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Latitudes: The International Music You Must Hear Now

The Romanian band Taraf de Haïdouks returns, rebooted, to celebrate its 25th anniversary.
Kamil Ornarowicz
Courtesy of the artists
The Romanian band Taraf de Haïdouks returns, rebooted, to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Taraf de Haïdouks burst onto the international scene a quarter of a century ago as an incredible Rom (Gypsy) group from Romania, with blistering violins and lightning-fast cymbaloms set off by bouncing accordion and double bass. Since their formation as an international touring band back in 1990, their older generation of members has largely passed. But the spirit and mission of this "band of brigands," as their name translates, remains totally undiminished — as you can tell from "Clejani Love Song," which references the name of the band's home area, about 25 miles south of Bucharest. The tune, with its stunning video, features guest singer Viorica Rudareasa.

There's a lot of buzz right now around Songhoy Blues. Damon Albarn and Brian Eno tapped them for their Africa Express project (in which they wound up collaborating Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs) and they've been touring the U.S. lately with Alabama Shakes. The group hails from Mali, but unlike the "desert blues" players from the now-famous Tuareg guitar scene in their native country, these musicians come from the Songhoy ethnicity. (The quartet met up and began performing together in Bamako; three of the four, along with their families, had fled the chaos of the Islamist takeover in northern Mali.) Their music definitely links back to their Songhoy roots, but on tunes like "Irganda," you can hear a backbeat that references funk and is partnered with heated, rollicking guitars. Great fun.

This isn't a new track, but I recently stumbled upon Family Atlantica, who just played a showcase last week at the Babel Med Music festival in Marseilles, France. The premise is intriguing: Reunite the diversity of the different cultures scattered all around the Atlantic Ocean, especially the musical cultures that resulted from the flow of the slave trade. Fronted by Venezuelan singer Luzmira Zerpa, who co-founded the band with her husband Jack Yglesias, Family Atlantica stitches together all sorts of wonderful, woozy stuff: vintage Latin, Ethiojazz, Cuban rumba, Moroccan polyrhythms, highlife and more in a simmering cauldron of sound.

I can't help but give a shoutout to the incredible Belgian artist Stromae, who played our NPR Music showcase at this year's SXSW. I was one of the people on our team enthusing about him ad nauseam in the weeks leading up to Austin and boy, did he deliver. In their wrap-up, our staff likened his performance and charisma to Elvis times Sinatra times Barack Obama in 2008 ... and then threw in references to Michael Jackson and James Brown for good measure.

Stromae's set was also stuffed with clever references, from lighted scenery that reinforced the name of his most recent album, Racine Carrée (Square Root), to a brief 1990s dance music medley by his backing band that included Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)" and Snap!'s "Rhythm Is a Dancer."

The sound of the Indian sarangi has got to be one of the most soulful, evocative and heart-rending in the entire world — and to think it was an instrument that nearly went extinct! Thanks to artists like Ustad Sultan Khan and Pandit Ram Narayan, who sustained it and championed it as a solo instrument, it's now being passed on to a new generation — including the wonderful Sabir Khan, Sultan Khan's son and protege. Just listen to Sabir Khan's brief alaap (a slow, unmetered improvisation) to a raga composed in the 20th century, Raga Hemant.

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Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.