Thanks to the latest life-extension medical advances, some of us who bought LPs way back in the 1970s are still alive today to wax nostalgic about the experience. In that bygone era long before either compact discs or today's "World Music" category were invented, enthusiasts sought out the occasional African or Latin American recording in the "International Music" bin buried at the back of a record store near the sound-effects LPs. With the advent of the Nonesuch Explorer Series, that bin was seldom empty.
By this time anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, and other multisyllabic professionals had already been collecting music from different cultures for decades. But the required recording gear was dauntingly bulky, not to mention primitive. In 1941 Bruce and Sheridan Fahnestock lugged Presto record-cutting machines and two miles of insulated microphone cable to Bali to capture three-minute-length snippets of local music on aluminum 78-RPM platters. (Some of the Fahnestock material was belatedly released by Rykodisc in 1994 as Music for the Gods.)
When Alan Lomax trekked through the European backcountry in the 1950s, he outfitted himself with the latest reel-to-reel tape recorder, but anything approaching high-fidelity sound quality just wasn't there. By the time the Nonesuch record label released the first LP in its Explorer Series in 1967, vastly improved technology had suddenly opened remote locations to aural hunter-gatherers as equipment got simultaneously better and smaller. David Lewiston took less than 70 pounds of recording equipment to Bali and emerged with the near-studio-quality stereo recordings featured on the groundbreaking Music from the Morning of the World album. So began the modern era of world music recordings.
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Few of the Explorer LPs ever made the transition to compact disc. But Nonesuch is reissuing the entire series of 92 albums made between 1967 and 1984. The ambitious revival kicks off with the release of thirteen African music titles in September and grinds to a halt in February 2005 with fifteen Indian recordings. The question, of course, is how relevant the albums remain today given both the impressive amount of music from around the world now available and an audience far better informed than existed back in 1967.
For the most part the African discs hold up nicely. Much of the focus is on traditional music, including song styles that were endangered the day they were recorded and which by now have presumably vanished. The "El Molo Hippo Song" featured on East Africa: Ceremonial and Folk Music from the Lake Rudolf region of Kenya was nearly extinct when David Fanshawe grabbed it in 1975. Its languid passages probably won't vault to the top of anyone's playlist. The entire CD is more interesting than listenable. Thankfully Fanshawe's companion recording, East Africa: Witchcraft and Ritual Music, is big in the jangling-rhythms department and should easily stay put on any CD player that it meets. But even that pales compared with the rousing percussive dances that pack West Africa: Drum, Chant and Instrumental Music and Ghana: Ancient Ceremonies: Dance Music and Songs, both recorded by Stephen Jay. The vernacular flute and lute pieces are an added bonus. Boasting songs played on vernacular flutes, boun-kam gourd clarinet, musical bow, hodu lute, and balaphon marimba, Kathleen Johnson's Burkina Faso: Savannah Rhythms is so tuneful it could be a pop music release, and Burkina Faso: Rhythms of the Grasslands doesn't lag far behind.
By far the most surprising release of the lot is Burundi: Music from the Heart of Africa, recorded in the early 1970s by Giuseppe Coter. The rich repertoire is often reminiscent of Malian traditional music, especially "Bees," a dialogue between a singer and the bass notes of his inanga eight-string zither, which sounds as much like American delta blues as anything out of West Africa. The eerie "Walking Tune" performed on idingiti fiddle is the spiritual sibling of the divinatory repertoire of the Sahel's njarka one-stringed violin nicely demonstrated by guitarist Ali Farka Toure on several of his albums. And as expected, this disc includes a fine example of the Burundi large-ensemble drumming style that slid into Western pop music via Bow Wow Wow, Adam Ant, and other punk pranksters during the late 1970s.
Speaking of pop, the one disappointing disc in the collection is Ghana: High-Life and Other Popular Music from Saka Acquaye and his African Ensemble, an outfit that can't hold a candle to the African Brothers Band or almost any other highlife band you might mention. The music undoubtedly sounded novel in 1969, which brings up a general complaint about the Explorer Series reissues. Aside from a couple of name changes, the albums are essentially identical to the original releases. No new material has been added, nor are liner notes updated in any meaningful sense. When Rounder Records decided to reissue the entire Alan Lomax catalog of American, Caribbean, and European recordings, the label didn't merely reproduce old titles. Each installment in the 150-volume series released so far has included extensive notes that explain and enlarge the context of the historical material. Even better, each disc takes advantage of the 70-minute-plus capacity of compact discs by adding several previously unissued recordings. A similar strategy would have significantly enhanced the value of the Nonesuch material, but even without those additions, this remains one sweet series.