Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Rich Musical Journey: Celebrating 20 Years of Rough Guide CDs

A few years ago, I was browsing in one my favourite used CD shops in Toronto (now defunct, alas) and noticed a CD from Israel. Nothing special there necessarily, but I was struck by the fact that the disc was put out by the UK-based Rough Guide label. A British label releasing Israeli music, at a time and from a continent rife with so much anti-Israel, if not anti-Semitic, attitudes intrigued me – and even more so, when after purchasing the disc, I found out that the compiler of The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel was a well-travelled Torontonian by the name of Dan (or Daniel) Rosenberg. Not knowing much about how music compilers did their work and being aware that a piece on Rosenberg would be of interest to The Canadian Jewish News, a publication I wrote for at the time, I penned an article on how the disc came to be and on the man himself. And from that moment on, I continued to pick up, buy and listen to the music released the Rough Guide label. (Rough Guide is one of four labels that makes up the World Music Network record label, which also includes Introducing, Think Global, and Riverboat Records –the latter recently celebrating its 25th anniversary) Today marks exactly 20 years since the first Rough Guide CD was released on October 25, 1994, and, now, as the possessor of most of the Rough Guide discs – more than 200 of them, with many still in print – I salute a label that has introduced me not only to so much world music I would know nothing about otherwise but has also educated me on the myriad permutations of that complex genre. It has been a musical journey well worth taking.

The Rough Guide to the Music of Israel turned out to be a well-chosen compilation, covering the remarkably eclectic range of Israeli music at the time: from the punk styling of Hadag Nahash (featured on the soundtrack of the funny Adam Sandler movie You Don’t Mess with the Zohan) to the late Ofra Haza’s mellifluous, rich musical voice, to more recent local world music superstars Yasmin Levy (Ladino music) and The Idan Raichel Project (Ethiopian sounds) as well as old world, Yiddish-influenced songs from the likes of Chava Alberstein. The high quality of that disc has been replicated since in so many of the CDs put out under the Rough Guide name, courtesy of founders Phil Stanton and his wife Sandra Alayón-Stanton. And Israeli music has continued to be featured on many other Rough Guide Middle Eastern compilations, a gratifying recognition that the country is a legitimate part of the region’s musical landscape.

Right from its debut offering The Rough Guide to World Music, you could tell these folks knew what they were doing. Many of the artists featured on that particular album – Oyster Band (UK), Muzsikás (Hungary), Oumou Sangaré (Mali) and Buckwheat Zydeco (USA) – have continued to make an impact on world music. Others such as Ali Hassan Kuban (Egypt) and Étoile de Dakar (Senegal) are no longer around but their permanent mark on the world music scene is undisputed. And that breadth and depth of knowledge of music, as well as the savvy compilers hired by the Stantons over the years – Phil Stanton has compiled many of the Rough Guide CDs himself – has come to symbolize how good the Rough Guides are and continue to be. (The majority of the ones I’ve listened to stand out, and there are few if any outright duds among them.)

Writer Charles De Lint once noted that most world music discs either cover African music or Latin music. That seems to be true and certainly the Rough Guides have encompassed many CDs in those categories: from early ones devoted to pairings of African countries (Mali & GuineaNigeria & GhanaSenegal & Gambia) to many variations on Salsa music (Salsa ColombiaSalsa Dance, Salsa de Puerto Rico). But that’s just the tip of the iceberg with the Rough Guide CDs, which have also presented music from Europe (France, Spain, English Roots Music), Asia (Japan, Thailand, Malaysia)and beyond (The Indian Ocean, Australian Aboriginal Music, Central America, Mexico, Canada). That’s in addition to CDs devoted to certain genres of music (Classic Jazz, Reggae, Boogaloo) and specific artists (Astor PiazzollaManu Dibango, Franco and more recently American artists such as Jimmie Rodgers, Blind Blake and Muddy Waters, under the new Jazz and Blues Legends subsection; Rodgers, of course, is a country artist but no matter.) They’ve even put out a trio of classical discs, The Rough Guide to Classical Composers: on Mozart, Beethoven and J.S. Bach, respectively. Of course, in music, as with movies, not all countries are created equal – which is why, so far as I know, there are no Rough Guides specifically devoted to the music of Lebanon, Poland, or the Philippines, though tracks from those countries have appeared on various of the Rough Guide CDs.

Besides the music, the appeal of the Rough Guides lies also in the attractive packaging of the discs and in the intelligent liner notes accompanying the CDs. Compilers have included such noted luminaries as author Sylvie Simmons, who put out what she calls ‘a very rough guide’ to Americana (superb); Nigel Williamson, whose discs include ones devoted to the music of Charley Patton and Billie Holiday as well as various Blues discs (Blues Revival, Blues & Beyond); and Dan Rosenberg, whose other discs have tackled American Roots Music, The Music of Russia, Voodoo and the recent Arabic Revolution, which shone a light on the political musical stirrings of the Arab Spring. Unfortunately, those liner notes have been severely reduced of late, as World Music Network has gone to cardboard sleeves from jewel cases, dispensing with the booklets – which at one point were in English, French and Spanish – and condensing info on the disc to a few paragraphs and track listings. On the other hand, the Rough Guides still contain two CDs of material instead of just one (instituted in 2009, for the label’s fifteenth anniversary) – one devoted to a specific music and the other to one artist who personifies that music, or in the case of a single artist, a second disc of music related to his own. (Jimmie Rodgers’ CD, for instance, is matched with a terrific disc entitled Country Music Pioneers, which includes tracks by The Carter Family, Dock Boggs, Clarence Green and many others.) I would prefer not to be directed online for track and artist info, as has become the norm with the Rough Guides, but I can’t deny the value of a two-disc package at a reasonable price. (Putumayo World Music, the other well-known world music label which launched one year before Rough Guide came on the scene, has always struck me as inferior to the Rough Guides. It’s a bargain label (with a third less music), pedestrian liner notes and bland, generic packaging. I did speak to one HMV employee who felt, perhaps rightly, that the Putumayo discs devoted to narrow(er) musical categories – Quebec, Louisiana, Folk etc. – were better than their more expansive discs covering entire regions or vaster musical genres.)

The Rough Guides have also introduced me to any number of artists whose work I then sought out on their own CDs – such as, Dengue Fever, an unique American outfit which mixes Cambodian pop with psychedelic rock; Tinariwen, the electrifying desert musicians from Mali; and the Latin Jewish group Hip Hop Hoodios (a variation on the Spanish word for "Jews"), whose provocative (and very funny) track "Kike on the Mic" gives you an idea where they’re coming from. I also discovered Yasmin Levy, an Israeli artist who sings from a Ladino background, a lesser known Jewish language emanating from Spain. I do wish Rough Guide would release a disc devoted to Sephardi Music. That tradition of Jewish music, emanating from and influenced by Spain and the Arab countries where Jews had a long history, musical and otherwise, has popped up often at times on specific discs but never as a standalone CD. It would be a nice corollary to the four varied Klezmer CDs devoted to East European Ashkenazi music that have been put out on the label.

In recent years, to keep things fresh, the Rough Guides have begun revisiting countries and genres featured on previous discs, usually every decade or so, as new musicians arise and the genres undergo stylistic changes. From Mali to Klezmer, Flamenco to Japan, Sahara to Fado, those discs remind us how music is alive and constantly reinventing itself. But other Rough Guide CDs have tilled new territory, impressive because they seem to have touched on almost any type of music you can think of and from so many countries. Arabic Jazz, Indian Classical Music, Bollywood Disco, Latin Psychedelia and a disc called Latin Rare Groove Volume 1 (a bit of a disappointment as the underground scene depicted on this CD suffers from much unimaginative music and a sameness of the tunes) are an indication of where they’re going and a timely reminder of the cross currents of musical influences that are predominant in all world music. I was particularly taken with The Rough Guide to the Music of Afghanistan, given new urgency due to that country’s place in the current political firmament and The Rough Guide to Psychedelic Cambodia, a poignant juxtaposition of artists like Ros Sereysothea, who were murdered when the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime ruled that country, alongside present day musicians like Dengue Fever and Cambodian Space Project, featured on the bonus disc. (That group’s Khmer version of the seminal classic "House of the Rising Sun" is priceless.) I would quarrel with one aspect of The Rough Guide to the Music of Palestine, notably the use of the term Palestine (hardly unique to Rough Guide) which is a loaded political statemen,t but also because the disc features musicians from the Palestinian Territories, as well as Israel and abroad, meaning a Rough Guide to Palestinian Music would be a more accurate title for the CD. That said, the disc is excellent – a fascinating melding of Arabic and Western influences that nevertheless does not sound at all like the music of neighbours Egypt or Morocco. the subjects of first rate Rough Guide discs in their own right. A couple of Rough Guides (Latin Dance and the enticing, 30-track The Best Music You’ve Never Heard) are available in digital download only – not my favourite development – but most can be purchased in stores or from World Music Network’s website.

Youssou N'Dour in concert in 2010

Are the Rough Guides as good or as detailed as they could be? Mostly they are, but I know in the case of The Rough Guide to the Music of Canada, compiled by Dan Rosenberg in 2003, that it could have been, as Rosenberg indicated, a double disc; its attempt to cover all regions and genres isn’t as satisfying on one mere CD, and artists on that disc, like Rheostatics and Bruce Cockburn, though still making music, would have to make way today for the likes of Broken Social Scene and Feist. (Hopefully a new edition of the Music of Canada will pop up soon enough.) But one must take a Rough Guide as a primer meant to have you delve deeper into the music featured on any specific disc. I’m sure Phil Stanton would agree.

Many of the best Rough Guides that I’d suggest you pick up as an intro to the series – English Roots Music, Classic Jazz, Ethiopia (First Edition), Mali (First Edition), Iran, Louisiana (compiled by Dan Rosenberg); the three-disc compilation Make the Most of Your Time on Earth (which is the Rough Guide logo) and a four-disc box set, American Roots, which collects the Rough Guides to Gospel, Bluegrass, Delta Blues and Cajun & Zydeco, also available individually – are out of print. Still, many are likely to be found in used CD shops if any still exist in your area.

Of the ones currently available through World Music Network, I’d most recommend the following: Latin-Arabia (successfully mixing those two very different musical streams); Planet Rock (which features Dengue Fever and Hip Hop Hoodios); Raï (roughly Algerian punk);  Italia Nova (new Italian music); Sylvie Simmons’s Americana (The Handsome Family, Neko Case, the Waco brothers and much more); The Rough Guide To Youssou N'Dour & Étoile De Dakar (the African musician’s excellent music before he went solo and poppy, to his detriment); The Blues (Mamie Smith to Ali Farka Toure); Paris (great new French musical artists, like Emily Loizeau alongside classic tunes from Django Reinhardt and Sidney Bechet); Bhangra Dance (great Indian dance music); Klezmer Revolution (the most musically audacious of the Rough Guide Klezmer CDs); African Guitar Legends (Franco, Ali Farka Toure, King Sunny Ade); and, from the Blues and Jazz Legends series, Muddy Waters: Country Blues and John Lee Hooker: Birth of a Legend. That’s a baker's dozen of fine discs right there but pretty much any Rough Guide CD is worth checking out. What the Rough Guide CDs, much like the Rough Guide travel books (put out under different auspices) do best is educate, edify and entertain. I don’t doubt they’ll continue to do so for many more years to come.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre and Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on Hollywood and Society, a look at how Hollywood has handled hot-button issues in the movies over the years that began on May 9, at Ryerson. On October 10, he’ll be starting a new course: My Favourite Movies – And Why.

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