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This list is almost entirely African, drawn from my work this year with Afropop Worldwide. (I've resisted including wild cards like the Sambadunda Quartet's Java and Bonnie Raitt's Slipstream, tempting as they are.) What strikes me about my favorite African releases this year is that, for the most part, they don't come from the usual suspects — Youssou N'Dour, Salif Keita, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, etc. A youthful strain of techno-Afropop from acts like The Very Best and Janka Nabay is clearly ascendant. It's taken time for me to warm to this tech-roots approach, but both these acts have produced delightfully musical albums. That said, I'm still kind of an old-school, dance band kind of guy at heart, hence my nod to Sierra Leone's Refugee All Stars and Staff Benda Bilili — both bands that rode to glory on the strength of documentary films about them, but have now claimed more lasting fame with great music. Mokoomba, a fiery young band from Zimbabwe, is a discovery, the most promising new act out of southern Africa in awhile. Again, they break the standard mold, coming from one of Zimbabwe's smallest and least known ethnic groups, the Tonga.
Debo Band stands out among an ever-improving contingent of U.S.-based African music bands, even as they specialize in a 40-year old music style from Ethiopia. The global culture blender continues to crank out intriguing hybrids. (All hail K'Naan!) But for my money, it's still hard to top the coherence, idiosyncratic logic, and deeply settled perfection of well-worn local styles, like salegy from Madagascar, or cumbia and champeta from Colombia.
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