2023 was a wild year for musical surprises. AI helped make a new Beatles song, one of the greatest rappers of all time dropped an ambient flute album, and an astoundingly great Barbie movie is cleaning up with GRAMMY nominations. Traditional music had its share of surprises as well, though they’re not as well known. For the Best Trad Music of 2023, I dove deep trying to find the albums that take traditional roots in new directions, looking for artists that are changing the way we think about traditional music. There were lots of great trad albums out this year, but these albums are my take on the ones that are truly changing the conversation. This is why you should be excited about traditional music in the year 2023 as the world burns.
1. Chief Adjuah – Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning
Easily clinching the top spot for Best Traditional Album of the Year, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, now known as Chief Adjuah, built entirely new, yet powerfully ancient worlds atop the humble foundation of New Orleans Creole Carnival music. He’s a huge name in the jazz world, known for his impressive and virtuosic trumpet playing, but also for his iconoclastic approach to the idiom. With Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning he’s shining a light on his own cultural roots.
Born in New Orleans, Adjuah grew up in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, though he bristles at that name for it. Known for huge, almost architectural outfits of feathers and beads, this tradition centers around Black communities in New Orleans around Mardi Gras or Carnival time and originated as an homage to the Louisiana Native American tribes that sheltered runaway slaves. Folks may be familiar with the chants of the Mardi Gras Indians, played out on the streets of New Orleans and heard in the famous song “Iko Iko.” Adjuah objects to the term Mardi Gras Indian, noting that Mardi Gras itself was segregated in New Orleans until the 1990s.
With Bark Out Thunder Roar Out Lightning, Adjuah draws from his own connection to Creole Carnival, being a Chieftain and descendant of the Xodokan Nation of New Orleans, but he also rebuilds this music in a new century with the help of the Adjuah bow, a musical instrument of his own invention. Built in shimmering gold, the bow is inspired by the Malian kamele n’goni, or hunter’s harp, and resembles a gorgeous gold harp. Watching it, I had the impression of him playing on golden strings through sheer force. It’s an impressive, muscular, and beautiful instrument. On the album, Adjuah presents a customized version of “Iko Iko”, but on other songs there’s a storm gathering. On the title track, eighteen minutes of Adjuah’s spoken word speaks of African female warriors of old, calls out the police state that oppresses Black America today, decries the many phobias of hate, and tries to find a way forward amidst all this chaos. Like his Adjuah bow, this album is a way to build a bridge between ancient West African cosmology and the Black American experience. Adjuah’s using old traditions to tear down anything holding back his artistic vision. It’s a powerful, uncompromising, and visionary album that will stay with you.
Right up there with Adjuah’s masterpiece, this album from UK folk artist Germa Adan is absolutely beguiling. Adan has an interesting background: she was born in Haiti, grew up in Florida, and now lives in Birmingham. With Borderlines & Bloodlines she’s laying out her vision for a UK folk sound that draws from her deep love of Haitian song and poetry, her lush string arrangements, original songwriting in English and Haitian Creole, and UK/American folk roots. The album’s anchored by her nylon guitar playing that not only harkens at times to West African instruments, but also intertwines on two tracks with the Senegalese kora of Kadialy Kouyate. This is an album that unfolds slowly, an album to pore over looking for origins and running down some of the source poems that inspired it. I think I spent more time examining this album than almost any other this year.
*Honorable Mention: Renowned as one of the greatest jazz vocalists of our time, Cécile McLorin Salvant turns in an album, Mélusine, dedicated to her French and Haitian roots. At times a modern Piaf, the album rollicks its way through centuries of Francophone culture.
With the ascent of anarcho-folk heroes Lankum, the world has opened up to a new wave of Irish trad that touches on wildly experimental avenues. Incorporating drones, trance, and noise elements, Irish trad has never been more exciting and challenging. Lisa O’Neill led the pack this year with an album of original songs, All Of This Is Chance, that were drawn together in an absolutely riveting NPR Tiny Desk concert. She may come from the tradition, but her album is informed by poetry as much as it is by old ballads. Her songs are beholden to the natural world of the North of Ireland, where she’s from, and the songs unfurl slowly and carefully. Sung in a slightly cracked voice, her lyrics sneak up on you, and you’ll find yourself surprised at their power.
*Honorable Mention: I was shocked to see a new album from one of the greatest names in Irish fiddling, Tony Linnane. He’d barely been heard from since his 1979 album with concertina player Noel Hill, which some say was the best Irish trad album ever recorded.
It’s tempting to view this album of early Hawaiian stringband music from Hawaiian singer Raiatea Helm as a vintage throwback to the Hawaiian folk music of the 1920s. But it’s key to remember that Hawaiian music in the early 1900s was a global phenomenon and a driver of wide technological change. If you like the pedal steel in country, the slide guitar in blues, or even the electric guitar in rock, you owe a debt to Hawaiians. With that in mind, the fusion of Helm’s beautiful Hawaiian falsetto singing with the careful stringband recreations of her collaborator Kilin Reece of the Kealakai Center for Pacific Strings paints a picture of the creative vibrancy of early Hawaiian music. These old songs, or mele, are taken from important Hawaiian compositions that have always lied at the heart of Hawaiian music, beneath the colonialism of hapa-haole songs or Elvis visits to the islands. The excellent accompanying website provides notes on all the songs on the album.
*Honorable Mention: I’ve written about No-No Boy before for Folk Alley, but with his new album he’s bringing together a dizzying amount of lost threads of Asian, Asian-American, and Pacific Islander history in the United States through some beautiful songwriting.
The headline for this duo is the odd couple pairing of two master musicians. On one hand, you have GRAMMY nominated artist Joe Troop, a brilliant musician and songwriter, staunch political activist, and one of the first openly queer voices in bluegrass. On the other hand, you have Venezuelan harpist Larry Bellorín, an asylum seeker and former construction worker whose rough hands fly impossibly delicately across the strings of his harp. But what’s really astounding with this duo is the precision and boldness of their craft. Working with jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter, they took two very different worlds, bluegrass and Venezuelan llanera music, and built a new musical language to unite them. Their virtuosity is jaw dropping live; they were easily the best music I saw at the Folk Alliance International conference earlier this year. But more than that, they both take great, transcendent joy in making this music together, and that kind of joy is contagious.
*Honorable Mention: Another odd couple pairing, the genius-level Scottish bagpiper (she plays the softer smallpipes) Brìghde Chaimbeul’s new album brings her drone-heavy piping together with experimentalist saxophone player Colin Stetson. The result is dense, dripping with atmosphere, and very beautiful.
I may be a bit biased here, since this ties to my own cultural heritage, but this album presents a historic meeting between two Francophone worlds in North America. Nicolas Boulerice and Olivier Demers are well known for their work with Québécois supergroup Le Vent du Nord, and for years they, and others in the Québécois scene, have taken inspiration from Acadian singers. This album is their way to pay it back to Acadian culture, as they’re joined by singer and fiddler Robert Deveaux from Chéticamp on Cape Breton Island. Deveaux is one of the last to sing the great old Acadian ballads of Chéticamp, and he’s hugely knowledgeable about the tradition there. He’s also never really recorded this music before. The album is absolutely beautiful, filled with intricate arrangements of old world songs that still retain touches of a medieval world in the Americas. If you’re curious about the roots of Deveaux’s songs, check out this bewitching song from one of his key sources, Joseph Larade of Chéticamp.
*Honorable Mention: Acadian music is really barely known in Canada, one of the few traditional forms there to be so rarely recorded. La Famille LeBlanc, led by brilliant fiddler and tune-hunter Robin LeBlanc are out to change that, focusing on the raw, crooked fiddle tunes of New Brunswick’s Acadian Peninsula.
Dutcher burst on to the scene in 2018 with an album that drew from nearly lost wax cylinder recordings of his Wolastoqiyik ancestors. He’d play these recordings on an ipad onstage, singing along with and interacting with the ancestors and bringing their voices on to modern stages. With his much anticipated follow-up album, Motewolonuwok, his connections to these old songs are still strong, but he’s branching into English as well, starting with the powerfully affecting “Take My Hand,” taken from a loving message passed on to Dutcher from his culture and language mentor Maggie Paul. The album tackles hard topics, like suicide among First Nations’ youth in “Ancestors Too Young,” or the blight of murdered Indigenous women in the deeply moving “The Land That Held Them.” Still the Wolastoqey language tracks are among the most powerful on this album. Try not to be swept away by the operatic swells and deeply tender moments of “tahcuwi Anelsultipon,” for example, or the absorbing choral arrangement of “Sakom.” Dutcher’s vision just keeps getting bigger and bigger, so we can only imagine what his next album will be like.
*Honorable Mention: A fascinating, challenging, alarming album, jazz pianist Jason Moran’s From the Dancehall to the Battlefield is a deep exploration of the work of pioneering early 19th century Black composer and bandleader James Reese Europe that defies expectations. But his radical reworking of these old blues, ragtime, and jazz songs is very much worth exploring.
I wavered about including this album since it’s all newly composed material from mostly classical traditions (Arabic and Chinese classical music), but there are some traditional folk gems in here as well. The Aga Khan Master Musicians bring together music from China (via pipa master Wu Man), Syria (qanun player Feras Charestan and saxophonist Basel Rajoub), Tajikistan (dutar player Sirojiddin Juraev), Tunisia (violinist Jasser Haj Youssef), Uzbekistan (doira player Abbos Kosimov), and Turkey (percussionist Levent Yıldırım). With such a dizzying array of different traditions, you’d think the album would either feel disjointed, or certain musicians would get lost in the collaboration. But each artist here gets a moment to shine, and when it all comes together it’s truly uplifting. Highlights include “Teahouse” from Wu Man showcasing the jiagnan sizhu teahouse folk music of Shanghai, the breathtaking interplay between qanun and viola d’amore on “Awdeh,” the frenetic dutar virtuosity on “Mehan” and “Mahq-i Dutar,” and “Jul Dance,” Charestan’s compositional ode to the folk music of his new home in Sweden.
*Honorable Mention: Another interesting multicultural collaboration, Orchestra Gold brings together psych-rock from California’s Bay Area with the Malian traditions of lead singer Mariam Diakite. Great live band too!
Natalie Padilla had a pretty dang productive 2023, not only dropping an amazing album of her own fiddle compositions in March, but only a month before that she’d dropped a mega album of trad fiddle tunes with mandolinist Casey Campbell and fiddler Tyler Andal from Nashville. Oh yeah, plus a full-length album with her Americana/Celtic band Low Lily! But it was her album of fiddle compositions, Montana Wildflower, that I kept coming back to again and again this year. Beautifully recorded, she fiddles with an intensity that belies how carefully each note is laid on the neck of the instrument. But she’s also a great tune composer. Instrumental dance tunes are usually learned and taught by ear, passed down from olden times, and though many young players compose their own tunes, it’s not as common that these tunes are as captivating as Padilla’s. As a fiddler myself, I wanted to jump to my fiddle to learn each one! The reason she can compose tunes so ably is because she’s taken the time to learn multiple traditions of fiddling inside and out. There’s a great respect I can hear in these new compositions of hers.
*Honorable Mentions: We were blessed with a panoply of great fiddle albums focused on original tune compositions this year! For my money, 2023 albums from Sami Braman, Lissa Schneckenburger, and Hannah Read are all top competitors.
I’ll confess to usually having little interest in modern country, from the racism of Morgan Wallen to the appropriation of Jelly Roll, but dangit if Tanner Adell didn’t turn me into a country music believer this year! A lover of fiddle and banjo, and a banjo player herself, Adell gleefully flipped all the boring tropes of country music on their head with her 2023 album Buckle Bunny. She explodes country’s “I love my truck” songs with “FU-150,” Barbifies her cowgirl image with the title track, sexifies women in the kitchen with “Bake It,” and taps into a long tradition of “party every night of the week” folk songs for “See You in Church.” Like most modern country, her music ties to hip-hop and R&B; I even saw someone mention k-pop influences?! But hip-hop, country, even k-pop all come from the same Black roots. And most white country artists today are profiting comfortably off these roots while pretending they’re the ones that brought hip-hop to country in the first place. I can’t imagine too many genres more deserving of subversive satire than country, and Adell delivers.
*Honorable Mention: At nearly 90 years of age, it’s amazing that Alice Gerrard is not only still making music, but is still making such fearless music! She’s never been one to shy away from political controversy, and her new album uses folk songwriting to push for change.