Every year for the last decade the influential BBC DJ Charlie Gillett has compiled assorted favorites from his various radio programs as a sort-of report on the state of world music. While his choices don’t generally include hard-core traditional sounds, they strike a good balance between genuine “stars” (by world-music standards), newcomers, and unjustly ignored artisans. Even for someone like me, who seeks out new music for a living, there are usually a handful of revelations.
In late February Rhino Records released the latest installment, World of Music, and while some of the 34 tracks are new to me, none of them are all that impressive. I was thrilled to finally hear something by the excellent Brazilian singer Isaar—a former member of Comadre Fulozinho and a collaborator of DJ Dolores—but otherwise these songs suffer from too much fusion and culture hopping, an aesthetic that says everything is adoptable and adaptable. I suppose one could argue that someone like Nitin Sawhney, a Brit of Indian descent who mashes up early-Beck-style blues and Bollywood, is doing something innovative, but where’s the sense of regional identity? Just because you can competently play a style of music that originated halfway across the globe doesn’t mean what you’re doing with it is any good.
There are some terrific tracks by Salif Keita, Amadou & Mariam, Gal Costa, Kekele, Lilijana Buttler, and Camille, but too much of this stuff plays to the cheap seats, whether it’s the usually great Romanian Gypsy brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia playing Duke Ellington or the chameleonic Belgian group Think of One trying on a Brazilian guise as if it were just another wardrobe change. If this really did represent the state of world music, I’d be pretty depressed; luckily, I know there’s no shortage of fantastic stuff out there.