Top row: Buckwheat Zydeco, Papa Wemba, Bobby Hutcherson; bottom row: Rudy Van Gelder, Prince Buster, Amjad Sabri (photo by SohailKhanzada)
The pop music world lost some prominent stars in 2016, starting with David Bowie in January, then Prince in April, and now George Michael. There was also Glenn Frey of the Eagles, bluesman Otis Clay, and Natalie Cole. Classical music also lost a titan — the conductor/composer Pierre Boulez, who specialized in modern classical music, and who even worked with Frank Zappa.
But there were other lesser-known musicians and musical figures who have passed on in 2016…people who were personally important to me. Artists who would never get promoted on MTV and etched into our collective consciousness like Bowie, Prince, or George Michael, No, my tribute is to far more obscure artists, I want to take a minute to pay tribute to them.
First of all, let’s remember some jazz greats: Bobby Hutcherson, the great vibraphonist; Toots Thielemans, the harmonica player and guitarist; arranger Claus Ogerman; pianist Paul Bley. We lost Rudy Van Gelder, the legendary recording engineer who sculpted the sound and captured the magic in so many Blue Note recordings. There was also Phil Chess, co-founder with his brother Leonard Chess of the great Chicago-based jazz and blues label, Chess Records, which launched the career of Chuck Berry, Ahmad Jamal, James Moody, and so many others.
Congolese superstar Papa Wemba also left us in 2016. He collapsed on stage and died at an Abidjan, Ivory Coast concert in April. Malian photographer Malick Sidibe, whose camera lens captured the golden era of Malian music and culture, passed away at age 80.
Gone too soon at age 68 was the New Orleans great Stanley Dural, Jr., better known as Buckwheat Zydeco, whose funky music brought dancing and joy to thousands. Reggae music lost Prince Buster, a pioneer in ska, blue beat, and rock steady, the Jamaican styles that preceded reggae.
Sufi gospel–qawwali music–tragically lost one of its greats, Amjad Sabri. Though he was never as popular in the West as the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Sabri was nevertheless lionized by Pakistani music lovers. He was murdered by fanatics in Karachi at just 45 years of age. It was a sad end for this musical purveyor of peace and love. Last but not least, as I just recently wrote, Esma Redzepova, the top Romani songstress and Queen of the Gypsies, passed away earlier this month.
While many people lament the demise of big pop stars like Prince, Bowie, and George Michael, we must not forget the contributions that all of the above made to the music world, and how significant they were to music lovers like myself.
Please forgive me for not mentioning Leonard Cohen, Gato Barbieri, and Nana Vasconcelos. The first two got obits on RP, but not Nana for no particular reason. His ECM duet album with Egberto Gismonti is a gem.