I have to admit to being naturally suspicious of anything that goes under The Rough Guide banner. Like its evil-twin in the travel world, The Lonely Planet, I’ve always seen the Rough Guide series of travel books as exemplary products of contemporary global capitalism. They are pure lifestyle products: they make it safe to go to parts of the world still imagined as relatively untainted by the murk of global tourism, while simultaneously offering the illusion of hipness and worldliness. With The Rough Guide to Mongolia in your backpack, you can imagine yourself as a modern-day Indiana Jones instead of as the bad American tourist that no one wants to be. As long as you can swallow your disappointment when you run into legions of other Americans at the supposedly impossible to find, hot local hideway that the guide recommends, your trip can’t help but being a success. This travel guide helps you get down with the locals, while Fodor’s and it’s ilk only direct you to boring monuments and hundred dollar a night hotels.
The Rough Guide‘s series of world music samplers work in much the same way as its guide books. They provide a rather safe introduction to representative forms of music from a diverse ranges of countries and regions (Portugal, Brazil, South Africa, etc.) and styles and genres (Salsa, Flamenco, Tango, etc.) In their own way, these CDs have a laudable purpose, providing Western consumers with a taste of the world’s musical traditions at an affordable price. But if the Rough Guide Music Sampler—a sampler of the range of music offered in the entire Rough Guide series—is any indication, there are some grave problems with the attempt to define the representative music of a nation or a region. There is inevitably a tendency to emphasize the folkloric and the traditional over contemporary musical production. For example, from Brazil we get Marlui Miranda (who?) instead of Tom Ze or Carlinhos Brown. Whatever else its faults, what the compilations of Brazilian and world music assembled by David Byrne did so well was to capture the spirit and verve of global music—music with local roots, but with influences beyond the borders of national traditions. Music is perhaps the most globalized art form, and it would be nice to hear on this sampler more of the kind of cross-fertilization and hybridity that defines world music now. To put it bluntly: Oscar D’Leon’s version of “Mulata Coqueta” doesn’t sound much like the kind of music that I heard recently in Cuba (not to mention that it is smoked by the Buena Vista Social Club’s version of the same song). But then again, Bessie Smith and David Doucet, who also appear on this album, aren’t the things that kids tend to be listening to on their Walkmen either.
This criticism might be unfair in some ways. You do get a feel here for the kinds of music that people are making around the world, but only in a schizophrenic, de-contextualized way. This album’s musical journey from North Africa to Scotland to Brazil is disconcerting one, especially in the absence of landmarks or maps to lead the way (the liner notes could have done some of this work). Sometimes interesting, but for the most part, uninspired and bloodless.