Charlie Gillett’s two-disc Sound of the World compilations have become an annual event. This is the ninth. Gillett began broadcasting world music in the 1980s and has gone on broadcasting it ever since, station-hopping along the way and ending up, now, on the BBC, where he presents one half-hour show every week.
Gillett likes West African songs, and female singers with striking voices. The West African presence seems less emphatic here than it was on the last Sound of the World disc I reviewed, two years ago in 2006, but Africa as a whole still dominates the line-up. The Americas don’t fare too badly either, even if the North American tracks all sound as if they might have come from somewhere else—Cambodia in the case of Dengue Fever’s “Sleepwalking Through the Mekong”, Trinidad in the case of the wonderful “Abatina”, performed by the Toronto-based group Kobo Town. There is little from Asia (which is not a surprise), and not all that much from Europe (which is). Oceania is represented entirely by an ethnic Tartar who lives in Melbourne and has a sweet, strong, swarming voice, half-suggestive, half-motherly. An indigenous Australian musician pointed out recently in the Australian that Europe is already “spoiled for choice” when it comes to foreign musicians, and that artists from Oceania are a financial liability, both to themselves and to the people bringing them over, so the sparseness of their presence in European releases is not likely to change any time soon.
However, this partiality doesn’t handicap the disc. Gillett is being true to himself, true to his preferences, and it’s this steady self-trust that makes Sound of the World different from almost every other international world music compilation out there, the ones that dutifully go out of their way to include a piece of everybody, that worriedly aim themselves at one sound alone, either a buffed studio sound or an acoustic roots sound, as if afraid that their audience will stick to one and automatically hate the other. Gillett is biased and eclectic and his albums are better for it. He follows the tradition of other British DJs like John Peel. He plays what he loves.
Things he loves: 1. The cobwebby, slummy rock-drawl of tango singer Daniel Melingo, near-cheesy in his drama. 2. ErsatzMusica’s “Beside Myself to You I Came”, part-Russia, part-smoky cabaret. 3. Sevara Nazarkhan, one of those striking singing women, a Gillett love of long standing. 4. Well-known Manu Chao with “Me Llaman Calle”. 5. Well-known Youssou N’Dour with “Dabbax”. 6. Well-known Orchestra Baobab with one of the strongest songs from last year’s disappointing Made in Dakar. 7. Who-the-hell’s-he Gert Vlok Nel, a droll-sounding Afrikaner poet with a guitar and a lost love. 8. A monohanded valiha virtuoso from Madagascar. 9. A DJ Rupture remix that introduces Zimbabwean guitar to cumbia. 10. South African reggae star Lucky Dube, shot dead in the street late last year by a thief. His “Slave” is Sound of the World‘s in memorium finale. The track is over twenty years old and still sounds good.
And so on, and so on. The overall effect is closer to that of a friendly mix tape than that of a formal label-released compilation, but this is a mix tape from someone who has ten times more music than you, travels to WOMEX and WOMAD each year, stops to discuss music with every interesting busker and foreign cassette-playing taxi driver, and gets to meet all of the musicians. Sound of the World: Beyond the Horizon is the most eccentric collection of foreign-language songs widely available, and the best one to pick up because of it.