Home of Buena Vista Social Club, World Circuit Scours the Globe For New Sounds

Orchestra Baobab

Orchestra Baobab, photo by Jonas Karlsson.

When British tour promoters Anne Hunt and Mary Farquharson hired Nick Gold to run their World Circuit label a year after its 1986 launch, “world music”—the unfortunate appellation for music performed by non-Western artists—tended to arrive in albums organized either by territory, instrument, or style. The Nonesuch Explorer series comes to mind (for example, The Persian Santur: Music of Iran) or Ocara’s Gabon: Musique des Pygmées Bibayak.

Gold, however, changed all that by shifting the emphasis to the artists themselves—on early albums by the Sudanese maestro Abdel Aziz El Mubarak, Ghanaian singer Alex Konadu, and Mali guitar legend Ali Farka Touré. “These were records made by people,” Gold says, “and we lucked out with some amazing personalities.”

In a phonographic landscape where non-Western musicians had routinely been exoticized, fetishized, or reduced to a social studies lesson, World Circuit contextualizes its artists with appealing graphics and intriguing backstories. In other words, Gold and company treat non-Western artists with as much respect—and, yes, even showbiz razzle-dazzle—as their Anglo-American equivalents were long used to.

The label’s founders eventually sold the company to Gold, who combined his “artists first” philosophy with high production values, eclectic tastes, and unabashed marketing—values that remain unchanged 30 years on.

“I don’t think much of how I’ve worked, or what we’ve tried to do, has changed at all, really,” Gold says. “We still only release two or three records a year, which isn’t a lot, but it’s all we can manage to do in the way we want to do them.”

Gold’s knack for balancing accessibility and authenticity, while always looking toward the future, is apparent in World Circuit hits like The Buena Vista Social Club (nine million copies have sold since 1997) and Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder’s Talking Timbuktu (550,000 sold copies since 1994). Intercultural collaborations like these have been an important part of World Circuit’s identity. From the Chieftains members who pop up on Touré’s The River (1990), to the marvelous blend of Mali’s Trio Da Kali and the Kronos Quartet on 2017’s Ladilikan, Gold has demonstrated a knack for knowing how to bridge the gap between the Euro-American world and Africa—and, in the case of the 2010 compilation AfroCubism, finally fulfilling his dream of taking Mali musicians to Cuba.

In recent years, World Circuit has expanded into so-called “360” deals with Mali’s Orchestra Baobab and the Congo’s Mbongwana Star. (That becomes necessary, according to Gold, when artists lack management.) World Circuit is also releasing a lot of its older material on vinyl, and plans to eventually compile and issue Ali Farka Touré’s considerable archive of unreleased material.

Gold himself, it turns out, is a rabid jazz fan. “I listen to loads and loads of jazz,” he says. “I’m still listening—almost nonstop—to Duke Ellington’s small groups from the late ’30s and early ’40s. And Ornette Coleman.” In fact, fans of Coleman and the World Circuit style can only dream about one that got away. “We wanted to get him together with some musicians from Mauritania. We talked to his son, Denardo, and they were interested. But it was too late.”

Orchestra Baobab, Pirates Choice

In 2001, World Circuit released Orchestra Baobab’s Senegambie and Ngalam, recorded in 1982 under the name Baobab Guygui 82 de Dakar, as a double-album. With a multi-tribal coterie of exquisitely harmonizing singers and musicians from Senegal, Mali, Morocco, and Guinea-Bissau, Baobab re-Africanized the Latin rhythms that swept the continent during the ’70s. These transcendent, lush four-track recordings capture the band at its most understated and spacious, with electric guitars and a saxophone standing in for traditional African instrumentation.

Buena Vista Social Club, Buena Vista Social Club

Buena Vista Social Club

Photo by Donata Wenders.

Recorded in 1997 as a fortuitous “Plan B” when the Mali musicians Nick Gold and Ry Cooder hoped to record in Havana couldn’t appear, this suave 1997 revival of pre-Castro Cuban music has sold more than nine million copies and counting. Nudged by a young bandleader, the septuagenarian and octogenarian pianist Rubén González, singer-guitarist Compay Segundo, and singers Omara Portuondo and Ibrahim Ferrer perform these son grooves and romantic ballads as though they were part of their DNA—which, of course, is the case.

Toumani Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra, Boulevard de l’independence

Toumani Diabate

Photo by Malik Sidibe.

Forged in the decade-long weekly pairing of Bamako’s Hogan Club, the kora virtuoso’s Symmetric Orchestra—in total, six lead singers and 26 musicians—Boulevard reimagines both Mandé traditionalism and Mali dance music. The resulting polyrhythmic groove, with its snappy horn section, female chorus, and strings, is smooth and sophisticated. Adding electric instruments to traditional kora, ngoni, and balafon isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but Diabaté takes the blend to a high level of improvisatory interplay.

Oumou Sangaré, Seya

In terms of sheer musical pleasure, few social critics compare to Mali singer Oumou Sangaré’s polyrhythms of protest, with some 50 players helping her out. The standout here is “Wele Wele Wintou,” which opposes the forced marriage of underage girls with percussion mimicking ringing bells. Besides bemoaning the plight of unhappy women in “Sounsoumba,” Sangaré praises a singing feminist forbearer in “Iyo Djeli,” exalts a progressive Nigerian politician and his wife in “Djigui,” and suggests a modest redistribution of resources in “Kounadya.”

Abdel Gadir Salim All Stars, The Merdoum Kings Play Songs of Love

Sudanese popular music, folk song, Arabic melodies, and a faint suspicion of Western jazz come together in this oudist-vocalist’s understated yet compelling sound. An improvisatory taqsim kicks of “Umri Ma Bansa,” which surges forward on a wave of strings, hand-clapping, and a suave sax solo. Other songs drift on in 6/8 grooves while suggesting a sort of Arabic reggae (“Alhagi”).

Ali Farka Touré with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu

Ali Farka Toure

Photo by Susan Titelman.

Having conclusively retrieved the blues Africa lent to the West (which he’d call “tribal heritage”), the intensely grooving Sahel guitar virtuoso leader is firmly at the helm of these momentous crossover sessions with American blues guitarist Ry Cooder. Beginning with the exquisite “Bonde,” Cooder simply jumps into the river of Touré’s material and Hamma Sankare’s indispensible calabash percussion. The duo’s interplay becomes fourth dimensional with the introduction of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown on guitar (“Lasidan”) and viola (“Ai Du”).

Richard Gehr

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