“I’ve never before been so apprehensive about the reaction to one of my compilations,” writes Charlie Gillett on his website. This is an ingenuous confession from a man who has been on air since the 1970s and put out a two-disc world music compilation at the end of every year from 2000 to the present, so he explains. “[It] includes many artists that don’t seem to have had as much impact on any other professional as they have had on me.”
He does have one advantage however: his audience. “Regular listeners to my two shows on BBC London and BBC World Service will recognise most of the tracks, almost all of which have drawn comments of approval and/or requests to play them again.” The music in his other compilations, from World 2000 to World 2004, has had its roots nourished in the same soil. “Listener reaction remains a primary criterion for inclusion,” he wrote of World 2002, and “When listeners to either of my weekly radio shows send messages enthusing about particular songs, I ... put them in a spreadsheet of tracks to consider for the next year’s album,” of World 2004.
So Sound of the World is a playlist of popular favourites. Oh god, is it as bland as that description makes it sound? Are we going to be stuck listening to the Urdu equivalent of “My Humps”? Thankfully not. Like the other World releases it’s a mixed bag but nothing in it is as bad as that. Parts of it are very good indeed. Other parts are interesting. A few parts might have been better left out. (Malouma is a dynamic Mauritanian figure, but her “Tuyur El Wad” sounds like an easy listening radio station in Arabic.)
It covers so many countries and so many genres that at least one or two of the good parts are bound to make a listener wonder where they can get their hands on more of whoever they’re listening to. Myself, I liked Camille, who clinks bellbird notes off her voice like a wet finger rubbing a wine glass. I’m also tempted to hunt down Shiyani Ngcobo, a South African who sets up a rolling rhythm with his guitar and sings over it in a way that balances sweetness against dryness with marvellous finesse.
Rather more aggressive is French-Lebanese rapper Clotaire K’s “Beyrouth Ecoeuree,” three years old but still a good, thumping track. (if you like this, there’s a live version on EP that you might want to look out for.) Rapping as well, but more playfully, is Kenya’s Nairobi Yetu on “Nijenge,” while the Malian couple Amadou and Mariam turn up with “Coulibaly,” a bouncy song from Dimanche À Bamako, the collaboration with Manu Chao that gave them the big European hit they’d been hovering on the edge of for years.
Sound of the World is Euro- and Afro-centric, and while this is understandable, considering that Gillett and most of his audience come from a country close to both Africa and Europe, it’s still disappointing not to hear more from Oceania (one track: a piece of mellow reggae from DJ Fitchie and Joe Dookie, members of the Kiwi band Fat Freddy’s Drop who featured on World 2004) and Eastern Asia. (one track again: a gently avant-garde three-minute composition for baritone saxophones by Akira Mizutani.) The Americas fare only slightly better, with one musician representing the North (Lhasa) and two the South. (Argentinean accordion player Chango Spasiuk; and Seu Jorge, who’s had a good year.)
Still, the compiler has made it clear that this is a set of favourites, and you can’t force people to prefer songs from Asia if their tendencies lean towards Mali. (three tracks all to itself.) Don’t go into this compilation expecting a completely comprehensive overview of music from around the globe and don’t expect the pieces to stick to a theme. This is not Roots Music Of The Lovely Indigenous Peoples of Country X, nor is it Forty Hot Hits In Languages You Don’t Understand. It’s a mixture of both. Usefully, there are tracks here by musicians who will never have the kind of access to the Western media enjoyed by stars such as Youssou N’Dour or Mariza, so in that respect Sound of the World acts as a level playing field where the gallop of Okna Tsahan Zam’s “Edjin Duun” merits the same attention as the more famous sound of Ali Farka Touré. Approach it with the same mixture of expectation and thrilled scepticism that you might have felt while reading those ‘Best of 2005’ lists that popped up everywhere at the end of last year, and you should come away with your appetite whetted.