Published Jan 01, 2006M.I.A.
Backed by a blast of Rocky fanfare, genre-mashing agit-pop star M.I.A. entered 2005 as the champ to beat, even though her debut album Arular had yet to see a release. Her very first live performance, in fact, took place this February in the basement of Toronto's upscale hipster haunt, the Drake Hotel, to a small-but-stoked scenester crowd, all of whom already knew every last lyric.
Despite, or more likely because of, the hype that had been arriving via broadband for months, childhood civil war survivor Maya Arulpragasm looked surprisingly scared onstage. Wearing a homemade silk pantsuit laced with lightening bolts and standing in front of her hand-drawn graphics of tanks and bombs, 28-year-old Maya clearly realised this was where her make-or-break year began though she likely didn't imagine it would end with her current arena tour alongside Gwen Stefani.
But in the interim months, M.I.A refused to leave either the road or your iPod. She sung with Missy, blew off Kanye and toured with LCD Soundsystem. She signed with Interscope, sided with "terrorists" and sold out to Honda. She came through window, she came through the door, she busted down the big wall and sounded the horn.
When informed that the raging editorial debate over Arular was not about what number it would rank, but rather what genre section it should fit in, M.I.A. simply says, "well, you're just going to have to invent a new one." After all, that's pretty much what she did mischievously connecting dots between West London grime and Southern crunk, NYC electro and Indian bhangra, Brazilian baile funk and Kingston dancehall, Public Enemy politics and Double Dutch nursery rhymes.
"The thing that I'm doing is something else and it doesn't really connect with anything at the moment," she says. "In hip-hop people are opening up more and in indie music people are getting more beats. Influences are crossing over into each other's puddles. I just accept where I'm at, I accept where the world is at and I accept how we receive and digest information. I get that somebody in Tokyo is on the internet instant messaging, and someone in the [Brazilian shantytown] favelas is on the internet. Everybody seems to know a little bit about everything and that's how we process information now. This just reflects that."
Not only did M.I.A. channel this brave new e-world, it's also where her career was born. This time last year she was still primarily a digital phenomenon. The London-raised refugee of a Sri Lankan "freedom fightin' dad" had made the leap from stencil artist to recording artist thanks to the second song she ever wrote the career-defining "Galang" with its "yeah yeah heys" heard round the world.
But that debut twelve-inch only saw a 500-copy pressing until it was re-released last fall by XL Recordings to follow-up her insurgent anthem "Sunshowers" and its equally defiant boast "like PLO I won't surrend-o."
But nobody buys singles this side of the pond so M.I.A.'s music spread via effusive music blogs, hipster soul-seekers, dance club DJs and her soon-to-be-boyfriend Diplo's brilliant no-samples-cleared mixtape Piracy Funds Terrorism, which footnoted her influences by mashing M.I.A. up with Salt'n'Pepa, the Bangles and favela funk.
After a brief delay caused by her jump from indie XL to mega-label Interscope, M.I.A. finally made it to record racks last March. Named after her father's guerrilla alias he's linked to Sri Lanka's controversial Tamil Tigers, a group seen by some as justified insurgents and by others as child soldier-recruiting terrorists Arular offered a potent mix of party minx and political firebrand.
A performance in poverty-stricken Argentina, where the biggest crowd reaction came for "Pull Up the People," made her realise the power of her platform. "I can use music to shed light on the people that need to speak. But at the same time, it's difficult. I'm not preachy. I can't be because it doesn't work on me and I have to be open to that. You don't want to tell people what to do, you just want to indicate what's out there, that's all. I'm not a leader, I'm an agitator. I don't want to push anything down their throats. I just want to be the voice that raises some questions."
But questions can be a double-edged sword and almost immediately music critics, academics and message board posters began doubting her authenticity, slamming her appropriation of regional styles, dismissing her as an art school grad and parsing her revolutionary subject matter. Though she's made clear her guerrilla lyrics are intended to add grey to Dubya's black and white world that the difference between freedom fighter and terrorist is often a matter of perspective she has a bit of concern over charges of appropriation.
"It's a 50-50 thing. On the one side you think who the fuck am I to come into Brazil and say funk is cool?'" she says after "Bucky" became the first favela track on MTV. But she's also helping shed light on the scene and besides, favela funk was appropriated from Miami Bass anyway.
More recently the backlash has concerned her sale of "Galang" for use in a Honda car commercial a decision she's been personally explaining to fans at gigs. Though she hoisted her own petard a bit with the "M.I.A." lyric "Don't sell out to be product pushers," Maya stands by her choice.
"I still get pulled by the practical side of it. You get the money and then you buy 20 beggars on the street ten rickshaws so they can be taxi drivers and support their family. Or do you turn around and say my little 30 seconds of music is so fucking precious that no one is allowed to touch it, my credit as an artist is way more important. I don't have the luxury to turn something like that down," she notes. "How the fuck do I sustain myself when for every person that buys my CD, there are ten people who download it? I'm never going to make money from selling records. I don't come at it the way Gwen Stefani does."
But all the overblown backlashes and critical deconstruction in the world can't diminish the reaction M.I.A. received in September during her third sold-out Toronto show of the year. The crowd was younger, more diverse and still ridiculously excited many had likely only recently discovered her and sang gloriously along while Maya herself had grown into her songs and finally learned how to properly wield her considerable charisma.
Whether or not she'll parlay that into a solid sophomore effort remains to be seen though having Timbaland produce can't hurt. But regardless of what's next, all year long Arular's transglobal soundclash made it sound like the future had already arrived. "When you open doors like that in music," Maya says matter-of-factly, "you're going to get interesting things."
2. SHARON JONES and the DAP-KINGS
Thank goodness Sharon Jones is finally getting some dap! From unaccredited back-up singer to Corrections Officer at Rykers, Georgia's Queen of Funk has seen it all and ain't afraid to tell it. Naturally is her second album and it's so damn good that you'd be hard pressed to go through the People Records back catalogue and find anything funkier. From songs like "How Long," "This Land is Your Land" and "Got A Thing On My Mind," you can feel the funk and soul coursing through your veins. The Dap-Kings keep it tight and seamless, and it all comes together with Sharon Jones at the helm. Like the soul sister number one says, "If you can't feel the music on this album then you must be a dead ass." Dalia Cohen
3. ROISON MURPHY
Ruby Blue (Echo)
Though Moloko were one of the more intriguing dance acts to break into the mainstream, you could always sense that Murphy was gonna make a run for it. Despite her old band's solid discography, Ruby Blue is easily the finest record she's been involved with. Thanks to producer and co-writer Matthew Herbert, who supplies Murphy with some awe-inspiring, shape-shifting rhythms and indescribable arrangements, this unique artist has found herself in a realm of synthetically futuristic funk and R&B that heralds her as a true innovator in a field so heavily reliant on the throwback. Cam Lindsay
4. CHEB I SABBAH
La Kahena (Six Degrees)
Celebrated Algerian-born, San Francisco-based DJ Cheb I Sabbah has become known for his deferential approach to remixing Arab/Indian music, but he has produced a near masterpiece with fourth album, La Kahena. Named after a 7th century Jewish/Berber woman who led a rebellion against Arab invasion, it is her rousing spirit that flutters across each of the eight tracks on the record. Given the ongoing conflict that persists in this part of the world, an homage to a female freedom fighter has never seemed more relevant. Sabbah has humbly captured the mostly-feminine voices of Maghreb with feather-light engineering that honours the art form of Sufi devotional hymns, Arabic and Berber chants, and traditional music. With North African ouds, violins, percussion and mystical harmonies, this is genuine trance music without Western additives.Lorena Dexter
5. QUANTIC SOUL ORCHESTRA
Pushin' On (Ubiquity)
With his second release as a full-blown orchestra, young Will Holland continues to make music that almost seems too complex and grown-up for his tender age. Pushin' On easily slides in amongst dusty funk classics without missing a beat; Holland's live project blends uncontrollable soul rhythms with dashes of Afrobeat, all tied together with one of the greatest voices on the planet, thanks to Alice Russell. While Pushin' On gives a nod to vintage grooves it also advances the genre with the elegant use of a string section and Mr. Scruff renditions, just to snap you out of your throwback trance and keep you on your toes. Noel Dix
6. JAMIE LIDELL
Former Super_Collider member Jamie Lidell delivers an unexpected soul-sonic stunner with his solo debut set, Multiply, an album that pays tribute to the heroes of soul music's storied past and incorporates those influences into a wholly modern electronic sound. Stylistically, Lidell respectfully borrows from Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, '60s doo-wop, and even Morris Day-style synth-funk to form the base to which he adds a futuristic sheen of effects and processes that drag these classic styles into the present in a way that fully avoids the "knock-off" label. All of this is anchored by an incredibly rich and versatile vocal sensibility that bleeds and growls with inspired intensity.Kevin Jones
7. BOOZOO BAJOU
Dust My Broom (!K7)
With their second album as Boozoo Bajour, Nuremberg producers Peter Heider and Florian Seyberth have become one of the leading examples of a growing trend in world/groove music circles. Scouring popular music history for earthy sound bites and motifs, the duo patch together a healthy blues influence with country, ragga, jazz and Latin, and run the whole thing through a dose of dryly-textured studio dub. Dust My Broom is a foment of old and new, classic and obscure with moments of sheer bliss, like on "Take it Slow," where original deejay U-Roy meets New Zealand's soul reggae star Joe Dukie.Brent Hagerman
8. LOS PLENEROS DE LA 21
Para Todos Ustedes (Smithsonian Folkways)
Although all eyes were on Puerto Rico this year because of their newest musical export, reggaeton, Los Pleneros De La 21 reminded everyone that Puerto Rico's musical history goes much deeper with this high-spirited album that weaves drums, singing and dancing with contemporary jazz and salsa rhythms. Reaching the true heart and soul of Puerto Rico through the traditional bomba rhythms found on tracks like "Campo/Yo Cantare Esta Bomba" and the call-and-response-style of the tropical plena found on tracks like "Angelito," Los Pleneros have created an energetic world fusion record that is as pure and authentic as it is new and exciting. Sergio Elmir
9. MEI TEI SHO
Lo Ba (Jarring Effects)
Hailing from Lyon, France, this five-piece rocked Montreal earlier this year. Fronted by the magnetic Jean Gomis, who sings in French, English and Wolof, Mei Tei Sho is a musical representation of the ethnic tensions that are currently engulfing France. Gomis is alternately pissed off, righteous and tender while letting loose over a bass-heavy amalgam of African impulses, hip-hop, rock, Balkan beats, and jazz. Lo Ba is their fourth album and finds everything seamlessly integrated into an uncategorisable whole. Lo Ba goes beyond drawing influences from various countries of origin; it is the trans-ethnic pop future of the new France. David Dacks
10. JOE BATAAN
Call My Name (Vampisoul)
Mr. New York is back with a powerful piece of Latin-soul-barrio-funk that was so authentic it had everyone wondering when this album really came out. Bataan's first album in over 20 years, Call My Name was recorded in 2004 with the help of Gabe Roth (of Sharon Jones and Antibalas fame) and it showed us that el Afro-Filipino hasn't lost a single step, with tracks like the energising dance floor burner "Chevere Que Chevere" or with the heartfelt ballad "Secret Girl, My Superfraud." Bataan brought back the spirit of 1970s East Harlem with this truly sizzling album that had both fans and critics working their hips.Sergio Elmir
World Music Labels That Matter
Possibly the world's best boutique label, they continue to put out beautifully packaged, fearless music. Major successes this year included Franco-Mali pop sensations Amadou & Mariam, the acoustic hoedown of Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate, and the Kronos Quartet taking on R.D. Burman's Bollywood with his widow, the legendary Asha Bhosle.
World Music Network / Riverboat
There were a billion Rough Guide collections this year, ranging from the good to the brilliant (Balkan Gypsies, Sudan). Riverboat's single artist discs got a lot more adventurous with the urban gypsy sounds of the Shukar Collective, the Sudanese summit of oud player Abdel Gadir Salim and rapper Emmanuel Jal, and intrepid steel guitarist Bob Brozman's collaboration with the guitar bands of Papua New Guinea.
This is the best small label of the year. The Gypsy club beats of Shantel's Bucovina Club 2 were a sensation across Europe, and the debut by the self-explanatory Balkan Beat Box followed hard on its heels. Senor Coconut's Coconut FM was a survey of booty beats from across South America and the Caribbean, which kept the momentum going from the label's Rio Baile Funk compilation of last year.
Starting the year by winning the prestigious WOMEX award for excellence in world music, this label returned to Canadian distribution with several outstanding releases. Konono #1 (see page 46) was the most celebrated, but the hard grooving sounds of Gypsy amalgam Mahala Rai Banda and the pan-Brazilian celebration of DJ Dolores were other major successes.
Madrid's Vampisoul is curating the ultimate Nuyorican catalogue of the 60s and 70s thanks to their reissues from the legendary Fania label. This year alone saw approximately ten CD reissues, as well as three Fania Allstars DVDs. However, their biggest success of the year was their issue of the first new album in more than 20 years by the King of Latin soul, Joe Bataan.
One of the most thought-provoking labels in the world, this outfit is best known for their radio collages. Best of all their many releases this year was the spellbinding Radio Sumatra, which purees hip-hop, country, saccharine pop and the Indonesian specialty known as Gambus rock. Other great discs included the Team America-esque Radio Pyongyang, the psychedelic Thai country grooves of Molam and the incredible DVD Niger: Magic and Ecstasy of the Sahel. You'll never hear this label at Starbucks.