Travel Songs: 10 Countries Defined By Great Music

It is quite obvious that travel goes hand in hand with music: Who doesn’t have special memories of a certain country because of some songs?

Music

There are lots of reasons why our brain links music to travel and travel to music. Of course, any kind of national song as well as some specific music genre can be easily linked to certain countries. When we listen to samba music we think Brazil. Tango? That’s Argentina of course.

In reality, the link between music and travel is far more complicated as both are deeply personal.

You might love a certain song because you heard it playing on the radio during a great travel experience. You might link a certain favourite song of yours to a country for a reason which might be hard to understand for anyone else.

And then there are of course those songs which by essence resemble the artist’s country and its culture.

Each traveller will have his own list with his or her favourite music, all linked to unique travel experiences. Below is my list of ten countries as defined by their songs.

1. United States

A lot of our modern-day music comes from the US, for the better or the worse. Although I’m certainly not a fan of most of the cheesy auto-tune pop songs which define modern-day music, you can’t deny just how important the United States is when it comes to world music.

So many music genres were born in the US, whether it’s jazz, blues, country, rock or hip hop, the list is nearly endless. For this reason alone you cannot exclude the United States as a country when it comes to music as it has influenced so many musicians and artists all over the world.

When it comes to travel, I will always link the US to its geography. The United States is literally a country the size of a continent. From the Atlantic to the Pacific, there is such a vast array of different landscapes.

Simply put, no other country in the world just screams out the words ‘road trip’ as much as the United States!

travel music
The endless roads, wilderness and gorgeous landscapes make the US the perfect destination for a road trip. ©Paliparan

My list of American road trip songs is nearly endless (I still want to drive around Texas once blasting Robert Earl Keen and other country and bluegrass music out of the car stereo).

For the first spot on this list, I however selected Simon & Garfunkel’s song ‘America’, which about sums up travel to me. It’s about exploration, about discovering new places, but also about finding yourself and connecting with others.

It even encompasses about every single travel emotion there is, whether it is joy, curiosity, longing, anxiety and hope. It’s Simon and Garfunkel at their best.

2. Ireland

There are not many countries in the world where folk music occupies such an important place in the national psyche than Ireland. Folk songs, some centuries old, are still sung by popular folk bands to this date.

Of course, there is no single better place to listen to Irish music than a pub while sipping a pint of Guinness. Indeed, Ireland has a lively pub music scene.

Especially in weekends, live music is almost the norm rather than the exception, whether you crawl the public houses of Dublin’s Temple Bar district or sit in the sole village pub somewhere in Connemara.

travel music irish pub guinness
Live music in an Irish pub. ©Paliparan

Irish bands like the Dubliners and the Clancy Brothers are even known far outside the Emerald Isle. For this article, I will however list an entirely different band and song: The Fureys with ‘From Clare to Here’.

It’s a song about Irish immigrant workers in the UK who feel both a longing for home (Clare is a county in Ireland) but who also experience a cultural shift being away from their traditional homeland in a different society.

Even though I’m not Irish myself, just listening this beautiful, heartfelt song really wants me to sit in an Irish pub again drinking a pint of the black stuff, chatting happily with the regulars.

3. Georgia

Another country which has a rich, traditional folk culture is Georgia. It’s one of my favourite travel destinations in the world as this small nation packs in so many great sights, has an amazing cuisine and some of the most hospitable people I have ever met.

Georgia is a country of ancient traditions and the locals are justifiably damn proud about it. These traditions come in many forms, such as the supra, Georgia’s festive meals, but also in the form of music.

One popular group which shot to YouTube fame in recent years is Trio Mandili. Three gorgeous girls singing amazing folk songs in a mysterious yet beautiful language, what is not to like?

4. Serbia

From all corners of Europe, I always loved travelling through the Balkans the most. There is just something authentic, traditional and crazy about travelling through this region.

Some of the most fun and idiotic travel adventures I ever had were in Balkan countries such as Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

No-one has ever summed up the Balkans better than American journalist C.L. Sulzberger in 1934.

Sulzberger wrote: “The Balkans, which in Turkish means ‘mountains’ run roughly from the Danube to the Dardanelles, from Istria to Istanbul, and is a term for the little lands of Hungary, Rumania, Jugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Greece and part of Turkey, although neither Hungarian nor Greek welcomes inclusion in the label.

“It is, or was, a gay peninsula filled with sprightly people who ate peppered foods, drank strong liquors, wore flamboyant clothes, loved and murdered easily and had a splendid talent for starting wars.

“Less imaginative westerners looked down on them with secret envy, sniffing at their royalty, scoffing at their pretensions, and fearing their savage terrorists. Karl Marx called them ‘ethnic trash’. I, as a footloose youngster in my twenties, adored them.”

gucha music festival serbia
The Guča music festival in Serbia. ©Paliparan

The Sulzberger quote perfectly reflects my feelings and experiences in the Balkans, through which I have travelled extensively since my first trip there in my 20s.

There is just something crazy (in a positive way!) about these countries and its peoples. One thing is for sure: It is never boring to travel in the Balkans!

One song which perfectly reflects this – both in music and in the video clip! – is ‘Unza Unza Time’ by Emir Kusturica & The No Smoking Orchestra. The trumpets, the Balkan beats, that violin riff – and the colourful life, characters and sheer craziness of the clip.

It’s a true masterpiece and I cannot think of any better song or clip to portray my Balkan experiences.

5. Cambodia

When we think about music, Asia is probably the least mentioned continent. That doesn’t mean that Asian countries do not have fine musical traditions.

Let’s take a look at Cambodia for example. In the late 1950s King Sihanouk, himself a musician, encouraged the people of Cambodia to develop a local music scene.

Influenced by records from France and the United States, local musicians took inspiration from rock and roll and soul music, writing new songs in their own Khmer language.

The local music scene only grew stronger in the 60s and early 70s when American army radio stations in South Vietnam were also popular with Cambodians across the border.

A great example of such a Cambodian song is ‘Jam 10 Kai Thiet’ by Ros Serey Sothea, the grand diva of Cambodian music.

The song combines your typical Western rock and roll sounds with unique Khmer vocal techniques. Jam 10 Kai Thiet is both instantly recognisable yet also absolutely mysterious and alien. It is the perfect fusion of two different worlds.

angkor wat cambodia
Angkor Wat, Cambodia. ©Paliparan

Unfortunately, the heydays of Cambodian music came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge took power. Musicians were seen as intellectuals under foreign influence and were massacred by the thousands.

Ros Serey Sothea herself likely suffered a similar fate as she mysteriously disappeared in 1975. Some say she was murdered instantly, while others say she died from malnutrition in a forced labour camp some years later. Her remains, like those of so many other Khmer Rouge victims, were never found.

The genocidal character and cultural repression under Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime was so pervasive that even most video records of Ros Serey Sothea and other Cambodian artists of the 1960s were completely destroyed.

Fortunately, the song can still be heard!

6. Cape Verde

Without doubt the most famous of all Cape Verdean people is the singer Cesária Évora, whose music is still popular across the world years after her death in 2011.

Called the ‘barefoot diva’ for performing without shoes on stage, Évora is certainly not your average artist as she would regularly pause her shows for a cigarette break and a sip from her glass of booze.

Born in Mindelo on the Cape Verdean island of São Vicente, Évora had some successes at home and in Portugal before her big international breakthrough in France with her album ‘La Diva Aux Pieds Nus’.

cesaria evora statue sao vicente airport
Statue of Cesária Évora in front of the airport terminal on the island of São Vicente. ©Paliparan

Singing in Cape Verdean Creole, Évora’s song evoke the national character of the African archipelago, located just off the coast of Senegal.

Évora’s songs range from slow and emotional tales about the beauty and difficulty of life on the bare, windswept islands to fast, upbeat folk songs with a festive character.

They also tell the tales and experiences of Cape Verdean immigrants abroad and the deep connection between the island republic and the ocean.

Even today, you can still find the lasting influence of Cesária Évora in Cape Verde. Her face is depicted on the 2,000 escudo banknote and a statue of her stands in front of the small airport terminal on São Vicente island.

7. Cuba

All the above countries in my list I have visited before, something which is not the case for the country occupying the seventh spot: Cuba.

It’s a country which is high on my list of places I’d like to visit. Not necessarily for its fine beaches, but mostly for the local culture. I’d love nothing more than touring around Cuba in an old American Cadillac or something similar while smoking a big cigar.

Sure, it might be a cliché image of Cuba. The old cars rattling down the roads, the crumbling casas of Havana’s old town, the laidback nature of the people..

Many travellers say you should Cuba now before the communist regime will eventually collapse as without doubt the island will instantly be injected with a full dose of American capitalism given the short distance to Florida and the size of the Cuban community in the US.

Although these tourists are partly right, many are blinded by a romantic image of old Cuba and by communist PR. In reality, many Cubans in the country live in a dire situation having no freedom under the tyrannical regime and little economic opportunities.

So at one hand I do wish all the freedom and economic opportunity for Cuba, but I’m also fully aware that it might mean the eventual disappearance of this old romantic image of the country.

Which is probably why I should visit Cuba sooner than later, rent an old American car, and tour around the island. And what music makes for a better soundtrack than the Buena Vista Social Club?

The Buena Vista Social Club is an ensemble of old Cuban artists who wanted to revive the music of pre-revolutionary Cuba – something they managed perfectly with the song Chan Chan.

8. Iran

Song number eight is really the odd one out on my list, as it isn’t sung by an Iranian band and isn’t in the Farsi language either. No, The Stranglers are as British as you can get!

I just absolutely adore their song ‘Golden Brown’. The vocals, that harpsichord, it’s an amazingly beautiful composition.

It’s however the evocative, mysterious nature of the music (said to be about heroin, as well as a girl) and the video clip which link the song to some of my own travel experiences.

In the music video, some stock footage from the Middle East is used such as bustling souqs, traditional felluca sailing boats on the Nile, the Pyramids, but also the mighty Shah Mosque in Esfahan in Iran.

esfahan iran
I would love to revisit Esfahan again one day. ©Paliparan

The video evokes the spirit of old Orientalist explorers travelling through faraway lands with centuries-old cultures.

You might think that The Stranglers are performing the song from Egypt judging by the ‘Radio Cairo’ microphone and the traditional Islamic courtyard, but the video is actually shot at Leighton House Museum in London.

The Arab Hall of Leighton House has actually been used as well in another massive 1980s hit as Spandau Ballet shot the music video for their song ‘Gold’ here.

Just seeing the richly decorated interior, the fine Islamic tilework and those evocative images of crowded bazaars and beautiful mosques really wants me to explore more of the Middle East and to revisit some countries in the region such as Iran.

9. Czech Republic

Also classical music can be great to listen to while travelling and can evoke the spirit of a certain country.

The Czech composer Antonín Dvořák was so inspired by the vast American landscapes and Native American music that he composed his masterwork ‘New World Symphony’ while he worked as a conservatory director in New York.

It’s however another Czech composer I want to highlight, as on place number nine in my list I selected Bedřich Smetana and his work ‘Vltava’, named after the major Czech river which streams through Bohemia and the heart of Prague.

Of course, the piece is better known under the name by which both the English and Germans call the river, the Moldau.

moldau vltava prague charles bridge
Crossing the Charles Bridge over the Moldau River in Prague. ©Paliparan

According to Smetana, the composition actually describes the entire course of the river and the landscapes and cities it passes by.

To quote Smetana himself: “The composition describes the course of the Vltava, starting from the two small springs, the Cold and Warm Vltava, to the unification of both streams into a single current. (..)

“Through woods and meadows, through landscapes where a farmer’s wedding is celebrated, the round dance of the mermaids in the night’s moonshine: on the nearby rocks loom proud castles, palaces and ruins aloft.

“The Vltava swirls into the St. John’s Rapids; then it widens and flows toward Prague, past the Vyšehrad, and then majestically vanishes into the distance, ending at the [confluence with the] Elbe.”

10. Greece

One of the countries in the world I love most is Greece. I’ve lived some time on the beautiful island of Crete and still visit the country regularly.

Although there is a great deal of Greek music could recommend to give you an instant urge to travel to Greece, I want to focus on two Cretan songs.

The first isn’t particularly Cretan when it comes to the music itself, but certainly is when it comes to the music video which made it famous across the world. I’m of course talking the sirtaki here.

The dance and accompanying music by the great Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis was featured in the final scene of the great classic film ‘Zorba the Greek’.

Starring Alan Bates as the uptight Basil and Anthony Quinn as the impulsive bon viveur Zorba, the film was mostly filmed on the island of Crete.

The famous final scene which features the sirtaki was shot on Stavros Beach on the Akrotiri peninsula to the north-west of Chania on Crete, which back then in the 1960s was much less developed than it now.

zorba beach crete greece
Zorba’s Beach on the island of Crete. ©Paliparan

I love the movie as well as the Kazantzakis book on which it is based. Zorba’s great quote (“A man needs a little madness, or else… he never dares cut the rope and be free”) is somewhat of a life motto to me.

The music and the video clip still perfectly sums up the Greek lifestyle and culture, in my opinion.

Even though the last decades have not been kind to Greece, with many people suffering from the consequences of the financial crisis and strict economic policies imposed by the EU, Greeks always manage to keep their spirits high.

To Greeks, there is much more to life than just making money or having a great career. It’s about enjoying the good things in life such as the food and wine as well as the company of friends and family.

And they are absolutely right in that aspect. In many other corners of Europe we really could learn a great deal from the Greek lifestyle in my humble opinion.

For those who are curious about a more traditional Cretan sound, I can recommend the music of Michalis Savakis. Some Savakis songs feature the Cretan lyra, a sort of gamba or viol held vertically on the musician’s lap.

Cretan music is strongly tied to the folk roots of local life and you can find it both in its traditional forms which date all the way back to the Byzantine Empire as well as in more modern-day popular music.

If you ever find yourself touring the island of Crete, there are a couple of good radio stations dedicated to ‘kritika’ music as it is called.

Music selection

Although I could have opted for a few different countries as well in my top 10 (France, the UK and Panama were other countries I considered adding) I think the list as it is now makes for a fine musical overview of different styles and stories.

In the end, travel and music are deeply personal as we all have different travel experiences and musical preferences.

What are your favourite travel songs which strongly remind you of one of your trips? What is your favourite travel music? Feel free to leave a comment below!

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Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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