Zorba’s Dance by Mikis Theodorakis
Some of my fondest childhood memories are of family holidays to Greece. These days Zorba’s Dance is undeniably a bit of a cliche, but when I hear that slow bouzouki intro, I’m reminded of my dad, who would put this LP on after drunken dinners and start dancing the sirtaki. I watched Zorba the Greek for the first time during lockdown last year when I came across it in my dad’s DVD collection. I was surprised by how much it affected me, making me pine for Greece – and for my dad, who I realise looked remarkably like Zorba (played by Anthony Quinn).
Vuoi Vuoi Me by Mari Boine
Womad has been the source of so many of my musical introductions: it was there, in 2007, that I first saw Mari Boine – the unofficial ambassador of Sámi music – perform live. It started a fascination with Sámi culture and joik, the distinctive guttural song style of the indigenous people of northern Scandinavia. Several years later I was invited to Kautokeino, way up past the Arctic Circle near Boine’s home of Karasjok, for the Sámi Easter festival. It felt like a crash course in all things to do with joik and reindeer, but it also gave me an invaluable insight into Sámi history and the people’s relationship with those who colonised their land. These days the Sámi have their own parliament, flag and national day (6 February).
That’s It! by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band
Like many others, I saw most of my travel plans scuppered last year, including a road trip from Nashville to New Orleans to coincide with the New Orleans jazz fest. The impetus for the trip had largely come about while binge-watching the HBO series Treme. We’d compiled a playlist for our journey through Tennessee and Louisiana, but when it became clear that our dream of visiting venues such as Preservation Hall in New Orleans wasn’t going to happen, we’d play it at home. This track by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band always lifts my spirits, gets me dancing and makes me dead set on rebooking our trip as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Bitori Nha Bibinha by Bitori
The most internationally celebrated artist from Cape Verde is the late Cesária Évora, the doyenne of morna music, steeped in saudade (nostalgia or longing). I could have picked any number of Cesária songs, but when I visited Santiago – largest of the Cape Verde islands – it was funaná that became the soundtrack of my trip, blaring out of the packed alugueres (minibus taxis), market stalls and bars. Funaná was banned by the Portuguese up until 1975 as they feared the songs in Creole were subversive and its frenetic dance rhythms immoral. Septuagenarian accordion player Victor Tavares, AKA Bitori, is the genre’s unlikely star, largely thanks to singer Chando Graciosa who persuaded him to record this in 1997, and to Samy Ben Redjeb of Analog Africa, who rereleased it in 2016.
Train Song by Sakar Khan
One of the most atmospheric festival locations I’ve visited is the Mehrangarh Fort, home of Riff – the Rajasthan International Folk Festival, held each October during the harvest moon in Jodhpur. This colossal red sandstone edifice reverberates with the sound of Rajasthani folk musicians such as Manganiyar legends Lakha Khan and the late Sakar Khan, masters of traditional bowed, stringed instruments the sindhi sarangi and the kamayacha. Riff is a full-on immersive experience and to do it justice, a certain level of stamina is required as concerts start at dawn, carry on through the heat of the day, then continue long into the night. Whenever I hear the rasping sounds of these ancient instruments, I’m instantly transported back to Jodhpur.
St Thomas by Sonny Rollins
One of the benefits of studying French and German (in those happy EU days) was being able to spend a year as an English language assistant in a school in Vienne, just south of Lyon. After my stint teaching, I volunteered at Jazz à Vienne, a wonderful two-week jazz festival held in the town’s Roman amphitheatre. I returned every summer during the early 1990s, making lifelong friends and getting a crash course in jazz in the process. Over the years I saw incredible artists, including Ray Charles, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, and Sonny Rollins, who remains one of my favourite sax players. The experience became the foundation for my love of music from around the world and my work today.
The Plateau by Jenny Sturgeon
I’ve always found comfort in walking, and last year it took on even greater importance. So between lockdowns, my partner and I headed up to the Cairngorms to do some hiking. Just before our trip I received Jenny Sturgeon’s musical tribute to Nan Shepherd’s book about the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain. Every hike we embarked on would reveal different landscapes – and every type of weather imaginable. Back in London, listening to Jenny’s album brings back memories of those mountains, especially hearing the bird song on this opening track, as Jenny sings: “Step on step, foot by foot, we walk that’s how we know, through the heather and the mud, the plateau ringing through our blood.”
Count Your Blessings by the Como Mamas
One of my European festival highlights in recent years was FMM Sines, held on Portugal’s wild and relatively untouristy Alentejo coast, in the towns of Porto Covo and Sines. A really relaxed, friendly vibe permeated the opening weekend in the seaside resort of Porto Covo, where a mixture audience of locals and travellers congregated in the main square. The Como Mamas, from Mississippi, were unknown to me, but turned out to be a revelation. As the three singers took to the stage, the atmosphere transformed into something resembling a devoted congregation at a gospel gathering. Since then, Count Your Blessings has become a mantra, particularly last year.
Pothole in the Sky by Lisa O’Neill
One of the things I sorely miss during these socially distanced times is those random conversations you strike up with complete strangers over a pint. There’s nowhere better to do this than in Dublin, especially in one of the city’s many music pubs, such as The Cobblestone or O’Donoghue’s. I haven’t been lucky enough to see the Irish singer Lisa O’Neill at a session, although she was apparently a regular in pre-Covid times. The combination of chat, beer and music is perfect and I can’t wait to revisit.
La Grande Folie by San Salvador
Most of the travelling I do as editor of Songlines is to festivals around the world, and one of the things I most enjoy about them is the communal listening experience. There’s something visceral about hearing music being performed live with other people around you. For me, San Salvador perfectly encapsulate this feeling. A sextet from Saint-Salvadour in south-west France, they sing in Occitan. There’s a real physicality to their music and something incredibly powerful about the combination of voice and percussion. They always finish their sets with La Grande Folie – a song that resonates with these crazy times.
• San Salvador are due to perform at Songlines Encounters Festival at Kings Place in May (Covid permitting)