Various Artists – 30: Real World at WOMAD (Real World/ August 6 2012)
By Neil Edwards
In 1992, whilst making a documentary about the Blandford Music Festival, our director espied Joe Strummer bouncing merrily about in the main tent. Although he had plenty of drink, what he was drunk on wasn’t the local ale, but the goatskin drums of the headline act, who’d been flown in especially from Mali to perform. Seizing the chance of a lifetime, our director rushed over to the tipsy punk icon and asked him what he thought of the music. Strummer looked into our lens and, with candyfloss eyes, answered: “Sunshine . . . it sounds like sunshine.”
Last week, when I first put on this luminously exotic two-disk album from Real World Records, Strummer’s comment came spinning back to me, for every track on it is filled with the same uniquely sidereal light. Every sound you could conceivably imagine is here, every musical rhythm, tempo and chant that man has been able to extend his vocal chords to in three million years of human evolution.
It all started three decades ago when Peter Gabriel stumbled upon a Dutch radio station playing African music whilst trying to awaken the activist within him to write ‘Biko’. The resultant passion the music aroused brought forth WOMAD, the festival that turned 30 last month and later Real World, the record label Gabriel launched seven years later to showcase his continued foraging. 30: Real World at WOMAD is a celebration of the sibling union that has existed between the two ever since.
It’s not entirely a global affair – we never venture below the Tropic of Capricorn, for instance – and many truly great acts get left on the cutting room floor; but with more than 200 albums under its belt, choosing just 30 songs is always going to be a sizable task.
What survives then is not a ‘Best Of’ album, but a prismatic selection of musical gems, ranging from the chest-thumping Drummers of Burundi (who featured in the inaugural WOMAD in 1982) to the Southbank’s very own Portico Quartet, the hang-led jazz foursome who received a well-deserved Mercury nomination in 2008.
Though many of the artists still remain cloaked in obscurity, the label has given birth to a few names of the more household variety. Youssou N’Dour and Baaba Maal were both relative unknowns until Gabriel ferried them to the Real World Studios and told them which mic to yodel into.
Predictably, Africa dominates, contributing nearly half of the acts, through the likes of Papa Wemba, Dub Colossus and Remmy Ongala, but the Tibetan enchantress Yungchen Lhamo provides a truly sensual highlight. Zawose & Brook follow straight after with a polyrhythmic dazzler of bullwhip perfection, after which the baton is passed over to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the phenomenal qawwali singer.
If all this foreign stuff isn’t your cup of tea, you can find solace in the reassuring voice of Gabriel himself, who stamps his authority onto the final track with his classic, ‘Rhythm of the Heat’, a frenzied canticle every bit as trance-like as anything encountered by Jim Morrison in the Mojave desert.
There are no weak tracks, and for my money, this is one of the richest anthologies to come round in many a year.