Music News

They Like It Rough

Yours truly hasn't taken a day off since suffering the after-effects of Scottsdale's 1995 Raw Pork Festival, which means he's accrued enough vacation days to stay home studying Baywatch reruns until he's post-menopausal.

Maybe it's time for a trip somewhere farther than Discount Cheeses. No can do, unfortunately. Who would change the drip bucket under the bathroom sink? Or feed Syphilis, my pet pooch and personal alarm system? What if UPS left the Rick Springfield Club catalogue order outside my door for a whole week?

But a bird in the hand is the mother of invention, as they say, which is why your crafty writer has cashed in two weeks of vacation hours for enough shekel to invest in two dozen CDs of world music compiled by England's Rough Guides organization. For the price of a bender in Tijuana, I can hopscotch across the planet with my ears, turning the world into a jukebox where Thailand borders Brazil.

Taking only an industrial-size jug of Carlo Rossi and an extra nicotine patch, your world traveler prepared to circle the globe from east to west, from countries that have pants with zippers and mustard in aerosol cans to countries where they dress funny and have gourds and eels for breakfast. A tour guide was in order, though, in case this agoraphobic found himself getting the geographical bends. Phil Stanton is the managing director of London's World Music Network, which has released more than 120 Rough Guide world music CDs over the past 10 years -- with no end to the series' startling permutations in sight. My whining eventually wore Stanton down, enough for him to gently suggest that his introduction to world music was a bit more strenuous than my upcoming undertaking.

"I grew up in the U.K., and at the age of 18, I worked as a teacher in Kenya, in a small town called Siaya," Stanton says. "It was here, crammed into the backs of matatus' -- small buses on a pickup chassis -- that I first got an earful of East African and Congolese music. I lived next door to a run-down bar where local bands played there at the weekends and I got a real taste for Benga and Soukous from those days."

World music evidently got lucky Phil more than just a career. "World Music Network was founded by myself and my wife and business partner Sandra Alayon-Stanton," he continues. "Sandra is from Colombia and has been pivotal to the development of the company. She has recently compiled the Rough Guide to Salsa Colombia."

What took her so long?

In the early days of the series, Stanton says he compiled the CDs himself, but in recent years has acted as the editor of the series. "Expert compilers have been brought in for each disc," he says.

Ah, yes -- and the Franklin Mint hires only the finest artists for its commemorative Elvis coins, too.

"We have a huge and growing list of release ideas, and people all around the world pitch suggestions to us for new Rough Guides. Each year we make a selection of what we plan to release and then investigate who the most appropriate compiler would be."

So, should some hack music writer suggest a Rough Guide to, say, the music of his region, what would happen next?

"We do try to get a balance that includes regions or styles that are great musically but less well-known -- like Wales, Okinawa or the Alps -- alongside more popular genres or regions -- salsa, Arabesque, Brazilian electronica," says Stanton. "This diversity is one of our strengths. We then give the compiler a brief, outlining the approach we take. Our aim is to provide the best possible starting point -- a rough guide -- to exploring the music of the region or style."

Fortunately, Stanton doesn't want to play it safe and release compilations that will meet his listeners' preferences from beginning to end. There'd be no point otherwise.

"The collections usually include some classic songs by the best-known artists, covering all the main styles, some examples of new developments, one or two older pieces to indicate how the music has grown and progressed, as well as a few pieces from the left of field that we think are exceptional for one reason or another," he says. "We like to engage the listener with one or two pieces that are less immediately accessible if they illustrate an important style or point -- I often find that it is those tracks that are the growers,' the ones you come back to after repeated listening and enjoy over time."

Confident that Stanton will be thrilled with my upcoming pitches for Rough Guide albums for the music of Glendale swap meets and Apache Junction trailer parks, yours truly saran wraps broken headphones onto his head, unscrews the light bulb and heads north into his mind:

Rough Guide to Canada hypes Canucksville as a pine-coned Xanadu. Natalie MacMaster offers a funky fiddle piece called "Reel Beatrice," which is dropped among a handful of other Celtic-influenced cuts. There's also little difference between Kentucky bluegrass and the music of Vancouver Island's Bill Hilly Band, or between Louisiana's accordion-driven Cajun boogie and Alberta's Crystal Plamondon. The album does eventually move out of the woods, though: The Rheostatics are a Toronto art-rock quartet, their Bowie-fronts-the-Kronos Quartet sound having brought them a cult following. The weirdest offering here is "Throat Singing" by Tudjaat, which is based on the ancient tradition of two throat singers facing off, hands on the other's shoulders, and working up a rhythm of guttural huffing meant to represent the songs of the region's birds and animals -- though it sounds a great deal like your grandparents having sex.

That baby accordion you hear in wine commercials is called a musette, which is still hot stuff in the land of parlez-vous. Rough Guide to Paris Cafe Music traces the thingamajig's history, from the romantic music it spawned a century ago to its modern uses in the hard rock of Ramses; a weird coupling with a bagpipes-like instrument called a cabrette in Auvergnat folk music; the punk-head-butts-tradition approach of the Pogues-influenced Les Hurlements D'Leo; and the moody jazz of Richard Galliano.

Evidently, there's a mighty resurgence of folk music under way across that large lake to the right. Loads of attractive ballads fill Rough Guide to Unwired: Europe, mostly sung by women from countries as diverse as Bosnia, Norway, Scotland, Greece and France. By the sounds of it, flamenco, Gypsy music and Balkan choirs are also returning to those streets. Weird how the continent's acoustic music is no longer readily identifiable by region -- Hungary's Marta Sebestyen and Muzsikas sounds sister-close to the traditional music of the Irish group Altan, for example.

Rough Guide to Brazilian Electronica demonstrates that the samplers, mixers, keyboards and drum machines of hip-hop, drum 'n' bass and techno are filling in these days for the nylon strings of bossa nova and the surdo drums of samba. Fortunately, the sultry female vocals remain firmly in place -- Fernanda Porto and Claudia Telles moan the nastiest here. Brazil's been the capital of nookie music since the late '50s, and that ain't changing anytime soon.

On Rough Guide to Thailand, the elephants rule. While Surasak Donchai's "Transcendental Technique," with its rice field bluegrass played on the phin, some sort of stringed lute, platinum seller Mike Piromporn makes like Justin Timberlake on the Far Eastern pop ditty "Lerk Dai Lerm Bor Dai"; and Man Motorgai conjures up macho Thai funk on a tune whose title in English means "The Bridge of My Nose Is Broken, So Why Do You Love Me?", those tunes have nothing on "An Elephant's Swan Song." The tune comes from an ensemble called the Thai Elephant Orchestra, which literally is a herd of elephants improvising on oversize drums, marimbas, stringed instruments and gongs built large enough to be played with their trunks. Note to would-be avant-garde jazz musicians: You may have competition.

Much of Rough Guide to Arabia draws from hip-hop technology; the electro beats drive such standouts as Rimsky-Korsakov's "Scheherazade." Simon Shaheen and Qantara's breakneck oud and violin wrestling bring to mind a Middle Eastern reincarnation of '30s-era Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. And Allah only knows how Abdel Gadir Salim came to mix Sudanese desert folk music with reggae -- the result is a truly indescribable grafting of cultures about as different as it gets.

All that said, Rough Guide to Arabesque is a more interesting survey of the Middle East. Its intense menu of Arabic electronica can challenge the best of noted electronic composer Bill Laswell's A-game experiments.

Rough Guide to Asha Bhosle scans the career of Indian diva Bhosle, who has recorded more than 20,000 songs, many of which have appeared in the garish adventure films seen by monstrous crowds of Indian moviegoers. Her "Ina Mina Dika" is a weird mix of Bombay and Hollywood -- perfectly emblematic of Bollywood, as the style has come to be called. The 1956 cut solders Bhosle's Indian warbling onto a jump blues, a bold-as-hell move that caused her countrymen to relegate the singer to the shameful status of a rock 'n' roll hussy. While most of the lustful pieces might not inspire the average Midwesterner to snag a copy of the Kama Sutra, the songs are kitsch of the highest order, featuring more tablas and sitars than you'd find at Ravi Shankar's yard sale.

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Dave McElfresh