Former Genesis musician and lead singer and producer Peter Gabriel is a pioneering figure on the world roots music scene and it was by no means an obvious choice to create his own recording studio near Bath in the 1980s, launch the now annual and internationally prestigious Womad festival back in 1982, and then launch a brand new label towards the end of that decade devoted to promoting the music of hitherto relatively unknown musicians from other countries throughout the globe. Twenty-five years on and we have a celebration of those efforts with the release of a box set devoted to just some of the music contained on the Real World label. One could argue that even three CDs barely touches the surface, but importantly it does go beyond the surface to provide an excellent overview of some of the names, now household, established musicians in some cases, and yet still relatively unknown in other cases, that have graced the studios.
Probably one of the biggest critical as well as commercial successes have been the various albums recorded by Pakistani devotional music legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, both in collaboration with Western musicians of the calibre of Michael Brook and with Khan’s own band. For the former category, ‘Mustt Mustt’ is quite simply a world roots fusion classic and never fails to encourage listeners to dance in enjoyment while ‘Sweet Pain’ focuses on his more meditative side. Sheila Chandra typifies the approach of the label and scored a major pop hit with ‘Ever so lonely’, proof that in the right setting world roots music could reach out to a wider non-specialist audience. Africa has frequently featured on the label and from the east of that continent in Tanzania comes Remmy Ongala and the Orchestra Super Matimila with a recording that fully stands the test of time. Acoustic African folk flavours can be heard from Daby Touré hailing from Mauritania on ‘Iris’ while one of the continent’s most compelling voices of dissent against corruption, Thomas Mapfumo, is most deserving of a place. Attempts to specifically target Western audiences with a more pop-friendly sound were the raison d’être for Congolese superstar singer Papa Wemba’s presence and, though differing from his sound aimed at his compatriots, this is nonetheless music of great interest and integrity.UK-based bands that specialise in fusing world roots styles have been regular participants and among these we find the Afro Celt System, Juju and Imagined Village where folk and world roots musicians have met and worked together in total harmony, another major underlying theme and objective of the label’s creator. More recently the Creole Choir of Cuba have recorded a wonderful album showcasing the Haitian influence on music in eastern Cuba and enjoyed a triumphant tout of the UK, and thus it is only fitting that they should be represented here. Elsewhere, Los de Abajo from Mexico, Värttina from Finland and even Tibetan musician Yungchen Lhamo all contribute to the intoxicating cultural mix.
One could argue about the omission of some musicians who have recorded for Real World. Tabu Ley Rochereau would have been a worthy participant as would Cuban big band Orchestra Revé while Irish flautist extraordinaire Matt Molloy and live recordings from his ever musical pub in County Mayo would have added some Celtic flair to proceedings. That said, it is still the case that this anthology is representative of the plethora of music on the Real World label and the world roots scene as a whole should be externally grateful to Pete Gabriel for having the foresight and courage to chronicle so much of it.