Malawi's Zomba Prison Project compilation among best new world music releases
Courtesy of Six Degrees Records

Fans of world music have more opportunities to tune into international sounds these days than ever before, and it isn’t necessary to have a passport to do it. Still, a little guidance is nice, so we’ve picked four of our favorite new world music releases to point you towards. 

Zomba Prison Project I Will Not Stop Singing

You might think that people in prison would not have any reason to sing, but many of the prisoners at the Zomba Maximum Security Prison in the tiny southeast African nation of Malawi have harnessed their surprising talents for songwriting and singing. This compilation presents 13 songs by inmates (and one by a prison staffer) in their native languages. Emotions come pouring through in the music so much so that even if you don't speak the language, you feel it. It’s easy to hear the pain of separation in the voice of Thomas Binamo as he sings sadly to acoustic guitar accompaniment on “I Will Never Stop Grieving for You, My Wife,” and a feeling of repentance permeates “I Am Done With Evil” by Vincent Saulos. It only takes Agnes Chiwisa a mere 31-seconds to bemoan her feelings in the stunning acapella song “Men Must Repent.” Chiwisa gets a second turn as she fronts the Yao Muslim Sisters Choir on “All is Loss,” one of only a few tunes here which has a sense of revelry to it. Another upbeat tune is Chisomo Chimpembere’s “Ambush of the Slaves,” which likely, if lyrics were understood, is not as happy as it sounds; similarly “AIDS has no Cure” and “Leave My Daughter Alone” are deceptively chipper in their arrangements. As far as authenticity goes, you couldn’t get more real; what you have here are people who are way down on their luck, some facing life imprisonment, owning up to their situations in a way that will entertain many and hopefully “scare straight” a few.

Eljuri La Lucha

Eljuri is a Latina and Lebanese woman with roots in Ecuador who’s now living in New York. She loves Cuban music and can play badass guitar in a variety of styles. All of this and more comes delightfully pouring out on La Lucha through cuts like the slightly-dubby reggae/pop of “BangBang,” the sublime samba of “El Viento” and the prog-tinged “Nunca Volveré.” Eljuri has a voice perfectly suited to girl-pop too and she turns it loose on the Blondie-esque “Right Back,” the only cut on the album that’s sung entirely in English. The rest of the album is in Spanish or a mix of the two languages.  “Indiferencia” is another great vocal track set to a tango. Then its back to reggae dancing for “Quiero Saber” which features the famous Jamaican rhythm section of Sly & Robbie. La Lucha will appeal to fans of world music and hipsters alike. 

Džambo Aguševi Orchestra Brass Like it Hot

Fronted by the Macedonian “King of Trumpet” Džambo Agušev, this big, 11-piece Balkan brass band offers up a set of lively tunes highlighted by the Latin-flavored “Arriba!,” the typically-speedy Balkan brass dance madness of “Ajmo” and the sassy strut of “Funky Time.” All but one song here (a cover of Balkan favorite “Boom”) is written by Agušev, whose first name Džambo is actually a slang nickname meaning “very fast,” and the trumpeter lives up to the description even on mid-tempo cuts like “If I Kiss Another Girl” where he coaxes lightning-fast flutters out of the brass. He plays mind-blowing riffs on the set-closing instrumental “Dzambova Pletenka” which is so fast it will have dancers huffing and puffing to keep up. Brass likes it hot indeed!

Changüí Majadero El Changüí Majadero

World music fans have always had a special fondness for Cuban music and now the recent thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba is bound to give the genre a huge boost. Fans who haven’t listened to much Cuban music since the release of the Buena Vista Social Club tracks will really be tickled by this set from the Los Angeles-based group fronted by singer and guitarist Gabriel Garcia. Changüí music is a forerunner to salsa and it is rich with the Caribbean rhythms that have their roots in parts of Africa. Garcia has a masters degree in Afro-Latin music, and what you have in this set is  dance music that instantly conjures an image of a sultry Havana night club where the bodies sway until dawn. While the emphasis is on rhythm and the dance floor, Garcia’s acoustic guitar playing, clear as a bell and flawless, is a melodic delight unto itself.