The Greatest Songs Ever: India – various artistsWorld 2004 – various artists, compiled by Charlie Gillett
Time-Life 19226-2 / Petrol Records 060
Wrasse Records 123
The term "World music" is still pretty dumb. "It's like calling it 'Earth music!' Everything is Earth music!" my friend Paul says exasperated, and he’s right. But it’s also useful, both to describe the rapid spread of music across the globe over the second half of the 20th century, as well as the demand that followed. People have always lusted over the exotic, from Arabian Nights to the touring treasures of King Tut’s tomb to Nonesuch Records’ classic Explorer records on up, and the kinda absurd Greatest Songs Ever series by Time-Life and the kinda essential annual World issues by Wrasse Records are just the latest talismanic manifestations of that. Each sets itself with a fairly major task.
Besides the music contained on the disc, nearly everything about the India edition of Greatest Songs Ever is hilarious: the classic red "As seen on TV…" sticker, the recipes for mango lhassi and green chili chutney included in the liner notes (is that insulting, or is it just me?), the improper use of the word "Discography" over the disc’s track listing. The latter includes little more than the songs’ basic copyright information. Occasionally, it lists the albums or Bollywood soundtracks the songs are from, but – heavens no – never the year. Calling it The Greatest Songs Ever, and then hardly offering a wink of justification is asking a lot of the Time-Life brand name. But maybe I've been burned one too many times by their fabulous TV offers.
To be fair, this incompleteness actually works out well, because it both lets the music speak for itself, as well as making it more mysterious. The two tracks that immediately jumped out at me, "Aye-Dil-E-Nadan" and "Honton Mein Aisi Beat," are both sung by Lata Mangeshkar. The latter glows the familiar glow of old recordings made with veritable tin-can technology. Her voice warbles, sounding perfect even as it disappears into oversaturation. "Technicolor romance along the Ganges," is how Joseph Lanza describes Indian pop music in the one bit of helpfulness the liners provide, and the two tracks by Mangeshkar are the two most obvious manifestations of it. The string arrangements are lush, the percussion is (yes) exotic, and the production broadcasts itself vividly. I wanna hear more.
Turns out that, per the indispensable AllMusic.com, she's one of the most recorded singers of all time, appearing on over 30,000 songs (in 20 languages) from various Indian film soundtracks. "The most important of the Playback singers," they call her. So, score one for the fellas at Time-Life. Likewise, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ("Tere Bin Nahin Lagda"), Shivkumar Sharma ("Love"), and Kumar Sanu ("Ek Ladki Ko Dekha") are all prolific, to put it mildly. But it's hard to even know how these tracks fit into their vast repertoires, though the former's builds from a ballad to full-on dance pop, while the latter's rings with a (to American ears) hypnotically burbling arrangement that's topped with a vocal line that sounds, tonally and emotionally, like bland, American pop. AllMusic isn't so helpful with most of the other artists, though. Taufiq's "Ji Ji Rhy" bursts with panoramic scope, while Lucky Ali just sounds like slightly more creative American top 40 with a tabla beat. It's an exploration for the listener, to be sure, but one has to work for it. It was kinda fun.
BBC DJ Charlie Gillett's World 2004, on the other hand, presents a bit more of a narrative voice. With liner notes that are both levelheaded and lucid, this two-disc compilation can reasonably present itself as a slice of what's going on around the globe (though shouldn't "Hey Ya" be on here?). Gillett offers a no-nonsense description of each act: just enough for some context, still leaving something unsaid. Miraculously, perhaps due to Gillett's good-natured editing skills, the music flows from one track to another, despite the fact that one's ear is jumping in places from Russia to the Congo to Cuba. Nearly every track is picked with care, it seems, and – even so – there are still surprises galore. It's bizarre, but "Resineiro (Gum Collector)" by blind Portuguese street singer Dona Rosa is nothing if not Beatlesque, its gently cycling melody unintentionally echoing John Lennon's "Julia."
This ain't yer parents' Alan Lomax-curated folk collection. The musicians that Gillett chooses are presented not as naive specimens, but active artists — and it's a refreshing change. They may come from around the globe, but – Gillett seems to say – their music belongs to them, the musicians, not their nationalities. That's not to say that all the music on World 2004 sounds the same by any stretch. Markscheider Kunst plays smoking polyrhythmic tropical grooves, but happen to be from St. Petersburg, Russia (what the fuck?), while the German 17 Hippies play Berlin cabaret music with a deep sense of history (and a singing saw). The former is followed by Kekle, who actually are from the Congo, and sound it, in the best possible way, a chorus of voices mixed into a rich texture. Nearly every song feels like a gift, and that’s a nice feeling. Maybe not every song is great, but every track is worth one’s attention. (Oddly, there’s no Indian music represented on World 2004.)
The Greatest Songs Ever: India isn’t a bad thing, though it is incongruous. If one is looking for an earnest introduction to Indian music, it’s not very helpful. If one already knows a lot about Indian music, he probably doesn’t need Time-Life’s help. World 2004 is a great score for anybody with a penchant for some sonic travel.