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Latitudes: 50 Years Of Nonesuch, 10 Essential Recordings

Senegalese superstar singer Youssou N'Dour performs in Lagos, Nigeria in 2009.
Pius Utomi Ekpei
AFP/Getty Images
Senegalese superstar singer Youssou N'Dour performs in Lagos, Nigeria in 2009.

Usually, the Latitudes feature is devoted to five new discoveries from the previous month. For September, I'm taking a different tack.

The Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) recently wrapped up a three-week festival devoted to celebrating the legacy of the Nonesuch record label, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Looking over the "Nonesuch Records at BAM" offerings — including concerts by Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, the globe-circling Kronos Quartet, Mali's Rokia Traore and Brazilian legend Caetano Veloso — got me thinking about how much I've learned from the label over the years, in both the realms of contemporary classical music and what's come to be known as "world music."

The first time I heard the intensely rhythmic "monkey chant" of Bali — more accurately, scenes from the Hindu religious epic The Ramayana -- it was thanks to Music From The Morning Of The World. Otherworldly Bulgarian polyphonic singing: Le Mystere De Voix Bulgares (The Mystery Of Bulgarian Voices). The hypnotic thumb piano of Zimbabwe: Shona Mbira Music. As I heard each, sonic horizons unfolded for me exponentially. My ears got a lot bigger after I discovered the Nonesuch catalog in high school and college.

It's not just me: In talking to many musicians and fans over the past couple of decades, I've learned just how much Nonesuch has been a portal for discovering artists from beyond the English-speaking world. (The proselytizing extends beyond Planet Earth, actually: Nonesuch recordings were cherry-picked to go up on the spacecraft Voyager in 1977 to help represent life on Earth to extra-terrestrials; the selections include court music from Java and shakuhachi flute music from Japan.)

Nonesuch was far from the first American label to venture to foreign ports, of course. The archives of powerhouse labels like RCA Victor and Columbia teem with logs of recordings that engineers made in cities from Buenos Aires to St. Petersburg as early as the 1910s, not to mention all the recordings made in the U.S. by immigrant artists, expressly meant to be sold to their respective, newly arrived ethnic communities. By the end of WWII, however, that tradition had largely died out, and there were very few releases from American record companies of traditional or popular music from other cultures.

Beginning in 1967, Nonesuch paved a new path with its Explorer series. Label director Teresa Sterne took recordings from ethnomusicologists, musicians and producers who fanned out around the globe to record music across Africa, Latin America, Asia and Europe — and created a visually distinct, sonically exciting series aimed at adventurous listeners.

Ninety-two albums were released under the Nonesuch Explorer aegis, from an album of Chinese zither music to fiesta music from Oaxaca and recordings of Irish hornpipes and reels. It was all fair game — and generations of American music lovers found their footing in a larger world of sound through these LPs.

Though the Explorer series was shuttered in 1984 (five years after Sterne was dismissed from the label), Nonesuch continued its tradition of releasing world music — now helping to shape its roster's artists into international stars. Both through its own signings and by becoming the U.S. distributor for the highly influential British label World Circuit (which signed a host of stellar African and Cuban musicians such as Ali Farka Touré and Toumani Diabaté, as well as the Buena Vista Social Club and all of its individual offshoot projects), Nonesuch took the Explorer legacy and helped artists like Amadou & Mariam, Taraf De Haïdouks and Bombino find and expand their audiences in the U.S.

It wasn't easy whittling my personal Nonesuch favorites down to just 10 recordings — I could have doubled the length of this list without thinking twice. What have I missed among your favorites? Tell me in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas
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.