In the 1920s, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók traveled the Hungarian countryside with a phonograph, recording peasant songs to bring back to modern listeners. I did basically the same with my iPhone– Shazamming songs on the radio or in clubs, and recording audio memos of live performances whenever I heard something interesting.
In an age of Spotify and YouTube, it feels special to find music out in the world that’s either impossible to find online, or exists beneath the notice of any recommendation algorithm (I’m looking at you, Zoran Jelenkovic– Croatian pop god with fewer than 1000 monthly Spotify listens.)
I found great breadth of music: Andalusian teens covering Top 40 reggaeton on their guitars, Albanian disco hits, Norwegian folksingers doing their best Johnny Cash. I also found weird depth: no fewer than five distinct jazz instrumental covers of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (across three continents). If there’s one musical form that speaks to the universal human condition, it’s the power ballad. Next time we send out a Voyager probe, Bonnie Tyler better be on the golden record.
“Valparaíso” My memory of places is strongly tied to whatever I was listening to at the time. While Valparaíso’s since gentrified, the song (which I heard at a folk a cappella concert in Santiago, Chile) perfectly captures its history as a hardbitten seaport town. This song’s like a Chilean “House of the Rising Sun”, and definitely worth a listen.
“Skoji” My friends and I were driving along the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro when this banger came on the radio. If I asked you to imagine what “post-Soviet Balkan pop” would sound like, this is it. Zoran’s smoker’s voice is pitch-perfect; just wait for the pizzicato string drop.
Basque chanting by the sea. San Sebastián was my introduction to Basque country. I’d done zero planning, so Basque language, culture, and cuisine took me by total surprise. San Sebastián’s Belle Epoque architecture delighted me, and one sunny morning I walked the beach and encountered a Basque men’s chorus singing incomprehensibly and beautifully as the waves crash in the background.
“All of Me” There’s a much bigger story to tell here, about how I fell in with a troupe of gypsy jazz musician while living in a cave in the hills above Grenada, Spain. Despite literally being troglodytes (cave dwellers), these guys were prodigiously good on guitar and violin. After watching the sun set above Alhambra, we’d go down into the city, pick a bar and perform, and feast on the tapas that came free with every drink. The jazz singer I recorded doesn’t actually speak English– her ear just captured a 1920s accent.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” (all saxophone cover) Ometepe is a volcanic island in the middle of Nicaragua’s largest lake. After renting motorcycle and getting a 10 minute lesson in a cow pasture (if you can dodge a cow you can dodge a truck!) I rode out to el Ojo de Agua (the Eye of Water), a natural spring and swimming hole with adjacent bar and restaurant. After drying off from my fun with the rope swing, I kicked back with a piña colada and vibed to the first of many instrumental covers of “Total Eclipse” I’d encounter.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” (pan flute cover). Few restaurants in Peru’s Sacred Valley are ever out of earshot of live pan flute buskers. In the event the live pan flutes ever falter, there’s this gem I overheard walking around Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu.
Irish guys jamming in a pub in Dublin Following another bartender’s tip, I took a walk north of the river in search of traditional music and the Cobblestone. This is one of my favorite live recordings because it catches the conversations, the clink of pint glasses, and the all-around craic you’d hope to find when you imagine an Irish pub.
The complete works of Bob Marley. If you spend any time in any hostel anywhere on Earth, you will hear Bob Marley. I’ve heard “Buffalo Soldier” more times than anyone over 20 ever should. I’ll just leave the link to my “Gringos in Exile” ambient hostel music Spotify playlist.
Bob Dylan. He won the Nobel Prize for literature in fall 2016, and my next three weeks in Buenos Aires were largely to accompanied by him. I was unpacked a prolonged intercontinental breakup while getting to know the fine Porteñas (as a Castillian-speaking American I was exotic, and everyone on Argentinian Tinder wanted to argue about politics), I discovered Dylan had already narrated my experience:
But all the while I was alone
The past was close behind
I seen a lot of women
But she never escaped my mind, and I just grew
Tangled up in blue
Pokemon theme. I didn’t actually encounter this by accident. I put it on when I rode the bullet train from Kyoto (Kansai region) to Tokyo (Kanto region), where I would meet hundreds of other Pokemon trainers from around the world and battle to become a Pokemon Master.
Lawrence of Arabia overture. I woke up before dawn, grabbed my headphones, and started walking into the dunes of the Sahara. I pointed myself toward the brightening sky and walked until the little town of Merzouga disappeared behind the dunes. As soon as the sunrise broke above the horizon, I hit play, and it felt epic. (Honorable mention: Iron Maiden’s “To Tame a Land”, inspired by Frank Herbert’s Dune.)