World music – around the globe in 23 evocative tracks

World music - silhouette of a rock star in front of a fiery globe
Image credit – Gerd Altmann

If you had to choose one song that epitomizes a particular country for you, which would it be?

It might be something you heard on the radio during your visit. Or just a favourite song by a particular artist from that country.

I’ve made a playlist of some of my own favourite world music, starting in Ireland and heading west. Why Ireland? Well, it’s been the starting point for many so many travels and relocations – including those of my own ancestors. Let’s face it, the Irish are everywhere.

I tried to steer clear of well-known or obvious bands and singers. No Elvis, Abba or The Beatles. After all, travel is a journey of discovery, going beyond the obvious. All these tracks are chosen because they evoke a memory or stir an emotion.

So here we go – YouTube links provided or you can find the whole playlist here.

1. Ireland

Victoria by Shane McGowan and the Popes

Landscape in Connemara, Ireland - our World Music playlist includes a song from the Popes

Don’t be fooled by his dishevelled appearance, drunkenness and irreverence. Shane McGowan is a talented singer and songwriter with incredible timing, no matter how much whiskey he might have swallowed on stage. We saw him in concert with his other band, The Pogues, in Brixton about 10 years ago and they were fantastic.

A born storyteller, Shane mixes traditional Irish country music with rock n roll, thus taking it to a whole new audience. I could have chosen any of his songs but this particular one is a favourite. Shane’s long-suffering partner, Victoria, must have been pretty chuffed to have such a song written about her.

2. Canada

Wash me clean by K.D. Lang

Canadian singer K.D. Lang standing by a railing - our World Music choice for Canada
Photo credit: Getty Images

Beautiful sensual song by the velvet-voiced Kathryn Lang. One reviewer described the sensation of listening to it as ‘a finger running down the inside of your wrist’. I’d say it’s more like a gentle caress.

I discovered this track on her album Ingénue which I bought at Tower Records in Piccadilly Circus in London (no longer there, sadly).

The album has lots of other great songs including Constant craving and Miss Chatelaine.

3. USA

American Girl by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Tom Petty from the Damn the Torpedoes album cover - our World Music choice for the USA
Tom Petty from the Damn the Torpedoes album cover

How do you choose one song from the USA?! What I like about the late Tom Petty’s music is that it’s understated yet somehow it gets into your head.

Aside from the Heartbreakers, he did some great collaborations with other musicians, such as the Anglo-American supergroup The Traveling Wilburys.

It was a toss-up between this track and Free fallin’ which I also love. Along with so many others!

4. Jamaica

Three little birds by Bob Marley and the Wailers

The ultimate cheer-up song, with its laid-back Caribbean vibe. Guaranteed to make you feel good, however badly your day is going.

5. Cuba

Chan Chan by Buena Vista Social Club

World Music - Buena Vista Social Club and a street scene from Havana Cuba
BVSC with the legendary Compay Segundo in the Panama Hat sitting next to Ry Cooder. Photo credit: Paul Bergen

This group of Cuban musicians was brought together in 1996 to celebrate the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba. The concerts were so successful that an album and documentary followed. Although some of the original members have since passed away, the Buena Vista Social Club orchestra still plays and tours today.

I discovered this song when my husband and I were going to salsa classes some years ago. It soon became our favourite. Cuba is top of my travel bucket list.

6. Mexico

Samba pa ti (Samba for you) by Santana

Carlos Santana - our World Music choice for Mexico
Carlos Santana

Beautiful instrumental track by one of the guitar greats of Latin rock, Carlos Santana.

7. Brazil

Chega de saudade (No more blues) by João Gilberto

Tempting as it was to select The girl from Ipanema as my Brazilian choice, I’m going for this one instead. It’s regarded as the first-ever Bossa Nova song and has become something of a standard for the genre. The flat notes that are so typical of Bossa seem to suit the sad wistfulness of the lyrics, which mourn a lost love.

I discovered the song when studying Brazilian history and culture about 13 years ago. Before this time, I knew little of Bossa Nova so it was a real eye (and ear!) opener.

8. Chile

Te recuerdo Amanda (I remember you Amanda) by Joan Baez

This protest song was written by poet and singer Victor Jara. He was detained during the military dictatorship years, due to his communist leanings, and was eventually assassinated at the stadium which now bears his name.

The song has been covered by various artists but I particularly like this version by Joan Baez.

9. The Andes

Sikuriadas by Incantation

A number of Andean musicians sought exile in Europe during the years of repressive military dictatorship in their home countries. This led to a new appreciation of traditional music from the region. Incantation introduced the panpipe to new audiences and it became very popular during the 1980s and 1990s.

Machu Picchu, Peru - World Music for the Andes
Machu Picchu, Peru

I love this particular track because of its bouncy, catchy rhythm which gradually speeds up. You can just visualize the jagged mountain peaks around you and the laughter of the local villagers as they dance.

10. New Zealand

Poi E by the Patea Maori Club

Patea is a tiny unremarkable town in the north island, made famous by this joyful song. It’s become a Kiwi classic, loved by all New Zealanders.

The poi is a ball on a cord, used in traditional Maori dance as can be seen on the video.

11. Australia

Reckless by Australian Crawl

A view of Sydney Opera House, harbour and Circular Quay with ferries in the foreground
Ferries coming and going from Circular Quay

Tempted as I was to choose a song by INXS – my favourite band – I decided on this moody song by Australian Crawl instead. It perfectly evokes a dark, atmospheric early morning at Sydney’s main ferry terminal. Which is where I’d love to be, any day of the week.

Australian Crawl must be the only band in the world named after a swimming stroke. I’d never heard of them until I moved to New Zealand, and heard this song playing on the radio one day.

12. Japan

Forbidden colours by Ryuichi Sakamoto

This beautiful, original piano instrumental is by Oscar and Grammy-winning musician Sakamoto who partnered with various other artists during his career. Another version of Forbidden colours includes lyrics sung by David Silvian, lead singer of the group Japan.

The music was originally composed for the Japanese-British war film Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, in which Sakomoto also acted along with David Bowie.

13. India

Ever so lonely by Monsoon

Although Monsoon’s lead singer Sheila Chandra was born in the UK, her music is a celebration of her Indian heritage. I love her exotic blend of traditional Indian sounds with rock and roll. Ever so lonely is a great pop song that always gets me on my feet.

14. South Africa

Asimbonanga Biko (We have not seen him) by the Soweto Gospel Choir

Members of the Soweto Gospel Choir performing live

Asimbonanga was written by Johnny Clegg, of racially-integrated band Savuka. It makes reference to anti-apartheid activists Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela.

The gorgeous harmonies of the Soweto Gospel Choir are perfect for the song, as they give it the depth and gravitas that it deserves. Guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

Italian singer Zucchero Fornaciari - portrait photo
Photo credit – Liguria Notizzie

15. Italy

Il volo (The flight) by Zucchero Fornaciari

Another goosebump-raiser, this gorgeous belter of a song is as stirring as any oratorio, in my opinion anyway. There’s an English version called ‘My love’ – but you can’t beat the original Italian.

Zucchero, as he’s usually called, is well known in world music circles. He’s collaborated with Paul Young, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Miles Davis and B.B. King among others.

16. France

Quelqu’un m’a dit (Someone told me) by Carla Bruni

French singer Carla Bruni

Before she married a president, Carla Bruni had already made a name for herself as a singer-songwriter. This lovely tongue-twister of a song is typical of her gentle seductive lyrical style.

I discovered Carla’s music through my now husband, who used to play her albums during our early date nights.

17. Spain

Sarandonga by Lolita Flores

And now for something completely different. Time to slip on your flamenco shoes. Raucous, catchy and fun, this song will have you clapping along.

Marina Rubicon, Playa Blanca, Lanzarote, Spain

I first heard Sarandonga at Flamenco Fusion, held at La Terracita, Playa Blanca in Lanzarote. The show was led by Antonio de la Rosa who performed with his dancers and singers. We loved it so much we went back to watch them a second time. Sarandonga was the song that remained in our memories.

18. Germany

The model by Kraftwerk

Great song by the masters of electronic music.  It was so different and original at the time – sexy and understated – and I still love it. Kraftwerk are still going strong today.

19. Belgium

Ca plane pour moi (That works for me) by Plastique Bertrand

Belgian punk rock singer Plastique Bertrand - photo portrait

Time to grab the safety pins, bin bags and eyeliner! This is punk rock, Belgian style. When it was first released in 1978, it was a breath of fresh air. Punk music was, by rebellious and disgruntled. This was tongue-in-cheek punk parody – nonsensical and fun.

Years later it was revealed that Plastique hadn’t in fact sung a note on any of his songs, which were voiced by his producer! When the truth emerged, the producer simply explained that the pair had played to their strengths: he had the voice, and Plastique had the looks and charisma. Apparently his fans weren’t too bothered!

20. Sweden

The sign by Ace of Bass

There’s so much great music in Sweden apart from Abba! I could have chosen Roxette or the Cardigans, but in the end I went for Ace of Bass because I think they’re a brilliant and underrated band. This is another ‘get on your feet’ track.

21. England

I want your love by Transvision Vamp

Members of Transvision Vamp with their lead singer Wendy James
Members of Transvision Vamp with the brilliant Wendy James

How to choose one song from my birth country! I could have gone for something from my region (the north east), or something sentimental like ‘England’ by Ralph McTell perhaps. But how would I sum up the England that I know and love? Down-to-earth, creative, resilient and innovative, but always with strong roots in the past.

With that in mind I went for this belter, sung by Transvision Vamp featuring the raunchy, over-the-top, in-your-face Wendy James – a true performer. It’s edgy but has a bit of a retro feel to it also.

Unfortunately the band didn’t stay together for long, but Wendy still tours as a solo performer today. I always felt she should have had a lot more success than she did.

22. Wales

Warwick Avenue by Duffy

Wales is renowned for producing great singers. Aimee Anne Duffy, known professionally simply as Duffy, hit the charts with ‘Mercy’ in 2008. It was a real 60s throwback sound and could easily have been sung by one of the old Tamla Motown bands like Martha and the Vandellas.

Welsh singer Duffy - portrait photo

A talented singer and songwriter, Duffy has had a colourful and difficult personal life, which caused her to disappear from the music scene for a decade or so. I hope to see her back one day soon.

‘Warwick Avenue’ is my favourite song of hers. I first heard in my gym, and was rather surprised to hear the beefy guy on a treadmill in front of me singing along to it!

It’s a tear-jerker so if you watch the video, have your tissue box ready.

23. Scotland

Fields of fire by Big Country

A great rousing anthem by Big Country, who were known for their guitars that sounded like bagpipes. I remember visiting the Perthshire village of Edzell and being told by a local that Stuart Adamson (the lead singer) lived in the local area. It was exciting to be that close to a rock star. Who probably wasn’t even home at the time!

I was gutted to hear, years later, that Stuart had committed suicide after battling with alcoholism. But what a legacy he has left behind.

A street in Dunfermline, birth town of Stuart Adamson - lead singer of the band Big Country
Dunfermline, where Stuart Adamson was born


And there ends my world music tour! I’m planning more posts on a similar theme in future, including some of the tracks that I was pained to leave out. If you’d like more ideas on how to get around the world without leaving home, see my post on How to be a happy fulfilled traveller when you can’t travel.

Do you have any favourites that trigger a memory of a particular place in the world, and why? I’d love to hear your suggestions and stories.

© Coconut Lands. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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  1. Sampha’s “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” is one of the most touching songs ever penned about the relationship between music and musician. With nothing more than some sweeping keyboard work and a metronomic tick of percussion, Sampha gives us his raw origin story how music helped him first find himself as a child and later not lose himself after his mother’s death. This R B track is a testament to how an entire world can be built out of nothing more than piano and voice.

  2. Warwick Avenue is one of my favourite songs and I used to love The Model by Kraftwerk. I haven’t heard of some of these songs so I’m off to stream them now 🙂

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