Real World records has reached 25 and to celebrate the label has compiled a three CD set, looking back over its history, neatly packaged in keeping with the design aesthetic that has served them so well. The sleeve notes give an insight into the history, but concentrate more on the founding principals and creative energy that has kept Real World vibrant and alive for so long. There’s also an admission therein that it is impossible to condense the story into so small and neat a package. The best that could be hoped for was to skim the surface, but do it in a way that captures some of the essence and energy of the label. At the same time the 48 tracks cannot hope to comprehensively document the entire Real World roster and repertoire, but do however paint a sonic picture of musical adventure, that over the course of two and half decades has come to define what makes the label special. Most importantly, the CDs are well sequenced and an absolute joy to listen to, revelling in the eclecticism, but also the connections that music can forge between diverse and diffuse cultures.
Real World records followed the Womad (World Of Music, Arts and Dance) festival, which started in 1982 and the creation of the Real World studio, overlooking a mill pond on the fringe of the village of Box in Wiltshire. Both the festival and the studio turned the visions of Peter Gabriel into reality as he started to explore a growing passion for music from around the world. At first, however, the idea of setting up a label had little appeal, with Peter shying away from the poacher / gamekeeper dilemma. Perhaps there was also a hangover from the first Womad festival, which had been anything but a success. By the end of the 80s, with the festival operating as it should, and the vast array of talent coming through, the one time artistic director for Womad, managed to persuade him of the need and Real World Records was born.
If to some degree Peter Gabriel’s passion for the wider world of music making had been inspired by his own Passion album,Music For The Last Temptation of Christ, then the approach that he took to that record also set some of the defining parameters for the record label in place. Although as the name of the album makes clear, the music was originally conceived as a soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s film, but Peter continued to work on the music after the film’s completion, with a view to making the record a stand alone release. It provided the first introduction for many to the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N’Dour, L. Shankar, and Baaba Maal, but merged their sounds with Western musicians and production techniques. And so Real World Records has always pursued the possibilities of fusion over any purist attempt to document ethno-musicology.
It’s quite funny to read a confession from Michael Brook in the expansive press notes that accompany the release. He worked with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on creating the album Mustt Mustt. The title track when given a remix by Massive Attack actually made the top 40 singles chart, but back in Pakistan, the track caused some controversy for the singer. It seems the final version was a composite, with Brook allowing Nusrat to play for as long as he wanted, recording several different passes and then editing parts from the various takes together. What he failed to realise was that in doing so he completely mangled the words to a deeply spiritual piece and with Nusrat back in Pakistan, the communication between them was slow and difficult, so the mistake wasn’t discovered until it was too late. That said and language barrier aside, the track sounds fabulous and rightly opens disc one here. Even if the lyrical flow in Nusrat’s native Urdu is lost, there is a real sense of the power of devotion in the song and the hit single and subsequent album launched the label in style and it sounds fabulous to this day, so much so that the 12” had to be found and given a spin.
Disc one stakes a claim as representing significant highlights or classic releases amongst more than 200 albums that Real World Records has released and does a pretty good job of rounding up a few personal favourites. As well as Nusrat, there’s grungy, swamp-funk of Little Axe, featuring Skip McDonald, with a co-write credit for Mark Stewart and featuring various Tackhead and On-U personal. Then there’s Adrian Sherwood himself, who describes his offering as world-music-sci-fi-dub-dancehall, and Dub Colossus, the Anglo-Ethiopian, jazz-dub fusionists. There’s also folk fusion from Imagined Village, which boldly makes a case for our island’s true multi-culturalism.
But it’s the other tracks that surprise and delight in equal measure, from the sweeping orchestration that accompanies the Somalian Maryam Musral, the tightly wound beats and bass of Joi, or several tracks which fall into the haunting and ethereal camp, including those from Gabriel himself, Jocelyn Pook and Iarla Ó Lionáird. Who can resist the almost rockabilly-tinged gospel, driven by Danny Thompson’s distinctive, growling bass, of the Blind Boys Of Alabama, or the lively Zairian soukous of Remmy Ongala & Orchetra Super Matimilia, with it’s fluid guitar lines. Then there’s the cascading thumb pianos and traditional sounds supporting Hukwe Zawose, as he duets with his nephew Charles and the comparatively sparse simplicity of Ayub Ogada. There’s the evocative sounds of coastal Columbia that mix Latin and African influences with the indigenous sounds from Totó La Momposina y Sus Tambores, sounding like a slice of blissful, sun-kissed café life. Strangest of all is the undeniable beauty of the combination of Buddhist chant and grand piano form Lama Gyurme & Jean-Philippe Rykiel.
Disc two immerses itself a little deeper into the catalogue to no less enjoyable effect. Again some of the names are instantly familiar to me such as Djivan Gasparyan, who has recently featured on FRUK, but here is partnered with Michael Brook for a lilting up tempo number that builds layers of his trademark, otherworldly duduk. Possibly inhabiting the marchlands between this world and the next, Vättrinä, fronted by the Finnish female vocal trio are powerful and darkly mysterious, while the Creole Choir Of Cuba are powerful and almost hymnal. Ananda Shankar, the nephew of Ravi, has played his sitar in jamming with Hendrix and created his own bold fusions before, but here is paired with the breakbeats and bhangra of the UK based State Of Bengal. Syriana is another fusion melding a gorgeous vocal performance atop, sweeping strings and the dulcimer like quanun, with the gentle urging of guitar and double bass. Then there are the dizzying complex rhythms of the Billy Cobham produced Farafina.
Perhaps the range of the first four tracks gives some indication of the scope of this CD, although the opening vocal from Pape & Cheikh, straight from the heart of Senegal, is deceptive, as the song melts into a glorious, toe tapping pop tune. It’s followed by the electro infused Brazillian Daúde and the Mexican Los De Abejo, the first being nervy, twitching funk and the latter loping, down tempo hip-hop. It makes the opening of the desert blues of Toumast sound quite primal, but the track picks up a trance like quality as the guitars spiral and voices lock into call and response.
There are of course more twists and turns on that second and also the third disc and the last of the CDs will certainly provide some more familiar names for those who have followed the label’s recent fortunes, with Joseph Arthur, Spiro, Portico Quartet, JuJu, the collaboration between Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara, who are both currently working with Robert Plant, and French hit Carlie Winston. There’s also a track plucked from the Big Blue Ball album, compiled from Real World’s recording weeks, where artists from all over the world converge on the studio, with total creative freedom to combine their talents however they can. Movingly, a daringly experimental, beat heavy- track (Move) from Martyn Bennett’s sadly posthumous album is also included.
This being the selection of regulars on the Real World website, there are also some classics and Sheila Chandra and the massively successful and hugely important Afro Celt Sound System are essential choices. It’s equally hard to refuse the charms of the elastic voiced Papa Wemba or the smoother more sultry Daby Touré and the sonorous Geoffrey Oryema, the latter with a track that features Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno. The surprises in the pack come from Yungchen Lhamo, whose transcendent melody seems to hang outside of time itself and the subtle electro makeover that the late Hector Zazou gave to Uzbek to Sevara Nazarkhan. It isn’t particularly useful to compare, but as wonderful as the various voices gathered here are, you suspect they would all tip their hats to Nusrat, whose collaboration with Michael Brook slides through the scales with spine tingling effect.
As a three CD set, this is a brilliant thing in its own right, a compilation with so much variety that also works as a fantastic playlist of global musical talent. There’s phenomenal diversity, but also a fusion of ideas through collaboration that remains true to the original vision and ideals that forged the label. It’s a valuable document of our common human spirit and our joy in the universal language of music. If that all sounds a bit lofty or worthy, then the key word is ‘joy,’ because as the CDs play it’s impossible not to turn on, tune in and be carried wherever the music takes you. Real World 25 has the power to satisfy all but the most rapacious musical hunger, but for those who might ask for more, there is all manner of inspiration for further exploration. Either way, this is essential.
Review by: Simon Holland
Real World 25 is Out Now