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Various Artists

Traveler '06

(Six Degrees; US: 28 Feb 2006; UK: Available as import)

It is difficult to determine precisely how the link between world music and electronica developed, but it seems to be only strengthening, even now.  At this point, such “global fusion” has in many cases outstripped traditional approaches, at least in popularity with western markets.  But though globe-spanning influences are reeled in and arranged by producers as geographically scattered as their source material, there seems to be a surprising level of concord in the results they produce.  At its worst, this amounts to cultural appropriation, the simple shoe-horning of formerly unique elements into standardized dance formats, but at the same time this approach can produce much more interesting examples of borderless collaboration.  Perhaps the amalgamation of world music influences into a seamless, placeless club culture is both the hazard and the goal of the genre.


It’s a fine line, but Six Degrees Records negotiates it with care and a certain reverence for their source material.  Though much of their roster are from, or currently based in, the US or UK, they are generally successful in placing their musical quotes and motifs (mostly derived from the traditional sounds of India, northern Africa, and the Middle East) in a more modern musical context without reducing it to kitsch.  Traveler ‘06, which serves as a primer to this approach through all unreleased tracks and remixes, marks the sixth installment in their definitive series of compilations, back after a three year hiatus.


The album opens with its apparent mission statement: three expansive tracks worth of sleekly edited, ethnic stringed instruments, tablas, and voices—chanting, shouting, and singing in varied unfamiliar tongues—all propelled by tightly coiled synthetic percussion and bass lines.  It’s not exactly a new formula, and the songs don’t make much attempt to improve upon it, but they manage a certain quintessential sound that keeps them reasonably fresh nonetheless, aided by an aggressive undercurrent that prevents them from cloying.  The latter effect is especially in evidence on the strongest of the three, Cheb i Sabbah’s “Esh ‘Dani, Alash Mshit”, where ominous bass drones combine with distant shouts to create a distinctly (and satisfyingly) menacing effect.  Even Junkie XL, at times questionable in his own arrangement choices, handles his remix credits on Niyaz’s opener with an expert precision, at least as much so as globally-inflected electronica luminary Banco de Gaia’s work with MIDIval PunditZ on track three.


The next couple of tracks generally maintain the design (and crisp execution) of their predecessors, but the album opens up into a refreshing variety in the second half, starting with a remix of Karsh Kale’s “Manifest”.  In this centerpiece track, the formula is modified into an abrasively clanging hip-hop assault, balancing warbling vocal samples and ascending strings with jolting percussion and a rapid-delivery call to arms by MC Napolean Solo.  It’s an effective combination, with neither of the song’s dueling approaches faltering or overshadowing the other.  The variety continues, oddly, with an uptempo Brazillian groove via Bossacucanova, sporting a full compliment of horns, turntables, and vocals, and followed by a charmingly low-key track by the Real Tuesday Weld composed of gentle trip-hop drums, lounge-infused vocals and piano, shimmering vinyl crackle, and the suggestion of London rain.  Finally, the album closes with a gorgeous, languid work by the 28-piece (plus electronic production) Bombay Dub Orchestra.


Taken together, Traveler ‘06 succeeds in side-stepping many of the pitfalls open to unwary (or shameless) world-music fusion, presenting songs which competently update traditional styles without destroying them.  Predictably, the results can be hard to separate from one another at times (was that string motif under the kick drums North African or South Asian?), but in this case the problem is much milder than in other similar work with more heavy-handed production.  Furthermore, the compilation diverges from pure club music with a variety of other approaches in the second half, greatly extending its potential interest.  And being completely made up of unreleased tracks, this is a good choice for both fans of other Six Degrees albums or newcomers looking for world music that manages to be both classy and catchy.

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