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Global Music: The Best of 2012 | reviews, news & interviews

Global Music: The Best of 2012

Global Music: The Best of 2012

From Pussy Riot to Gangnam Style via Africa Express - was this the year pop music finally went global?

Pussy Riot: Balaclava revolution

For years there have been pundits predicting that just as our high street restaurants and football teams represent a much more globalised world, surely pop music would follow suit. Fifteen years ago my local high street had a Wimpy Bar, a curry house and a wine bar – now we have Vietnamese, Turkish, Keralan and Mexican eateries to name a few – and the street is much better for it.

Pop music, though, has been clinging to its Anglo-Saxon power bases in the US and the UK (the language helps, of course).


But in 2012 you could claim that the most significant group and track were outside that US/UK axis. Anointed band of the year by The Guardian and numerous others, Pussy Riot (see video above) at least should get an award for publicity genius, with massive worldwide coverage for three minutes of noise in a Moscow Cathedral. Thirty-five years after punk’s heyday, the Russian band managed to rattle the authorities and got everyone from Madonna to Peter Gabriel supporting them (although by boosting Pussy Riot, they made people realise how lacking in radicalism they are themselves). It was like Mel Tormé supporting the Sex Pistols. The court case also made it clear that their case against Putin and the Church was not an inchoate roar of dissent, but an articulate, intelligent arrow into the heart of the Church and State. Two of the band now languish in prison in the wilds of Russia.

 If you want YouTube hits, don a coloured balaclava and do a horse dance and get the iPhone out

Track of the year?  It would be hard to argue against Psy's "Gangnam Style", the song that ate the world and had a billion YouTube hits by the year's end. Referenced by everyone from Boris Johnson to Ban Ki Moon, this had a pudgy Korean guy taking the piss out of a chic area of Seoul. You would have had to have spent the entire year under a boulder in Outer Mongolia to avoid it. One of the reasons it was so successful was that it was easily parodied and new versions of the song appeared on a daily basis, from the earnest (the art world’s solidarity with the Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei) to numerous sports teams in the U.S. customising the track. Other memes already in existence came together with it such as the Downfall version (see video below).

K-Pop from South Korea already had some traction worldwide, but nothing like Psy. The success of his track lead to weighty opinion about Korea’s economic and cultural emergence in publications like Foreign Policy and the Economist. Part of the appeal was that unlike the glossy, well-scrubbed proponents of K-Pop, Psy has an anarchic sense of humour. Both Pussy Riot and "Gangnam Style" had easy ways for the audience to identify with them – if you want YouTube hits, don a coloured balaclava and do a horse dance and get the iPhone out. Preferably in the same video.

One thing that was noticeable in both was that in the olden days, a single would be a marketing teaser for the album, which was where the real money was. But has anyone heard either the Psy or Pussy Riot albums, should they even exist? (There is a Psy album, with "Gangnam Style" on it actually, but no one outside Korea seems to have heard it).

It may be possible these two were freakish events like the Macarena craze of whenever that was. But there were other examples of global music going mainstream, noticeably in the sizeable hit (and my favourite pop-dance track of the year) “Oliver Twist” by D’Banj. 


D’Banj, also known as the Kokomaster, has a reality show in Lagos where the winner gets to be his girlfriend and was already a big star in Nigeria with his immensely hooky tracks co-written by his cohort Don Jazzy. He calls himself, modestly, the missing link between Michael Jackson and Fela Kuti, and does have Fela’s politically incorrect chutzpah. But it was only because he connected with Kanye West, who signed him to his label (they randomly met at an airport) that he got an in with the US, and therefore global, market, having complained previously that Nigerian artists had been shut out.

Whether he will become a major star remains to be seen – and he has by all accounts fallen out with his musical co-pilot Don Jazzy, but there are other real talents in Lagos like 2Face and Tiwa Savage who could also come through, as I reported on theartsdesk radio show after a visit to Lagos. It may be next year that the UK-Nigeria connection could break through with groups like Weray Ent – mainly East Enders with Nigerian roots - whose "Ching Chang Wallah" dropped just before Christmas (see video below).

In other spheres a global tinge was also highly visible – while the likes of the American pianist Brad Mehldau produced some stunning music like Highway Rider, a lot of the most interesting jazz music of the year were artists like Tigran from Armenia or Samuel Yirga from Ethiopia. If not so far afield, much of the best indie music was from France, such as Yeti Lane, while the most memorable art music event of the year was Heiner Goebbels' revamped Stifters Dinge.

However, in some quarters there is a feeling that “world music” has imploded – evidence being offered including the influential fRoots magazine top albums voted for by 300 or so industry insiders. For several years since the millennium the majority of albums in their Top 10 were African, usually West African albums – this year seven of the top 10 were British-based folk artists. This was taken as “confirmation of the unravelling of the World Music record business”.

It may be the days of block-buster million-selling world music albums like the Afro-Cuban All Stars or Clandestino are gone. It also is true that British folk music is going through something of a golden period, with great albums from the likes of Lau and Sam Lee released this year (and Bellowhead getting into the Top 20). But it may also be true that much of the most interesting global music didn’t fit comfortably with previous ideas of what world music is supposed to be – the flattening of the world produced musical offerings this year like Spoek Mathumbo or Omar Souleyman’s (from Syria) startling Björk remix, undermining any comfortable sense of the exotic and the authentic (see below).


The lack of consensus on what is world music and what the big albums were didn’t stop festivals like WOMAD being a success, but where the big names like Femi Kuti and Cheb Khaled seemed to be going through the motions the real musical action was going on in the lesser stages, like the performance of the brilliant Dhaka Brakha from the Ukraine. Africa Express was a triumphant, chaotic real train ride across the UK - but again the real stars were artists like the lesser-known Jupiter and Okwess International.

Other global music festivals delivered some of the most extraordinary performances I saw this year – including the Konya Mystic Music Festival and the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music, which featured international music with a different kind of power to Pussy Riot's – from women Iranian singers who aren’t allowed to sing at home in public, to great performers from Afghanistan, Chechnya and Muslim China. None of those groups are likely to trouble either the fRoots charts or the pop charts any time soon, but they did show that there are endless amounts of passionate music which still has the power to subvert, threaten the status quo, and transport the listener.

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