The World in a Box

The selection of flamenco recordings in local music stores tends to be limited to a choice between the venerable Paco de Lucia's classic albums and Eurohits by the dubious Gipsy Kings. Duende, a recently released three-CD box set with 48 pages of illustrated liner notes, substantially fills the gap: This collection of 41 songs by contemporary artists from Spain, plus the companion booklet with track-by-track descriptions and historical anecdotes, amounts to a correspondence course in the art of flamenco.

The first of the three discs highlights flamenco song. Essential "new flamenco" revisionists Cameron de la Isla and Enrique Morente are featured, as are more traditional canto jondo masters like El Indio Gitano, younger vocalists, and regional singers, such as Ramon el Portugues, from Spain's Extremadura region.

Disc number two covers essential flamenco guitarists. In addition to Paco de Lucia, included are Pepe Habichuela, Tomatito, and Manuel San Lucar, performing a range of essential styles: buleria, rumba, colombiana....

The third CD surveys gypsy-rock hybrids and flamenco jazz fusions.
The accompanying glossy, full-color booklet provides detailed notes on each track, as well as a history of flamenco, bios of the artists, a glossary, and a map of Spain and Portugal. The graphics are snappy, and numerous polka-dot-shape photos of the artists at work help tell the story in pictures.

Released on the Ellipsis Arts label, Duende, priced at about $50, has been selling well at Spec's in Coral Gables, where it was a popular Christmas-gift choice among Latin customers, according to Spec's buyer Juan Vera.

The flamenco compilation is one of several box sets in Ellipsis Arts's small catalogue, devoted to compilations of specific genres collected from around the world. Other titles include Voices of Forgotten Worlds: Traditional Music of Indigenous People, Africa: Never Stand Still, and The Big Bang: In the Beginning Was the Drum.

"The ideal project is fabulous music that's rarely heard," asserts Ellipsis Arts's founder Jeffrey Charno, a Long Island distributor of health products and new age music who began producing the CD packages in 1992. His first Ellipsis Arts release, a four-CD set of ritual chanting and spiritual and meditative music from 40 cultures, called Global Meditations, won the Billboard Magazine World Music Album Award for 1993. Last year, the company was ranked number one on Billboard's list of top indie world-music labels.

"There's a swelling fascination with other cultures and the real stuff that comes out of these cultures," notes Charno, speaking from his Roslyn, New York, office. "The world is getting smaller and it's really getting exciting to be exposed to this music. Several years ago, people weren't as interested as they are now."

In the Eighties, the decade of multicultural "discoveries," world music (a.k.a. global beat, ethnopop, or the international sound) became the buzzword for just about any sound originating outside of North American and European capitals. The trend was cultivated by Western musicians who set off in search of new music in exotic rhythms that had existed for centuries.

Some artists, such as former Talking Head David Byrne with his Luaka Bop label, were able to bring great music from Cuba and Brazil to a broader audience. And there were widely successful collaborations, such as that of Peter Gabriel and Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, an acknowledged star in his own right, and Paul Simon's work with South African musicians on Graceland.

But the wave of enthusiastic experimentation also spawned some of the more embarrassing moments in musical history: Sting, singing pidgin Spanish off a crib sheet as he brought the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo -- a group of mothers of those "disappeared" during the Argentine military regime -- on-stage in Buenos Aires; or Stewart Copeland, who appeared in his Rhythmatists video as an amateur musicologist-cum-cowboy traveling in Africa, documenting the natives between his exploits with a leggy blond.

Such mercenary escapades aside, the hundreds of world-music recordings -- Western/non-Western collaborations, Third World pop, or samplers of indigenous rhythms -- produced and distributed by offshoots of major labels over the past decade have accomplished much in opening people's ears to music of other cultures. But there is a downside to what is by now a mainstream proliferation of world-music production. An unguided exploration through the world-music bins may give you the sensation that this is, as the song goes, "one world" -- one where musicians in Benin and Tobago can produce homogenous synthpop, just like the Top 40 homeboys do. (And they look like them, too).

In the Nineties, record companies have found ways to put a new spin on world music. Ellipsis is leading the pack with a purist approach enhanced by smartly designed packaging. Charno's way recalls the ethnographic Nonesuch recordings of the Sixties updated for the information age. The music on the Ellipsis Arts discs is expertly selected and seamlessly produced; the whole box is a multimedia product close to a CD-ROM in concept. Exhibiting a proper political correctness (percentages of the proceeds are donated to the Rainforest Alliance and the United Nations Center for Human Rights), Ellipsis Arts offers education and entertainment.

"We're not just coming up with another song, we're presenting new musical systems," explains Charno. "These are unknown artists, and entirely new traditions, which most frequently are not created within commercial environments. They are part of rituals of a culture. So, the truth is, if you just hear the record, you're just getting a piece of it. I think that by putting it into a little bit of context, you get much more out of it. You just can't get it if you don't have some background to go with it."

The CD sets have obvious appeal for young, upscale customers who enjoy a multimedia lifestyle. In one review, Rolling Stone went so far as to call Global Meditations "global exotica as yuppie Muzak."

But according to Charno, his customers are a diverse group. Acknowledging that upscale urban types and college students are a significant part of his clientele, he says that the sales of the recordings are charted geographically, not according to buyer profile. The ethnic mix of Miami's population, for example, makes this city an obvious target for certain world-music compilations.

"There are so many different communities in Miami that each group has certain music they'll go wild for," confirms concert promoter Laura Quinlan, director of the nonprofit Rhythm Foundation, which has presented musicians as diverse as Gilberto Gil, Mario Bauza, the Skatalites, and Ali Akbar Khan in Miami. "We've had some of our biggest successes with artists doing traditional stuff with a modern take, but there's a lot of interest in traditional roots music, be it Cuban, Brazilian, African, or Caribbean."

Not only is there a local demand for Duende, Ellipsis Arts's Africa: Never Stand Still has been selling well at stores like Flipper's Music downtown.

"Anything with a Latin or African base seems easy for people to relate to," affirms Steve Rhodes, who presents Haitian roots groups and sitar concerts and carries some ethnic-music CDs at his World Resources Gallery and Restaurant on Lincoln Road. "There hasn't been a lot of interest in indigenous music; people don't buy a lot of the new age field recordings. When you go off into a whole different musical foundation, its hard to connect."

The chanting folksongs on Voices of Forgotten Worlds might, as the 96-page booklet that comes with it says, transport you "to deep peaceful inner space." Or it might really work your nerves. Likewise, people into African and Caribbean music will love the continuous rhythm of the The Big Bang; for others it will just be a big bore.

If that is the case, you probably won't be rushing out to buy Ellipsis Arts's upcoming release: a CD and 64-page hardcover book devoted to Pygmy music.