003, the card should have been different. The world music old-timer hogged the stage while the infant waited in the wings. Career comebacks by artists thought to have peaked long ago marked the high points of the year along with CD reissues of classic performances. New performers, however, had little visibility.
Veteran Nigerian bandleader King Sunny Ade put out two retrospective releases in 2003. Ade was pegged as world music's next international superstar following the death of Bob Marley in 1981. While Ade's Island Records releases have survived on CD along with some of his albums for American indie labels such as Blue Mesa, his classic Nigerian material became available only this year via The Best of the Classic Years for Shanachie and Synchro Series on IndigeDisc. Both CDs provided superb glimpses into what the King was serving up at home when he was on top of the Nigerian charts.
Other world music highlights came from new albums by two venerable West African bands. Mali's Super Rail Band languished throughout much of the Nineties as interest in classic African pop diminished. But when Senegal's Orchestra Baobab entered Billboard's world music charts with Specialist in All Styles, it proved that the market had opened up for older, pre-hip-hop African pop. Specialist in All Styles joined the Super Rail Band's Kongo Sigui as remarkable, virile examples of the Cuban-influenced African sound that had previously dominated the continent for more than 30 years.
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The impetus behind all three of these discs dates back to 1997's Buena Vista Social Club, which first revealed a huge audience for pre-Revolution Cuban sounds. (Buena Vista vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer had a popular release this year with Buenos Hermanos, as did laoud player Barbarito Torres with his eponymous CD.) Much of its success was due to artistic director Juan de Marcos, whose Afro-Cuban All Stars released a lovely CD-DVD combo, Live in Japan. The All Stars employ comparatively young musicians such as pianist Dave Alfaro, but in the service of updating Fifties-style Cuban music. Missing, however, were releases from the latest generation of Cuban musicians playing urban pop.
The closest an emerging artist came to achieving success in the world music market was 30-year-old Ethiopian-born Ejigayehu Shibabaw, better known as Gigi. Her album with Abyssinia Infinite, Zion Roots, topped the BBC's world music poll for 2003, and her remix album Illuminated Audio was also a critical favorite. Both albums blend her soaring traditional-style singing with an ambient mix of acoustic and electronic instruments.
The depressed condition of the music industry in general can be chalked up to the high price of CDs compared to DVDs and the industry's ongoing struggle to set up a viable MP3 business on the Internet, among other factors. That may be one of the reasons why tried and true artists won out over relatively untested material. Concurrently, some classic material has apparently fallen victim to shrinking budgets. Nonesuch Records embarked on an ambitious plan to reissue its entire Explorer Series catalog of 92 trailblazing world music albums from the Sixties to Eighties. The African discs were reissued in 2002 and the Indonesian and Latin American titles in 2003 as intended. However, the Asian albums slated for June 2003 have been rescheduled for spring and summer 2004.
The Nonesuch Asian collection would have given eager ears something to rejoice over in one of the leanest years for world music releases in memory. Perhaps an economic upturn in 2004 will bring a spate of new and exciting projects. Otherwise, that bearded oldster may dominate the stage for yet another year.