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Top 10 Best World Music Artists, According to Ethno-Musicologists

Best World Music Artists

World music is loosely defined as music from non-Western countries.

Quite a broad definition for certain. While it might bring forth images of tribal songs and dances, World music has evolved to include all ethno-musical cultures and styles.

World Music Festivals and concert tours abound and many world music artists find their ways into jazz, folk, dance and house music festivals.

The list below contains mostly pioneers and old-school artists who were part of the first wave of musicians known as World Music artists.

Fela Kuti

Fela Kuti

October 1938 – 2 August 1997

Father of the Afrobeat genre. Fela is afrobeat. There was no genre before him.

All the world’s music festivals and bands playing to audiences worldwide owe their existence to Fela Kuti and the genre he created. The lore surrounding his life is legendary and large.

He was a thorn in the government’s side and he was arrested many times for political activism.

He asked all the women in his band to marry him and 27 agreed to do so, so on Feb 20, 1978, he married all 27 in a ceremony in Lagos.

But all this is background noise to the musical legacy he left to the world, and that his offspring continue to perform today.

Drummer Tony Allen is responsible for inventing the Afrobeat rhythm on a standard drum kit.

Some recommended listening includes:

Water Get No Enemy



Umm Kulthum

Umm Kulthum

May 4, 1904 – February 3, 1975

The most famous voice of Arabic music , she was the greatest star of Egyptian music in the world.

From humble beginnings as the daughter of the imam of a rural village , her immense vocal talent was recognized and encouraged early on.

She appeared in films, on T.V and on the radio. It’s estimated that 4 million people attended her funeral in Cairo in 1975.

Her vocals are known by everyone living in the Middle East and beyond.

Her bands featured standard arabic/middle eastern instrumentation including oud, violin sections, darbuka and other middle eastern drums.

Some of her best known works are:

Alf leila we leila

Enta Omry

Seret El Hob

Manu Dbango

Manu Dbango

Emmanuel N’Djoké “Manu” Dibango

12 December 1933 – 24 March 2020

Born in Cameroon, educated in France and Belgium where he studied piano, saxophone and vibraphone.

His biggest hit song, Soul Makossa was a successful blending of West African rhythms and a jazz-inflected tenor saxophone riff that made it to the dance floors of the era. If you listen closely to Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop, you’ll hear MJ tips his hat to Manu.

In his career, he performed and collaborated with The Fania All-Stars, Herbie Hancock, and Hugh Masakela and continued to push the boundaries of Afro-Jazz music well into the 21st century.

Recommended listening:

Ah Freak Sans Fric

Soul Makossa


King Sunny Adé

King Sunny Ade

September 22, 1946 (age 75 years), Osogbo, Nigeria

King Sunny Ade is a Nigerian bandleader, multi-instrumentalist, composer and singer.

There was simply nothing like witnessing this ensemble live.

Juju music blends African griot storytelling, talking drums, and an “army” of electric guitars that each play different single notes to create a percussive like instrument section unto its own.

It’s impossible to sit or stand still while listening to his recordings, which include Juju Music in 1982 and Synchro System in 1983.

Give some of their work a whirl:

Ja Funmi

Merciful God

Aye Nreti Eleya

Salif Keita

Salif Keita

Salif Keita was born into the Royal Keita family , founders of the Malian empire.

His family ostracized him due to his albinism and he chose a career in music, which was a forbidden profession for someone of his noble social status.

After early years with various Malian bands, he took the reins of an ensemble called Les Ambassadeurs Internationaux, which gained international touring fame in the 1970s.

Moving first to Ivory Coast where he scored a hit with Mandjou.

And then in the mid-80s to Paris which led to his international success Soro, featuring his soaring voice set among traditional Malian percussion rhythms.

Here are some must listens:




Youssou N’Dour

Youssou N’Dour

Born October 1, 1959

Senegalese superstar who pioneered mbalax music.

The live shows are spectacles of motion, energy and primal drums, with spectacular dancers, taking drummers and Youssou’s soaring voice.

His vocal solo on the out chorus of Peter Gabriels’ In Your Eyes from So introduced his sound to an entirely new demographic.

In 1994, the duet 7 Seconds with Neneh Cherry hit No. 1 in many European markets and was in the top ten rotation on the airwaves (remember radio?) the planet over.

Check these out:

7 seconds

New Africa


Cesária Évora

Cesaria Evora

A voice that grabs you from the insides , Cesária Évora rose to stardom and toured the planet as Cape Verde’s most famous blues singer.

The name for the style of music she sang is Morna, in Cape Verdean creole, usually accompanied by acoustic guitars, upright bass, and sometimes accordions.

Her first commercial album La Diva auk Pieds Nus (1988) started her on the road to international success that would last until her death in 2011

Listen to:


Petit Pays


Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan

13 October 1948 – 16 August 1997

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a virtuoso Pakistani spiritual singer of Qawwali devotional music of Sufism.

Even atheists’ knees get weak at the sound of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s mesmerizing voice.

Multi-talented composer, film scorer and world renowned performance artist, N A Khan left a recorded legacy that will take you some time to get through. And it will be time well spent.

Almost guaranteed to make you stop whatever you are doing and focus on nothing else but the sound of his voice, tabla drums, and the harmonium.

Give him a listen here:

Kinna Sonha Tainu

Mera Piya Ghar Aaya

Ravi Shankar

Ravi Shankar

7 April 1920 – 11 December 2012

Sitar India.

Possibly the first internationally known world musician.

Timing, The Beatles, LSD, India, spirituality…The year was 1966 .

The Sitar is an Indian lute, w 5 melody, 2 drone and 13 sympathetic resonator strings.

The instrument shows up on The Beatles Norwegian Wood and the rest is history.

Ravi was a guest on The Ed Sullivan Show and became an early international music star.

The fact is, he was a virtuoso instrumentalist and a great performer of Indian Classical Music.

Recommended recordings include:

West Meets East w/ Yehudi Menuhin


Ali Farka Toure

Ali Farka Toure

Malian blues. Hearing the link between Africa and the westernized versions of blues is an AHA moment.

Call and response, question and answer, repeated phrases.

Ali Farka Toure rose to international superstardom, toured, and recorded quite prolifically until his death in 2006.

He was sometimes referred to as the John Lee Hooker of Africa, although Ali looked at the Westernized blues as so much fluff compared to its true roots.

Instruments include: Terkel, Kora, Fender Stratocaster, and Electric guitar.

Recommended listening: