While the U.S. has been deemed as a “melting pot”, us Americans tend to get caught up in our own pop culture. It’s easy for us to know all about the Kardashians or Justin Bieber because that the content that media outlets feed us. However, there’s a whole world of culture waiting to be noticed by us! Music is one of the staples of culture anywhere, so here is a list of some great international artists that you may or may not know – either way, their unique sounds and different languages provide a whole new step into music that you may be unfamiliar with.
1. Ladysmith Black Mambazo
Since it was Nelson Mandela International Day on July 18th, Ladysmith Black Mambazo couldn’t go unmentioned! Ladysmith Black Mambazo is one of the most famous men’s vocal groups, so it’s likely that you’ve heard of them before. They are a South African group founded by Joseph Shabalala in the 1960’s. Their music preserves the traditional South African music style of isicathamiya, while incorporating modern aspects to provide the fullest entertainment experience. Ladysmith Black Mambazo reached international success after recording on Paul Simon’s album, Graceland, in the 1980’s. After that, they had worldwide releases, won Grammy awards, and worked with dozens of important music icons. The group was also a fan-favorite of the late Nelson Mandela, and they accompanied him when he received his Nobel Peace Prize as well as sang at his inauguration. While Joseph retired in 2014, he passed the reigns down to his sons and the group continues to sing “of peace, of love, and for people to live in harmony,” (Mambazo.com). Ladysmith Black Mambazo is the only group on this list that I’ve seen in real life and I’m not lying when I saw that their performance was entrancing, entertaining, and most of all talented. Check out this YouTube video of an entire performance to truly experience their vibe and see them in action!
2. Sigur Rós
Sigur Rós is an Icelandic rock band founded in 1994 with the original members being Jón Þór “Jónsi” Birgisson, Georg Hólm, and Ágúst Ævar Gunnarsson. Kjartan “Kjarri” Sveinsson joined the band in 1998 and was instrumental in bringing a more orchestral sound to their music, however, he left the group to pursue other things in 2013. Ágúst also left the band in 1999 as the percussionist and was replaced by Orri Páll Dýrason that same year. Sigur Rós’ music is difficult to categorize—people call it post-rock, art rock, and more, but what does that really mean? The closest genre might be ambient rock as their avant-garde style includes dream-like, ethereal sounds with the uniqueness of Jónsi’s vocals and the group’s instrumentals. Sigur Rós reached mainstream success through their second album, Ágætis Byrjun, as it received great reviews and even earned Album of the Year from the Shortlist Music Prize. They primarily write their songs in Icelandic and occasionally English, but they have even gone as far as to create their own language, Volenska, or Hopelandic in English, which is comprised of different sounds that are like Icelandic but don’t have any real meaning. Through their album ( ), they employ Volenska and leave it up to the listeners to determine their own lyrics and meanings for each of the songs. The group’s music is much different than other music that we are more commonly hearing today as it demonstrates the true beauty of simplistic music while incorporating the influence of Iceland and its culture into the sounds. Listen to their track Starálfur off Ágætis Byrjun, which has been used in several soundtracks over the years.
3. The King’s Singers
The King’s Singers are a British a cappella group founded in 1968 at King’s College, Cambridge. The original group had six male singers in the formation of two baritones, one tenor, two baritones, and one bass and they have kept this same formation up until today. None of the original members remain in the King’s Singers, so there are different generations of singers rotating in and out. They are well-known for their strong vocal abilities and their seemingly perfect harmonies. The King’s Singers are most influenced by the musical style of Sir David Willcocks, the previous Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge who inspired the group to form back in 1968. They also don’t sing one genre or style of music; they go from classical songs to popular tunes and are capable of everything in between. Many of the current and former members have been trained in choral singing, especially in the Church, so these men are the best of the best! The group travels across the world singing and performing their impressive repertoire to music-loving audiences who appreciate the rich sound the King’s Singers provide. Here is a clip of previous King’s Singers members showcasing their vocal abilities and beautiful harmonies through the classic “Danny Boy”.
4. Epik High
Epik High is a South Korean hip-hop group comprised of members Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz. They formed in 2001 during a time when hip-hop was not widely accepted or even welcomed by music stations and the Korean population. Epik High differed from other rap groups at the time due to their complex lyricism that focused on taboo issues. They didn’t gain commercial success until their albums Swan Songs and Remapping the Human Soul which were released in 2005 and 2007 respectively. Remapping the Human Soul got banned by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism because of the topics it discussed, but Epik High remained vigilant in their ideology of creating new paths for hip-hop and breaking out of the outdated perceptions of rap music that many Koreans had at the time. Despite some hiccups in their career and a brief hiatus, Epik High came back to the hip-hop scene by signing with a new entertainment agency and releasing their highly praised album, Shoebox, in 2014. They were one of the rap groups that paved the path for current hip-hop stars in Korea, such as billboard charting BTS and more. Epik High continues to inspire younger generations of rappers and lyricists and they work with the current younger generations to create a new sound that is unique to Epik High and modernity. Listen to their song “Rich (feat. Taeyang)” which discusses people’s obsessions with being rich and ultimately missing out on the other opportunities that life has to offer.
Stromae (Paul Van Haver) is a Belgian hip-hop/electronic artist who sings primarily in French. He is of Belgian and Rwandan descent, contributing to his appreciation of global music and foreign musical influences. Unfortunately, his father passed away when he was young after being killed in the Rwandan Genocide while visiting family. Stromae always loved music and especially rap from a young age, but his life path led him to working at a hospital and studying film. As he got older, he decided to solely focus on his music career. He gained popularity through his first single, “Alors on danse” after it was played on the NRJ radio station in 2008. “Alors on danse” reached the number one spot on Belgian music charts only weeks after it was played, giving Stromae commercial success from then on. His work, while mainstream, is much different than other Belgian music. He combines European, African, and American influences to create globally accessible songs that are entertaining but also meaningful. He is known for addressing sensitive, but prevalent social issues through his music while also keeping the song and the visuals entertaining. He has now worked with many global superstars, been on American talk shows, and even worked on movie soundtracks as well. Check out one of his most famous songs, “Papaoutai” which focuses on the issue of absent fathers. The music video is an incredible visual addition to an already amazing song!
Azonto is neither an artist or a group, but rather a style of dance and an entire musical genre originating in Ghana. Azonto comes from kpanlogo, another dance and genre of music from the Ga, an ethnic group in Accra, Ghana, that was popular in the 60’s and 70’s. Young people in the capital would play the nono (bell), the fao (gourd rattle), and kpanlogo drums and dance in a certain manner, oftentimes with promiscuous moves. Older generations viewed kpanlogo as an inappropriate, reckless style of music—similar to how older generations in America viewed rock ‘n’ roll or hip-hop when those genres became popular with the youth. Azonto has evolved in its own way with the base of the dance described as “one leg is still and planted while the performer pivots and twists on the ball of the other foot; one hand is pointed straight down, circled around the other hand held at the waist and then pointed to the sky,” (Weaver Shipley). What people seem to love most about azonto is the creativity that stems from the basic dance moves; dancers incorporate every day actions such as dish-washing, phone dialing, etc., which makes for a more entertaining and slightly humorous dance. These movements make sense since azonto is perceived to come from the term “apam” meaning “to work”. While more traditional generations view azonto as not authentically African, those who create the songs see azonto as a presentation of Ghana that can fit into the mainstream popularity of global music. Azonto has been welcomed by Ghanaian diaspora groups across the world as it represents home for them, further bolstering the music’s popularity in different nations. Azonto helps to showcase a piece of Ghanaian culture in a musically globalized world. Check out this song “AZONTO (feat. Tiffany)” by Fuse ODG which is one of the most famous azonto songs.
Shipley, Jesse Weaver. “Transnational Circulation and Digital Fatigue in Ghana’s Azonto Dance Craze.” American Ethnologist, vol. 40, no. 2, 10 May 2013, pp. 362–381., doi:10.1111/amet.12027.
Hopefully you connected to one or more of the artists on this list. Learning about the music of another country is so important for our cultural literacy as well as our general understanding for global music. Comment below and let us know what you think of these musicians!