Compilations in any genre are rarely so effective.
As with jazz, blues, or just about any other "un-pop" genre in music, one develops a highly specialized area of knowledge in the process of becoming well-versed in sounds that don't originate from the United States or Europe. But any budding ethnomusicologist can verify that comprehensive points of entry are difficult to come by, even with the overabundance of compilations released each year with those exact intentions. As a case in point, The World Music Network's Rough Guide series is now over 100 titles strong and still growing, with overviews that range in subject matter from continent-level to locale-specific -- and the degree of success is most likely subjective to each listener's prior familiarity on a case-by-case basis.
Like many of those regionally-oriented compilations of world music, there's a remarkable spectrum of sounds covered on The Rough Guide to the Music of the Sahara. It's rather sensible if you think about it -- just try to find a description of the Sahara Desert that doesn't include the adjective "vast" -- and judging from the stylistic range of the 13 tracks on this compilation, the World's Largest [Hot] Desert™ houses a cultural microcosm as diverse as any of the world's major metropolitan centers.
The rest of the academic details are perhaps best left to compiler Andy Morgan, whose liner notes present a fine understanding of this music in contexts musicological, geographical, and socio-political. However, for someone like me that has a more than casual, though certainly not expert, knowledge of the music of West and South Africa, this Rough Guide travels far beyond the demure introductory trappings of its title. Certainly, the disc serves its purpose as an aural icebreaker, but the overall effect is bigger than that: every track is a captivating experience, and some of the music is no less than revelatory.
Taken as a whole, the compilation straddles the traditional and the contemporary, sometimes with such interchangeable ease that it sounds virtually timeless. Approximately half of the disc represents the region's undiluted musical traditions -- and by that I mean artists that don't incorporate modern flourishes into their work. Of those six pieces, the two that open and close the collection -- Compagnie Jellouli & Gdih's "Al Jbal Li Dargoug Aaaliya", with two sympathetic male vocalists supplanting the more common lead/chorus call and response, and Sahraoui Bachir's "Fid El Youm", a trance-inducing performance on vocals and wooden flute -- are the most unique within their ritual embrace.
The other side of the coin captures a guitar-driven approach, led -- at least in terms of global exposure -- by Mali's Tinariwen, a group that received several high-profile accolades for its 2004 release, Amassakoul. The band is represented here with that album's "Alkhar Dessouf", the slow development of which sounds as much like crossing the actual desert as this writer's imagination can summon. Mariem Hassan's "Id Chab" mines a similar guitar-laden cinematic scope, except with powerful female vocals, which come together to create one of the disc's most mesmerizing tracks. Conversely, Hasna El Becharia offers further shades of the guitar's role in Saharan music, not to mention a firm reminder of flamenco's Moorish roots with the acoustic "Hakmet Lakdar".
Of course, there are always artists like Malouma -- whose mixture of traditional and Western instruments creates a lush backdrop for her expressive vocals -- and Seckou Maïga -- whose "Malfa Sibori" appropriates synths and processed drums for the most "pop" sounding song on the disc -- that don't fit comfortably into either camp. But that's the beauty of a collection like this: just about every track tells a small, but integral piece of the story. And when each of those pieces practically begs to be explored further... well, compilations in any genre are rarely so effective.