There should be little to no complaint about World Circuit’s Presents compilation. With a total of 27 songs divided between two discs, this 20th anniversary project couldn’t get any better. Along with some of their best tracks, World Circuit has made sure to include some previously unreleased rarities, a feature that should attract lovers of the obscure in particular. Indeed, the label is eager to emphasize that, in addition to familiar favourites, the compilation includes tracks that until now have lain dormant in the archives. Tellingly, World Circuit promotes the compilation as, “an informal history of perhaps the best-known world music label”.
World Circuit doesn’t exaggerate, for the label is perhaps the best-known world music label, having achieved immense popularity with the groundbreaking Buena Vista Social Club album, launched to international acclaim and a Grammy award in 1997. The album was so popular that Wim Wenders documented the project in a film of the same name in 1999. Since then World Cirucit’s reputation has only gained more ground with the Buena Vista series, which showcases solos by artists Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo, Rubén González, and Guajiro Mirabela. Not only have these and other albums by African artists such as Ali Farka Touré, Oumou Sangare, Orchestra Baobob and Cheikh Lô sold well, but they have also generated unprecedented interest in the musical traditions of both West Africa and Latin America. Established in London in the mid-1980s, World Circuit has certainly gone on to make good on its promise to bring local and sometimes forgotten musical traditions to the global circuit. The label’s commitment to the worldwide distribution of music from two major regions is shown well on this latest, which presents some of the best moments from over 20 years of recording. For World Circuit listeners and, more generally, world music aficionados, World Circuit Presents is definitely a must-have CD.
World Circuit’s informal history begins most appropriately with “Chan Chan”, a song that appeared on the Buena Vista Social Club album and which has been described as the project’s anthem, not to mention one of the most recognizable songs produced by the label. Supplementing the soothing, percussive sound of this and other tracks, are details in the liner notes that offer brief histories of the compilation’s tracks, the artists responsible for them and, in some cases, information about the context in which they were recorded. What is most compelling about these liner notes is the fact that they often provide information about the very process of making music. In the case of Ali Farka Touré’s infamous “Soukara”, for example, the liner notes explain that, “On the day of recording, Ry augmented the melody with a toy guitar”. Such information is rare in an insert and attests to World Circuit’s respect for the painstaking effort that goes into any composition. Part of the difficulty of reviewing this compilation is that the process of listening to it is never complete. With every listen one inevitably hears something new, something they didn’t notice before, and with 27 tracks the sheer joy of listening can go on for a lengthy period of time. The most one can do in reflecting on the compilation is touch on some of the highlights and offer some idea of how it sounds as a whole.
Oumou Sangare’s “Mogo Te Diya Bee Ye”
Like Ali Farka Touré’s “Soukora”, a song that was featured on the GRAMMY-winning Talking Timbuktu album that solidified World Circuit’s international reputation, Oumou Sangare’s “Mogo Te Diya Bee Ye” maintains a special place in the label’s history. Although many associate World Circuit with the Buena Vista Social Club project, and thereby also with Cuban music, the label has considered its African artists to be just as important as their Latin counterparts. In fact, much of the music of West Africa is influenced by Cuban music and vice versa. That said, Oumou Sangare, or “Sangare Kono” (meaning “songbird”) as she has the privilege of being called in her native Mali, departs significantly from the griot or storytelling songs that characterized many of the Malian dance bands popular during her childhood. Inflecting the older song and dance traditions of Wasulu, Mali with a modern, feminist sensibility, Sangare has, since the early 1990s, contributed to the development of a style of music called “wassoulou”. This style has its origins in the 1950s but only came to be fully recognized as a legitimate form in the late 1980s. Significantly, it was established by youth and draws on ancient hunters’ songs to express the problems faced by ordinary people. The featured track is from Oumou, a World Circuit anthology that includes some of Sangare’s best work to date. A tribute to the great Wassulu singer Toumani Kone, the song provides a good example of the artist’s skill. Kone himself was a pioneer in his own right and, with Sangare, encouraged youth in his community to speak out. For scores of Malian young people who have had traditionally no say about the issues that affect their constituency, the acoustic yet funky rhythms that characterize Sangare’s music are inspiring. They are especially so for young women in Mali, many of whom face expulsion or neglect as a result of polygamy and misogyny. Sangare’s strong voice rises amid the sounds of women’s chants to comment on and critique contemporary social ills. It was after the phenomenal success of her debut album, entitled Moussoulou or “Women”, that Nick Gold at World Circuit signed her to the World Circuit label. She has since risen to international stardom, a remarkable achievement for a woman who grew up poor in Bamako.
Guillermo Portabales’ “El Carretero”
Halfway between West Africa and Cuba and, musically, between the punto and son styles, lies Guillermo Portabales’ “El Carretero”. This is not to say that the track is a hybrid construction influenced by both West African and Cuban musical traditions; instead, it is to lay stress on the fact that Portabales’ most famous song has become popular in West Africa, where groups such as Orchestra Baobob cover it. Thus it is, in some sense, a piece that belongs to more than one region. Portabales himself was greatly influenced by the cultures of Puerto Rico and eventually settled there before his untimely death in 1970. He is known for shifting the guajira style into a more melodic register; in fact, his take on the form was eventually dubbed “guajira de salon”, a guajira designed for the city that nonetheless maintains focus on the guajira or peasant of the rural areas. “El Carretero”, which was previously released on the World Circuit album of the same name, is exemplary of Potabales’ innovative revision of the guajira. His sweet, melodic voice overflows with emotion, the guitar work is simply amazing, and the percussion lends the piece an immediacy matched only by the quality of what was originally a cassette recording.
Buena Vista Social Club’s “Candela”
Elegance gives way to the upbeat sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club, the whole club as luck would have it, as they performed “Candela” at Carnegie Hall in 1998. This previously unreleased gem features Barbarito Torres on the oud, Eliades Ochoa on guitar, and vocalist Ibrahim Ferrer. Unlike “El Carretero”, which takes listeners back in time, the Buena Vista Social Club’s live recording offers a full-bodied stereophonic sound that should get listeners on their feet immediately. For the Buena Vista fan, this track sizzles with excitement. The added sound of the audience clapping only heightens the energy of the piece and conveys the passion with which World Circuit’s consigned artists, and especially those associated with the Club, approach their trade.
As a whole, World Circuit Presents is highly textured. What’s more, the compilation moves easily between old sons and contemporary wassoulou divas. Eschewing chronology for style, the label manages to create a coherent yet deliciously eclectic mix. The result is a veritable banquet of diverse sounds that are as socially significant as they are pleasing to hear.