The Rough Guides

(World Music Network)

Like other subculturalists, fans of world music tend to trust record labels. Just as mid-80s punks would sample anything on SST, just as Def Jam was the standard-bearer for early hip-hop, just as house DJs will give a cursory spin to anything on Strictly Rhythm, fans of global pop expect quality when an album is on Shanachie or Original Music.

But over the past decade, as worldwide sounds have gained commercial currency, the labels specializing in them have mushroomed from a handful of ethnomusicologists’ delights in the early 80s to the dozens currently filling racks. Some have carved niches for themselves, like the Minneapolis-based NorthSide with its Scandinavian releases, while others generalize. David Byrne’s Luaka Bop issues smart compilations of Asian, Brazilian, Peruvian, Cuban, and pan-African music; EMI subsidiary Hemisphere ranges the map with its handsomely packaged titles. Putumayo and Real World have perhaps the widest mainstream recognition of any world labels. Putumayo began as a New York clothing store (not atypical in world music–box-set maniacs Ellipsis Arts started off selling soap) and has expanded its catalog into a number of retail shops. The main problem with its product line, though, is that it’s ugly as fuck. Putumayo’s cover art could be the work of an advanced six-year-old or a 30-year-old, faux-naive, pseudo-primitive smarm; gag-inducing titles like Women of Spirit don’t help. (Since they’ve hired new A&R, their standards have soared; comps like Afro-Latino and Cairo to Casablanca rival their competitors’ best. If they really want to boost their cred, they should get rid of their art director.) And Peter Gabriel’s Real World has released some fine albums, most recently Maryam Mursal’s The Journey. But overall its forte is one-world, one-synthesizer global fusion, the sort of stuff that’s been putting forward-thinking liberals to sleep for a decade now.

So where does the neophyte begin? A cross section of titles from various labels is usually the way to go. But I got curious when I started seeing World Music Network’s Rough Guide series, an offshoot of the Rough Guide travel and music reference books. Each CD is dedicated to a different region or genre–some general (The Rough Guide to the Music of Eastern Europe), some specific (The Rough Guide to the Music of Zimbabwe). I’m an enthusiast but not an expert, so I wasn’t sure whether to trust these albums. After all, first among them was The Rough Guide to World Music, an “around-the-world-in-70-minutes” comp that I viewed sideways, through slitted eyes; there’s also something on World Music Network called One Voice that sounded my folkie alarm (naturally it included a cut from Sweet Honey in the goddamned Rock). But as subsequent titles filled the racks, each looked better than the last–and then I saw the reggae volume. The Rough Guide to Reggae could’ve been the fifth disc of the perfect Tougher Than Tough box: it looked and sounded definitive.

Now that I’ve acquired 17 of the catalog’s 30-plus titles, that’s what the Rough Guide comps strike me as–definitive. True, there’s a seemingly academic approach: completism counts for a lot with these guys. But they’re not at all dry, and an untrammelled enthusiasm shines through. Plus, they’re a bargain: averaging 70 minutes and 15 tracks, they retail for about $12 at independent record shops, $13 or $14 at chains. Not every one is classic; several are merely OK, and a couple flat-out suck. But that’s got less to do with the choices than the styles themselves–Irish and Scottish music are generally too sentimental for my blood, though the The Rough Guide to Scottish Music deserves a nod for including a techno track. (Scotland’s rave underground, as fans of Trainspotting know, is enormous.)

So here’s a rough guide to the Rough Guides. They’re not all you’ll need to brush up on your world music–not even close. But if you’re looking for an entree and like the way a matched set looks, they’re a great place to begin.

The Rough Guide to World Music, however, isn’t. The first two-thirds are pretty scintillating (particularly Zaiko Langa Langa’s “Zaiko Wa Wa,” my favorite cut on any of these albums–where the fuck is The Rough Guide to Zairean Soukous, anyway?), but the last third lapses into, shall we say, the folkloric. And boring.

The Rough Guide to the Music of the Andes is pretty folkie, too–folkie as in pretty. This stuff is best taken in small doses, though–66 minutes is overkill, unless you happen to be a panpipe addict. Anyone who can’t resist ouds, sitars, or drones should light some incense and check out the very consistent The Rough Guide to the Music of India and Pakistan. The Sabri Brothers and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan each contribute ten minute-plus cuts that will convince you of qawwali trance’s transporting qualities. Equally repetitious but poppier is the Zimbabwe comp, which is pleasant but contains no knockout punches; its ten tracks (the fewest of any Rough Guide) forsake immediacy for incrementally gathered strength. Like mid-level James Brown, it’s nice stuff (Tortoise fans who think that band’s Steve Reich ripoffs are the righteous shit should hear where he got his inspiration), but it won’t convert anyone.

Surprisingly, The Rough Guide to Cajun and Zydeco did convert me, just about. I’ve always liked live zydeco, without ever wanting to rush out and buy records, and it sounds wonderful here. But it’s the Cajun fiddle music that gets me going. Anyone who got off on the instrumentals on disc three of the Anthology of American Folk Music (like me) would do well to try this. Speaking of overpublicized 1997 releases, if you liked last year’s Cornershop album, chances are you’ll enjoy The Rough Guide to the Music of North Africa: this is what college radio in the Sudan should sound like. Equally regional and global, it’s as effortlessly tuneful and likable as When I Was Born for the 7th Time, and less stiff. Ali Hassan Kuban’s “Habibi” evokes dub-hop without sounding like it (too fast), and as for Salamat’s contribution–well, you ain’t heard shit till you’ve heard Egyptian mambo.

Mambo’s most famous offspring, of course, is salsa. The compilation devoted to that style is consistent and exciting, and it goes down as smooth as ice cream, even at its most angular. It favors a classic sound, forsaking drum machines and exaggerated tempos (a lot of modern stuff sounds like gabber with horns). Fruko y sus Tesos and Charlie Palmieri stick out most notably, thanks primarily to magnificent piano playing. Even better, The Rough Guide to the Music of Cuba avoids the prominently salsa-esque in favor of the slower, the sexier, the funkier: this is an album where you come for the groove and stay for the tunes. In particular the last cut (Los Terry’s “Tinguiti ‘ta Durmiendo”) is Cuban head music, engineered to evoke shocking depth from a good sound system, and Ritmo y Candela’s “Descarga en Faux” is perfect seduction music.

The Rough Guide to Flamenco suffers from compilationitis–it loses steam halfway through. But there’s raw passion here, like Tomasa la Macanita’s jaw-dropping “Buleria de la Mocita,” during which the vocalist pulls sheer fervor out of the air for five straight minutes as a group of men clap time and grunt encouragement. In contrast to flamenco’s variations on a theme, The Rough Guide to the Music of Brazil is all over the place. The album’s 19 tracks display a wider stylistic range than any other I’ve heard, including the World Music set. On the other hand, it’s wildly inconsistent, collaring lots of duds in the name of including every conceivable Brazilian style. So dig for the great stuff, in particular Adil Tiscati’s “Negada da Lapa” (horns sneaking up from behind, atop a slyly angular small-band-as-rhythm-machine–i.e., classic Brazilian pop) and Marlui Miranda with Uakti playing “Tchori Tchori,” in which an ethnomusicologist condenses Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians” into three and a half gorgeously rippling minutes.

Three and a half minutes is about the longest anything runs on The Rough Guide to Classic Jazz, one of three U.S.-based titles in the series (in addition to Cajun and Zydeco there’s also a Native American music collection). The first nine cuts are deep, classic touchstones–and then the real fun begins, primarily when pickup or studio-only groups looking for cheap kicks start fucking around. The real surprise is how many of these groups were obscure and white–there are as many of those as there are well-known black groups (and plenty of permutations thereof to add to the fun). Great sounding remasters of 20s and 30s material–and do I really need to tell you it buries the retro swing revival? As its title promises, it’s classic.

Then there are my two favorites, from opposite sides of the fence. The Rough Guide to West African Music is all slow to midtempo; it’s the folkiest of the Rough Guide African titles I have, and even in its least tranquil moments a contemplative air hangs over the proceedings. There are great tunes, of course, and world music fans will recognize names: Ali Farka Toure, Oumou Sangare, E.T. Mensah, Orchestra Baobab, Mansour Seck. But names are unimportant here, because the record succeeds in sustaining a meditative, inner-gazing mood. On this album, thumb piano and guitars circle themselves, rooting into the earth, and the voices of the singers sound like they’ve been dug up from the same ground.

Most perfect, though, is The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya and Tanzania. East Africa has produced some of the most pleasurable music I’ve encountered, and this album coherently explores several of the region’s forms. It opens with five great uptempo electric numbers, where pretty, gritty guitars intertwine like fibers in a shredded wheat biscuit, building an incredibly rich tension that works itself out like a long-awaited, unhurried orgasm. It then moves into mellower rural acoustic styles, culminating with a remarkable field recording of a percussion/chant ensemble. After that we head back into the city, but the city has changed: the guitars are calmer, turning vaguely, and then truly, Islamic. The Rough Guide to the Music of Kenya and Tanzania is close to perfect; more than any world music album in recent memory, it takes you on a journey–which is what a good tour guide is supposed to do.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): album covers.