Hundreds of years ago, riches from the Americas and other parts of the world were transported to the warehouses of “Dock des Suds” in the port of Marseille. Today, the docks have been transformed into a cultural center where much grander treasures of music from around the world can be heard at the annual three-day world music industry conference and showcases of Babel Med.
This year’s eleventh edition of Babel Med Music brought together 15,000 people to enjoy concerts from musicians from dozens of lands. The evenings were all about the concerts, but during the day, conference attendees could visit the stands of about 300 companies and organizations related to music and also attend panel discussions on a variety of subjects. This year, for the first time, Babel Med also organized a children’s program, “Babel Minots” (“minot” is Marseillaise dialect for “kids”), for several days at a venue near the docks.
It’s impossible to share the depth and breadth of the music highlighted at Babel Med, but here are ten of my favorite artists who in that particularly magical way that happens with music, tell powerful stores of experiences at the heart of the human condition: joy, pleasure, loss and lament, departures and arrivals and of course, the shared joy found in moments of dancing.
And for your listening pleasure, you can find a Spotify playlist below of music created by these artists.
Warsaw Village Band and Mercedes Peón: At the crossroads of folk and punk
Together, Warsaw Village Band and Galician multi-instrumentalist and experimental artist Mercedes Peón create an amazing conjunction of musical forces. The Polish folk band and Peón discovered a unique common point in intensely cinematic and moody rhythms, driven by crescendoing female howls and fierce violin playing. Somewhere between the legacy of the Mazovia region and the wealth of the Galician heritage, the artists forge a musical language that evokes a primal consciousness that we all share as humans.
Chango Spasiuk: Immigrant Stories from Argentina
Master accordionist Spasiuk shared tunes within the genre of chamamé, an art form of lilting grace born in the remote regions of Argentina. Spasiuk’s music is truly delightful: a lovely assortment of ballads, polkas and waltzes that tell tales of Eastern European immigrants and a creole Spanish heritage fused with indigenous Guaraní rhythms from South America.
Family Atlantica: Tri-continental psychedelic tropical funk
Fronted by the charismatic Venezuelan vocalist Luzmila Zerpa, this London-based Afrobeat ensemble creates a heady mix of rhythms with surprising twists. The results are rife with Cuban rumba, Ghanaian high-life and Ethiopian jazz. As Zerpa comments in explaining the band’s name, Family Atlantica’s music reflects the identity of all Latin music and Latin Americans as it came to be with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, crossing, bringing together and mixing people from the Americas, Africa and Europe.
Herencia de Timbiquí: Rocked-out Afro-Colombian grooves from a mining town
This eleven-member ensemble from Timbiquí, a small town on the Colombian Pacific Ocean coast, awed and shocked the hall at Dock des Suds with amped- up marimba-centered Afro-Colombian grooves. The band creates an extraordinary dialogue between the traditional music of the Colombian Pacific, the Timbiquí River miner’s lament, and completely urban sounds. Starting with folkloric-rooted sounds (played with marimba made from the chonta tree, deer-hide drums called cununus and seed-filled percussion instruments called guasá) they add texture with contemporary instruments such as the electrical guitar, drums, trumpet and sax. Herencia also adds to the mix the hard salsa from their current base of Cali. The results: an irresistible and extremely danceable musical concoction!
La Dame Blanche: Melodic urban hip hop a la cubana
Paris-based Yaité Ramos, aka La Dame Blanche, is another talented artist from the new generation of children of Buena Vista Social Club members (her father, Jesus "Aguaje" Ramos, is BVSC's Director). La Dame Blanche is a lithe, cat-suit and glittered-turban-wearing, Cuban-cigar-brandishing force of nature, and accompanied by Argentine DJ producer El Hijo de la Cumbia, she puts out Cuban urban hip-hop with a lot of je ne sais quoi at its melodic, powerful best. Occasionally, La Dame Blanche pulls out the flute and reveals the classical musical training she says her father would have liked her to pursue further—but no doubt the audience at Babel Med was delighted that she has chosen this other, fiercely independent path for her music.
Batida: Dance Beats from the 70s in Angola for the 21st Century
Led by Pedro Coquenão, aka DJ Mpula, a renowned DJ/producer and video artist from the flourishing dance club scene in Lisbon, Batida brings iconic dance grooves such as Kuduro and sounds from the 70s in Angola to current times via electronics and live instruments. Born in Angola, Coquenão accompanies his performance with live dancers and very carefully crafted visuals to create a visceral, powerful multimedia performance that speaks of the conflict and social issues in urban societies.
Songhoy Blues: Malian Punk Desert Blues in Exile
These four young Malians fled Timbuktu in 2012 at the arrival of Islamic jihadists who banned music. From their viewpoint in exile, they have worked to keep alive the unique brand of desert blues born in their homeland. Dexterously mixing ancestral beats with fiery guitar licks and driving melodies, Songhoy Blues adds their own punk rock aesthetic that renders the ancient grooves timeless.
Ferro Gaita: Playful dance beats from Cabo Verde
A veteran and much-beloved band from the Cape Verdean scene, Ferro Gaita take their name from two instruments from their homeland archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean: the ferrinho, an iron bar rubbed with a knife to create rhythmic accompaniment, and the gaita, a small diatonic accordion. Their playful Funana genre melodies and rhythms generate a contagious joy that rippled through the audience and kept everybody happily dancing throughout the set.
Niyaz: Between the Dance and the Trance, from Iran, Turkey and India
Drawing from the roots of Sufi mysticism, the ensemble Niyaz (which means “yearning”) is led by Montreal-based Iranian vocalist/composer Azam Ali and multi-instrumentalist composer Loga Ramin Torkian. The band revitalizes the ancestral poetic connections of Iran, Turkey and India through hypnotic vocals and electronics, creating music that is designed to be felt rather than understood. Somewhere along the way, the trance they create beautifully leads to a message of hope and unity in the face of cultural and spiritual diversity.
Tarek Abdallah and Adel Shams el-Din: Delicate Textures of Classical Egyptian Music
I had the opportunity to interview Alexandrian Tarek Abdallah at Babel Med 2013, and it was a pleasure to see the continued evolution of this master oud musician’s efforts to revive and preserve wasla, classical Egyptian music in the Arab tradition (which reached its heyday in the late 19th century and early 20th century). In a breathtakingly beautiful performance, Tarek Abdallah and Adel Shams el-Din explored these complex rhythmic and melodic treasures in the ripples of an ongoing dialogue between Abdallah’s oud and Shams el-Din’s riqq (classical Arabic tambourine), breathing new life into a nearly forgotten, delicate and lyrical genre.
 Spotify playlist