In 1982, when Afrika Bambaata borrowed from Kraftwerk in the legendary single “Planet Rock”, he was working at the cutting edge of musical innovation. Today, in an age where obscure global folk music is only a mouse click away, an American DJ using a German group’s music seems relatively commonplace. Music has indeed changed in the past two decades, and “Planet Rock” has connotations Bambaata could never have realized. A new entry in a popular world music survey series, The Rough Guide to Planet Rock, testifies to these facts. The album was assembled by Johannes Heretsch, a German radio DJ who specializes in global rock, and it presents vivid sonic documentation of the way musicians around the world freely combine indigenous music and Western popular styles.
The creators of the Rough Guide recordings follow an approach which has both its advantages and its drawbacks, offering a kaleidoscopic set of tracks that focus on a particular theme such as the music of a specific country. The advantage of such an approach is that these compilations introduce listeners to a variety of world music with which they are probably not familiar. The disadvantage is that the records cover so much musical ground that they are unable to explore any one style in any considerable depth. For this reason, each album’s strength lies in the quality of its individual tracks. As The Rough Guide to Planet Rock demonstrates, this quality often varies greatly.
Planet Rock succeeds magnificently as an introduction to exotic rock music. The album presents a number of different styles which even the most adventurous listeners rarely hear in a rock context, including Algerian raï and Moroccan gnawa music. On the best tracks on this collection, the synergy between the different musical traditions is breathtaking. On “I Would Never Want To Be Young Again” by Gogol Bordello, the hyper, distorted electric guitars infuse the gypsy folk melodies with a rabid energy that distinguishes the band from the punk-rock masses. Similarly, on Les Boukakes’ “Sidi H’Bibi“, the African percussion invigorates the guitar licks and keyboard vamps and makes for truly exciting music.
Unfortunately, not all the tracks on Planet Rock are successful. The main problem with the album is that the sonic elements occasionally only add up to novelty songs. Despite a few clever lyrical turns and a fresh blend of klezmer and funk beats, the Hip Hop Hoodios’ “Kike on the Mic” loses most of its charm after a few listens. Yat-Kha’s version of “In a Gadda Da Vida” is another slight disappointment. Band leader Albert Kuvezin’s throat singing is amazing — at times the vocalist sustains multiple notes — and the busy strings provide an appropriately trippy accompaniment. In the end, though, the four-minute cover, bereft of the sprawling, druggy splendor which has helped the Iron Butterfly song endure for so long, seems somewhat shallow.
Fortunately, a few less-than-compelling tracks do not spoil Planet Rock. Overall, the album provides a valuable new window on the phenomenon of rock music. Western listeners are too often flooded by formulaic rock music that stresses volume over substance. From the handclaps on Tinariwen’s “Qualahila Ar Tesninam” to the megaphone-amplified thumb pianos on Konono No. 1’s “Ungudi Wele Wele“, the tracks on Planet Rock prove that rock music can be much more than a wall of ultra-distorted guitars and crashing cymbals. Providing new insight into one of the most well-worn styles in Western popular music is no mean feat, and it is enough to earn The Rough Guide to Planet Rock a solid recommendation.