Open music on the road: Android players and playlists

Hit the road with Android music players and a travel mix

Cloud and mountain scene
Image credits : 
Chris Hermansen. CC BY-SA 4.0

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I'm getting ready to hit the road—mentally ready, anyway. In less than 48 hours, I'll be back on the first of two legs heading from Vancouver to Santiago, Chile, my "home away from home." This month, I'll share thoughts on open music and traveling.

For those of you who haven't visited Chile, I highly recommend it—a wonderful country with a great range of things to see, and a wonderful bunch of people who are happy to share stories with visitors.

My first trip to Chile, in 1999, was a real voyage of discovery. Prior to that, the only three "Chilean things" that stuck in my mind were the town of Antofagasta, about which I learned in grade school (what a cool name, Antofagasta); the 1973 Chilean coup d'état; and my astronomy professor's slide show recounting his adventures visiting Chile on his annual observing mission.

But there I was, on American Airlines flight 945, sitting in Dallas, waiting to go to—what, exactly? I don't remember. But there was incredibly cool electronic music playing over the tinny cabin speakers, getting us all in the frame of mind to sit on that plane for the next 9+ hours as we made our way south. And 10 days later, on my way back north on AA flight 940, the same thing at the outset—more cool electronic music. Except that time, I had learned a bit about what was there, and met great new friends, and the music had a tinge of nostalgia.

And now, every time I get ready to head south (which happens several times a year), one of my rituals involves listening to music that puts me in the right frame of mind to travel, to get back to old friends and distant colleagues, to be a part of something other than the day-to-day occurrences hereabouts. Do you listen to music when you're in the air? Do you watch films? Do you read? Sleep? Most of my trips seem to be overnight, so I try to sleep in the vain hope that I'll somehow feel human on the other side. Often I put in my earbuds, as I find they block the noise and lull me to sleep.

Open source music players

Generally my earbuds are plugged into my Android phone, and on that, I have graduated from the non-open-source, pre-installed app to Vanilla Music, which claims to be open source and ad-free. I confess I haven't tried a git pull on it yet, but otherwise, so far I am liking it. The app provides simple tab structure offering artists, albums, songs, playlists, genres, and files. Vanilla Music is simple and responsive and has all the basic features I need for my modest on-phone music collection. But I'm going to try other open source applications, so if you have suggestions, let me know in the comments.

My phone has limited memory (32Gb in total, with less available for music and photos), so I tend to manage its contents pretty carefully. I can do this easily when I'm traveling because I have a fine Linux laptop— a System76 Gazelle 8, now almost four years old—which holds all the music I could be bothered to rip from CD, plus a good number of downloads that I have bought since.

For a number of years, I used the Guayadeque Linux media player because it is one of the Linux music players that lets me ensure that the sound pipeline on my computer is not resampling my audio files. I still really like Guayadeque, but lately I've felt the need to try other players.

I experimented with gmusicbrowser and generally liked its features, but at the time, it suffered from a bug when trying to close down, and so I put it aside to try Quod Libet. I'm quite impressed with Quod Libet. For those with a big itch to customize, Quod Libet has about a zillion plugins and great online documentation. Of course, it also gives me fine control on my sound pipeline.

Traveling tunes

Now that we've got the equipment sorted, let's get back to the traveling. When I'm traveling, I'm often listening to Marconi Union, Moderat, Jon Hopkins, and Kiasmos. Right now I'm listening to Traveller '06, and really enjoying the track Dilruba [Junkie XL remix], originally by Niyaz. When traveling, one should listen to albums entitled Traveller, it seems.

Perhaps you've stumbled on these artists on your own, or at least by following my links. Because I'm heading to South America, I'm going to move away from the electronic and turn to that theme to introduce you to two artists that just blow me away.

The first is Inti-Illimani. These people can tell you a great deal about what it means to be South American. The band name comes from two indigenous words, "Inti", which is a Quechua word meaning the sun, but carrying spiritual connotations; and "Illimani", the Aymara name of the second highest mountain in Bolivia, in the western cordillera (not the Andes).

Inti-Illimani has survived pretty tough times; nevertheless, they continue to make beautiful music. A great introduction to their music is the song Sobre tu playa (on your beach, but "beach" here is quite the metaphor). If you've enjoyed hearing the music of Buena Vista Social Club (thank you, Ry Cooder!), then do check out Inti-Illimani. There's even a link, albeit somewhat tenuous, between Inti and Chan Chan, a pre-Columbian city in Perú and a famous and unrelated song of BVSC. Various places to buy Inti-Illimani's music include 7digital, which is handy for Linux users because the site doesn't require installing any bloatware and at least some of the material is available in FLAC format. Or try the usual online merchants who sell MP3s and have regional market restrictions. (If you want a physical copy, CD Universe is one option.)

The second is Gustavo Santaolalla. I first heard his music on a road trip with two colleagues. We were traveling from Coyhaique to La Tapera in Chilean Patagonia, investigating the possibilities for a project there. Our friend who hosted and drove us there and back, Jorge, is a great fan of Santaolalla (and also of the mate beverage).

You may know of Santaolalla from his work on the score of Brokeback Mountain, but I highly recommend two songs as an introduction to his work: Gaucho, which is well known; and my favorite, Pampa.

Santaolalla can also tell you a great deal about surviving the tough times in South America in the past century. How remarkable to see such beautiful music arise from such sadness! Santaolalla's music can be purchased at various online spots; Linux users in Canada can get some of it in FLAC format from 7digital.

I kind of skipped over Buena Vista Social Club on that visit to South America, which doesn't do them any kind of justice, so let's go back and watch another fine group, Conjunto Massalia, pay them their due in a fantastic remake of Chan Chan. Not that this song needs a remake—it is so incredibly suave and... wow! But the tribute paid to Francisco Repilado, whom we know as Compay Segundo, "con su sombrero, un buen cigarro... ." Con mucho cariño! If you only buy one CD from Putumayo World Music, please let it be Latin Groove (sadly, it no longer appears to be in print). The great tribute to BVSC's Chan Chan makes buying the CD worth it if you can find it. A number of streaming services have Conjunto Massalia channels, so if you're a subscriber, look there. And finally, if you're heading to the south of France any time soon, you might be able to catch a live performance; check the Facebook page for details.

And coming back to Ry Cooder, who introduced many of us to BVSC, that one of his friends and "co-conspirators," Ali Farka Touré, passed away 10 years ago is worth noting. The anniversary of his passing is being honoured this year by World Circuit Records.

Ali Farka Touré is credited with the invention of the "desert blues." The Touré and Cooder collaboration, Talking Timbuktu, is a great introduction to this genre.

There's a rhythm in that music that I imagine to be the rhythm of endless days spent traveling in those lands, lands that are a great source of incredible and different music, like the beautiful country of Mali. This rhythm is especially prominent in the third track, Gomni.

Sometimes music and traveling interact in strange and mysterious ways. I was traveling with two friends in Mexico years ago. We had seen the Rolling Stones in Mexico City (a fine experience) and then spent Mardi Gras in and around Veracruz on the Gulf coast. At one point, driving around and sightseeing south of Veracruz, we tuned in a radio station that was playing Ali Farka's music. I'm not certain that I'm remembering correctly, but I believe the announcer was speaking Arabic, which was bit of a surprise in rural Mexico.

If Malian music is new to you, or if your experience of it has been limited to the work of Amadou and Mariam, do check out the Rough Guide's Music of Mali by way of an introduction to a number of great artists with different styles: Ali Farka Touré, one of his talented sons, Vieux Farka Touré, Oumou Sangaré, and more. Also check out Putumayo Presents: Mali, which out of print, but still available and well worth the effort to acquire it.

For those of you interested in high-resolution music, I see that some of Tinariwen's excellent work is available on a new-to-me download service, Technics Tracks. (I don't know if this service requires installation of other operating system bloatware, but I will find out. In the past I have purchased some of their music at 96/24 from one of those bloatware-requiring sites, but I'm not even going to put a link to that here.)

Wow, I'm feeling jet-lagged already. That was quite the trip, from Vancouver to Dallas to Chile to Boliva to Patagonia, and then to Cuba and Mali with Ry Cooder as pilot. I'll finish up with one of my all-time favorite travel songs, Tangerine Dream's Love on a Real Train (that link seems to be a new remake of the old classic). This is electronic music with hooks galore. Every so often, when I am riding a train to somewhere, I remember to play this song; I think the last time, I was on a Frecciarosa from Rome to Naples. Have I mentioned I really like traveling on a train? Maybe I can blame Paul Theroux (author of The Great Railway Bazaar) for that.

I would love to hear from you. What's your favorite open source music player for Android or your favorite traveling music?

About the author

Chris Hermansen portrait Temuco Chile
Chris Hermansen - Seldom without a computer of some sort since graduating from the University of British Columbia in 1978, I have been a full-time Linux user since 2005, a full-time Solaris and SunOS user from 1986 through 2005, and UNIX System V user before that. On the technical side of things, I have spent a great deal of my career as a consultant, doing data analysis and visualization; especially spatial data analysis. I have a substantial amount of related programming experience, using C, awk, Python,...