To travel is to trade.
From the 15th century Portuguese explorers to the overconfident 18-year old who crosses the ocean with a loaded iPod, travelers are always in the business of exchanging things: ideas, food, fashion, genes and diseases. Music is right up there, and with the ease of the MP3, we freely unload playlists to one another like apples in a market.
When I look over some of the best music I own, I realize that I only discovered these bands/musicians from traveling away from home, well outside my own musical comfort zone. Certain bands are universal, others still quite local (or were, once upon a time), but despite iTunes attempts to drench us all in far-reaching world tastes, some music is still homegrown. Here’s a quick (and personal) top ten of my own discoveries accompanied by a slew of cheesy YouTube clips for your listening pleasure.
Trentemøller (Denmark) Something about dark, electronic music and the Nordic countries go hand in hand. Trentemøller has become a legendary DJ who plays across the globe, but had I never gone to Denmark, I would have waited five years for his music to work its way across the Atlantic.
Zero Degree Atoll (Maldives) I met the lead singer of this band in his home country of The Maldives, right after he performed a chilling cover or R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion”. Though he masters Led Zeppelin and his favorite band is Jethro Tull, his own music is sung in the Dhivehi languages and combines the local blend of Arabic and Indian influences.
Cheb Hasni (Algeria) You can’t visit North Africa and not hear the signature sounds of Algerian Raï music blaring in the chaotic streets of the medina, day and night. Cheb Hasni is king of the genre–an Algerian man, who with his band, cultivated a global following before he was murdered by Islamic fundamentalists in 1994. I caught on to Cheb Hasni in Morocco and despite regular online research, have yet to listen to every one of his songs that make up his prolific discography.
Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola (Ireland) Sometimes when you’re traveling, you just have to take a chance and buy a random CD from the locals. I picked up Lasairfhiona in Ireland’s windswept Aran Islands some 7 years ago and have been listening to this Gaelic singer ever since. I don’t know any other music that captures the spirit of a place like she does.
Faye Wong/ 王菲 (Hong Kong) Anyone who’s been jetlagged in Asia knows the thrill of watching hour after hour of sappy karaoke-style MTV all night long. And yet, I actually discovered Faye in a discount bin in New York City’s Chinatown and had to wait until YouTube came around to take in her full repertoire, which is extremely vast. Somedays she the Chinese Celine Dion, other days the Asian Alanis Morissette–Faye is constantly reinventing herself and loves to do Cantonese covers of western indie classics. So don’t judge too quickly–Faye grows on everybody.
Architecture In Helsinki (Australia) Admittedly, big city Melbourne’s got a pretty crazy independent music scene but Architecture in Helsinki might just be the trippiest of them all. Going on a decade strong, the bizarre musical set-ups of AIH evokes a lot of “What?” reactions while still gaining global fans for their deliciously infectious, irresistibly toe-tapping and hip-shaking songs. As ambassadors from down under, AIH begs the question, is Australia an actual country or just a constant spaced-out party?
For a Minor Reflection (Iceland) Four 20 year-old dudes wailing thoughtfully on guitars. It’s a tried-and-true recipe but somehow, this post-rock band from Reykjavík adds something wonderfully new, delivering long, drawn-out ballads completely devoid of lyrics. Heard them first at Iceland Airwaves, which might be the greatest music festival in the world.
Marisa Monte (Brazil) Fairly popular in Brazil and France, I only came upon Marisa myself while passing through South America earlier this year. Her voice, songwriting, rhythms and melodies fall slightly outside the typical Latin American canon, which is why she’s succeeded in crossing over to an international following.
Springbok Nude Girls (South Africa) Compelling band name and even more compelling music, there’s not a South African out there who doesn’t have a strong opinion about these guys, thumbs up or down. That’s why I started listening to them in London, where there are more South Africans than Brits, I think. Springbok’s broke up a few years back but are apparently back together and playing sold-out gigs in South Africa right now.
Iryna Bilyk (Ukraine) Countries with dysfunctional governments always promise a steady flow of talented artists, and after living there for several years, I can say without irony that Ukraine is no exception. Of the many divas that rock Ukraine’s airwaves, Iryna Bilyk is the most classic–a kind of bottle-blond Slavic Madonna that plays in every cab in Kiev. Like the actual Amereican Madonna, Iryna caused no small scandal when the 40-year old singer married her 22-year old backup dancer. This song is called, “I’m not sorry.”
Feel free to add your own great musical finds in the comments below–Just make sure it’s music you discovered while traveling abroad.(If you spam me with your favorite Beyoncé or Coldplay clip, the world will know that you don’t even own a passport.) Thanks!