Mival Guriashi (Going to Guria) by the Rustavi Choir
In 2013 I travelled overland from London to Tbilisi, Georgia, by train with my husband. Or at least we attempted to. There were rail replacement buses galore, but I have happy memories of Munich beer gardens and hanging out on the perfect-for-people-watching terrace of the Hotel Moskva in Belgrade, and, most of all, of finally getting to Tbilisi. We rented a room in a sprawling house run by Manana, an elderly, gregarious and generous Georgian who would ring the old rotary telephone in our bedroom and bellow, “Sturgeon shashlik, 10 minutes!” This polyphonic song, typical of the Georgian tradition, suggests long road trips through the Caucasus, even if we never did get to Guria in the end.
Soubour by Songhoy Blues
Summer 2015, Edinburgh Jazz and Blues festival. Songhoy Blues, a four-piece band from Mali, took to the small stage then blew the Spiegeltent roof straight off with the opening chords of their best-known track, Soubour, all electric guitar and heavy desert blues. The band, fizzing with raw energy and emotion, bounced around the stage and had the slightly reserved, tweedy Edinburgh G&T-sipping audience (myself included) out of their chairs in an instant, dancing and cheering. The next morning, I flew to Nairobi, my first time travelling to east Africa, with the electrifying sounds of west Africa still buzzing through my bones and brain.
Yol Bolsin by Sevara Nazarkhan
Laced with a host of enticing stringed instruments, from the Turkish saz and Arabic oud to the two-stringed dutar, Sevara Nazarkhan’s modern Uzbek music is contemplative, woozy and thoroughly addictive… otherworldly, even. With this particular track, we hear Yol Bolsin at her best: voice mellow and ethereal but with ample power. Hailing from the Fergana valley, in Central Asia, a place of orchards, musicians and weavers, Nazarkhan is a star at home in Uzbekistan, but she has made headway worldwide too, playing gigs across the UK. Hearing this song, apparently inspired by long-distance Silk Road travellers, takes me straight back to a taxi ride through the backstreets of Samarkand, where I first heard her voice.
The Alpine Sudetenwaltz by Alexandre Desplat
Every summer I go hill walking in Austria’s emerald-green SalzburgerLand, trekking hut to hut and filling up on cheese plates and hearty soups. On a day when I can’t face the hills because of screaming leg muscles, I decamp to the town of Bad Gastein. There’s not much to do there in the summer, outside ski season, but I’m drawn back to gaze on the Grand Hotel de l’Europe, pretty as a postcard, and almost identical to the sprawling pink hotel in Wes Anderson’s film The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I love. This song is from the brilliant soundtrack to the film, and it has a deeply Alpine feel to it. If I play it, I’m already in those hills.
Pink Moon by Nick Drake
Pink Moon seems a song of longing. Drake, the quintessential doomed romantic with the dreamiest voice imaginable, is perfect listening for the long, languid summers of youth, when you crave to escape your home town and see the world. In my 20s, I spent many months in India backpacking, and this was what I listened to during the run-up, in Reading, where I grew up, romanticising all I might find overseas, while reading every guidebook going and saving up every penny. Those lulling opening chords send a shiver down my spine today, and before I know it, I’m young, free and navigating the traffic and guesthouses of Delhi with months of freewheeling adventure ahead.
Shot Down by Django Django
There’s a pounding, adventurous spirit to this song by Django Django, a building up and a tumbling down and a chorus you can’t help but sing along to, which is all to say: this is great road-tripping music. This particular song was played in the car during a long, beautiful drive from Edinburgh to the Cairngorms, past lochs and lonely hills. I made the journey for a head-clearing walk and a night of wild camping with my husband and our beagle, Darwin. At dusk, we pitched the two-person tent in the most exquisite landscape imaginable, and while I remember being freezing cold – there was still snow on the tops in May – mainly I remember seeing, and feeling, magic in that landscape.
Judy and the Dream of Horses by Belle and Sebastian
The stars somehow aligned in August 2013 when my arrival in Istanbul coincided with that of the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian, who were due to play a gig in the city that night. I got the last couple of tickets and on a sultry summer evening headed to KüçükÇiftlik Park. It was around the time of the Gezi Park protests and lead singer Stuart Lee Murdoch referred to the demonstrations often, geeing the crowd up. Down the front, as the sun dropped down, I and hundreds of young Istanbullus sang along to every word of Judy and the Dream of Horses. By the end, dozens of fans were up on stage. It was an utterly electric night.
Yanvalou by Afro-Haitian Experimental Orchestra
Yanvalou is filled with loose guitar riffs and vodou-inspired rhythms that take me back to Haiti in 2015, the first and only Caribbean country I’ve visited. I fell in love with the capital, Port-au-Prince, travelling in taxis past brightly painted lottery stands and barbershops with names such as Baby Chop, and watching jazz musicians play in cafes. One night, at the Hotel Oloffson, inspiration for the fictional Hotel Trianon in The Comedians by Graham Greene, I caught the resident “vodou rock” band RAM performing on stage with their maracas and tambours (hand drums) and reeling basslines that shook the walls. I drank rum sours and joined in until 3am, when everyone cleared out and headed on to the next place.
Murshidi by Paban Das Baul
After a fortnight or so of taking slow trains north and paddle boats south, past date palms and bulky water buffalo, I left Bangladesh, reluctantly saying goodbye to my brilliant guide, Mostafizur Rahaman Jewel (of Royal Bengal Tours). As a parting gift, he gave me two CDs by Paban Das Baul, the famous Baul singer, who was born across the border in India, a generous memento of our trip. The music is devotional and trance-like, and the emotion is spellbinding. That was more than five years ago and I still regularly listen to the CDs today (Murshidi is on his studio album, Music of the Honey Gatherers). It’s great music to write to, and I must confess that I left a piece of my heart in Bangladesh, a country unendingly generous and fascinating.
Into the Rainbow Vein by Boards of Canada
When I was a bookseller in London, I used to moonlight doing marketing for a travel guidebook company called Odyssey Guides, whose main office was in Hong Kong. Once, on a backpacking trip through Asia, I worked in their headquarters in the business district of Central for a couple of weeks, staying in a little hotel on Lamma Island to keep the costs down. Each morning, I’d take a seat on the ferry for the 30-minute commute in, and would listen to The Campfire Headphase by Boards of Canada. I found it a cinematic soundtrack, ideal for the motion and scenery, as we moved across the water towards the skyscrapers. The opening track, Into the Rainbow Vein, takes me back there.