A Subjective Guide to World Music Labels
Finding good World Music has always been difficult. For those not able to do a lot of research and take a lot of risks, it can be a daunting and tangled genre. And, until recently, artists from outside the United States and Western Europe—in other words, the World in World Music—have been mismanaged, badly marketed and distributed, and, in some cases, simply exploited. Obviously, this has been bad for the artists; but also for the listeners, because it means that we have missed out on a lot of amazing music.
Now that World Music is more accessible than ever, and in the spirit of the International Mixtape Project, here is a non-exhaustive and completely subjective survey of today's best World Music labels, particularly those that specialize in various artists compilations, because these compilations are often the best gateway into a broad and complicated genre.
The Nonesuch Explorer Series was launched in the 1970s. Lead by intrepid researcher David Lewiston, the label seized on a revolution in portable, reliable field recording technology and took on an ambitious project: to preserve and make available the music of Earth's diverse cultures before it was too late. There were 92 in all, covering everything from Balinese Gamelan to East African Witchcraft and Ritual Music, and many of these recordings remain definitive documents of their subjects. They're not just museum pieces, though, thanks to the impressive sound quality and handsome packaging. Plus, I've been putting Explorer's Gamelan music on mixtapes for years, right next to Four Tet and Nas, and it always earns raves and new converts. Explorer is in the midst of reissuing all of its titles on CD.
World Circuit was started by Nonesuch in 1992, and represents the label's renaissance. With a little help from the tremendous international success of Buena Vista Social Club, which was released in 1997 and has become the best-selling World Music album of all time, World Circuit kicked off the label's renaissance and ushered in a new age of World Music releases. The label is home to some of the most brilliant and exciting musicians on the planet, including Orchestra Baobab, Oumou Sangare, and the late Ali Farka Touré. Add gorgeous artwork, enough Grammies to break even Stevie Wonder's awards shelf, and the World Circuit Presents... compilation that I would like to put in the hands of everyone I meet, and this may be the Rolls-Royce of World Music labels. If nothing else, World Circuit is to the World Music genre what Blue Note was to jazz.
Like World Circuit, the Real World label is interested in the music of the moment. Real World, however, is determined to drag our assumptions about "rough, earthy, authentic" World Music into the space age. Launched in 1989 by pop auteur Peter Gabriel and an organization called World of Music, Arts & Dance (WOMAD), Real World's mission is:
To provide talented artists from around the world with access to state-of-the-art recording facilities and audiences beyond their geographic region.
Over the years, the label has been quite prolific, releasing albums by the likes of Youssou N'Dour, Papa Wemba, Värttinä, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. There is an open approach to recording at Real World that encourages collaboration across styles and cultures.
More than any other World Music imprint, Real World has its own distinct personality and cohesiveness so that it's easy to identify releases by ear, even without the signature color bar spines and bright, futuristic artwork. But the cutting-edge clarity and brightness of the sound can, ironically, date the music somewhat. After all, the cutting edge eventually moves. With that in mind, I highly recommend a virtual visit to Real World's studios, which look like the Starship Enterprise sunk into a Monet lily pond.
Real World's most effective projects are those with the most willfully hybrid nature. In this sense, the great Afro-Celt Sound System is probably the label's flagship group. And the Bliss compilation from 1998 stands out as one of the first and best chillout collections.
What is probably the quirkiest of World Music labels is often the best. Talking Head, blogger, and label founder David Byrne knows what he likes, and what he likes is strange sounds, unusual instruments, surprising arrangements and textures, and, most of all, a groove. A sort of grainy, Super 8 counterpoint to Real World's Technicolor widescreen, Luaka Bop was started in 1988 after a record shopping trip in Brazil. The resulting compilation, Brazil Classics 1: Beleza Tropical, is still the best introduction to post-Bossa Nova Brazilian music. Since then, the label has featured classics from Tom Zé, Os Mutantes, and Susana Baca, and has introduced me to all-time favorites like Belgian a capella supergroup Zap Mama, Venezuelan disco-funk hedonists Los Amigos Invisibles, and Indo-British post-everything indie kids Cornershop.
Luaka Bop's compilations, lovingly curated by Byrne himself, are narrow in focus but always surprising and often brilliant. Alongside the acclaimed Brazil Classics series are such rough gems as Cuisine Non-Stop, a collection of French avant-pop, and Love's a Real Thing: The Funky Fuzzy Sounds of West Africa. The tenth anniversary sampler Zero Accidents on the Job and the recent, excellent bargain-priced Luaka Bop Remix are good windows into this zany alternate Earth.