[8 May 2008]
PopMatters Features Editor
As travel writers have pointed out time and time again, there is a remarkable sameness to backpackers, regardless of their nation of origin. They tend to do the same things, follow the same paths, distrust the same restaurants, congregate in the same bars. Especially in hot climates, they wear the same clothes. After awhile, they even begin to speak the same way, using lingo they’ve picked up from some cooler, more seasoned traveller. They will all complain that wherever they are is “over” (but they will remain there). Sometimes it can even feel as though, impossibly, they are all just on the same route through entire regions. You can run into the same guy you met at a bar in Java a month later in a café in Phnom Penh, and it isn’t weird.
There are two obvious reasons for this. The first is that tourists always go to touristy places because those spots are completely set up to house, feed, and entertain them. It makes no sense to come to Canada, for example, and head straight for Moose Factory, so people go to downtown Toronto, Whistler, or Peggy’s Cove instead. It would be ridiculous – or, at least, tremendously more difficult – to do otherwise. The second reason is more interesting, but just as obvious. Almost every young tourist you will ever encounter is operating on the advice of one of three backpacker-friendly guide books which tell them where to go, what to do, where to stay, get a drink, find a good meal, or (most paradoxically) get “off the beaten track”.
The Lonely Planet (the most popular by far), Let’s Go, and the Rough Guide basically run the tourist economy in many spots around the world. If your little café gets listed in one of these, you will have backpackers filling your joint. Hostels live or die based on reviews in these books. If a beach isn’t listed, even if it’s gorgeous, don’t bother setting up your banana stand there, because few tourists are likely to find it. For cynics (and there is no shortage of cynics among the jaded backpacking crowd), this is tantamount to a bunch of sheep following their shepherd. But, for most others, such guidebooks and their copious, streamlined advice make backpacking a hell of a lot easier, since so much of the exhausting trial-and-error process of guessing your way through a foreign country has been done for you. The question, of course, is whether we have missed the adventure for the sake of convenience.
The Rough Guide has, perhaps out of dwindling sales as they battle the juggernaut that is Lonely Planet, turned their eyes to world music. Correctly remarking that piercing the musical culture of a foreign country is very much like stepping off a plane into the unknown, the Rough Guide has set out to create the equivalent of its guidebooks for interested music fans. And so, each Rough Guide CD is designed to introduce its listener to a series of pieces which represent the land, area, or culture on display. Yet, while this is indeed a very helpful thing – you can go from knowing zero about, say, throat singing, to being able to name artists, and even talk about regional differences, in the space of merely one hour’s listening time – it seems even more prone to the cynical interpretations proffered above. If the Rough Guide tells you what it is, does that make it so?
But, just as the guidebooks make backpacking a less arduous, safer experience, so do the guide CDs. Have you ever tried to guess your way into world music? It’s an expensive bit of record-buying, let me tell you. And, more often than not, it doesn’t work out. On these two CDs – the first of which is a broad sampler, and the second, an ostensibly more focused collection of African party music (whatever that means – isn’t Africa a huge, diverse continent?) – one has the opportunity to circumvent all the record-store guesswork, review-reading and impulse-buying, and to listen to a sampling of the stuff as chosen by the Rough Guide.
It is difficult, and genuinely weird, to review collections like these. They are, by their nature, disjointed and ill-defined. There are songs on both CDs that are fun, songs that are annoying, and songs that are really interesting. But, let’s face it, that is precisely what is expected from samplers. Still, perhaps this is why it has taken me so long to get writing about the actual music. I don’t know what to say about these CDs that isn’t impractical, or sort of useless.
Except this: I like the adventure. I like getting lost. I like not knowing exactly where I’m going. I like exploring for myself.