When I was taking high school French, every once in a while our teacher would yank out a “hip” cassette of French pop music and play it for us. Imagine Tiffany, only Gallic. It was awful stuff, combining vapid American pop with a cheesy French songstress. Surely foreign rock could be better than merely copying the lamest Yankee trends with an accent?
It’s many years later, but with their latest compilation The Rough Guide to Planet Rock, the folks behind the Rough Guide book and CD series show us that in today’s melting pot, it’s possible to fuse a little bit of every kind of sound and create something that rocks yet is filled with a sense of distinct place.
Planet Rock is an excellent globe-spanning collection of rock fused with ethnic sounds in fresh, fascinating ways. Not every tune is a winner, but there’s plenty of innovative gold on here. Compiler Johannes Heretsch has gone out of his way to create a mix of global rock that never feels merely like American tunes done in a different language.
The set includes tunes from Cambodia, Niger, Israel, Palestine, the Congo, India and more. Heretsch, who hosts the radio show Planet Sounds, has picked an excellent set list that showcases the diverse children the spirits of rock ‘n’ roll have spawned. The CD booklet includes an expansive overview by Heretsch that tells us a little about each of the 16 contributors.
Highlights include Les Boukakes’ madcap “Sidi H’Bibi,” which bounces from the dusty past to the world of tomorrow in a mere four minutes, starting off a lone chant backed by a few beats before a dangerous-sounding surf guitar lick sails in and it erupts into a full-out celebratory jam. The band members are from Algeria, France, and Tunisia, and like several of the acts here, use their music to spread a message of multicultural pride.
The Hip Hop Hoodios are an “all-star Latino-Jewish urban music collective,” and their free-wheeling track “Kike On The Mic” manages to combine klezmer tradition with hip-hop boasting and rapping. It’s the crazy kind of fusion that could come off as a novelty act, but instead feels like a valid, fluid mixing of cultures and styles.
From Portugal, Donna Maria melds electronica with Iberian accents in her track “Pao P’ra Multidao,” while the Ukrainian band Haydamaky uses their “Carpathian ska” style to create a sound that’s Jamaica-meets-perestroika, grafting old-world choruses to pounding guitar riffs. The hypnotic Palestinian act Rim Banna creates a winning style in “The Grandma With A Limp,” while New York-based, Ukrainian-rooted, gypsy punk band Gogol Bordello deliver a thrashing, screaming blast of Slavic sound in “I Would Never Want To be Young Again.”
On the more purely oddball side is an insane cover of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” by Albert Kuvezin and Yat-Kha of the Siberian Tuva people. Yat-Kha uses the unearthly “throat singing” sound to create a bizarre cover of the ’60s acid metal classic. Listing to “don’t you know that I’ll always love you baby” in a deep bullfrog croak and backed by ancient Siberian instruments is a one-of-a-kind trip, although admittedly not the kind of song everyone will want to listen to repeatedly. Less successful is Konono No. 1′s “Ungudi Wele Wele” from the Congo, a thumping, clattering Tom Waits-ean beat, but at more than eight minutes long, it becomes a bit grating and stalls the disc’s momentum.
Still, Planet Rock hits a lot more than it misses. It’s a surprise-filled spin around the world of sound. Welcome to the melting pot.