I have never, until now, bothered to analyze my fondness for the world music genre, though at times I have equated it with a love of foreign languages, a dislike for most popular songs once I know the words, a degree of pretentiousness, and an odd affection for the accordion.
My mother is a scholar and teacher of languages, so artifacts and noises from Spanish and French speaking countries were part of the background of my childhood. But my real love affair with world music began with the Gipsy Kings, who were making very trendy dinner music while I was in college, right about at the same time I discovered great single malt Scotch and tolerable wine. Of the three, I could afford to enjoy the Gipsy Kings on a regular basis; cassette tapes didn’t wear out nearly as quickly as a bottle emptied.
As my tastes (thanks to the music) and my waistline (thanks to the single-malt Scotch and wine) broadened, I discovered that for world music, compilations best fitted my uninformed and impoverished passions – I didn’t have to spend a fortune to sample a variety of performers, whether they were classic or contemporary flamenco players from Spain or Celtic balladeers.
Finally, examining closely my relationship with world music through the compilation, I realize that at its core, my pleasure in the genre is the pleasure of escape, of fantasy and of play. It is, beyond its variable individual artistic merits, music that transports, and it does so all the better when it is presented in a well-balanced compilation. A well-chosen compilation can set an aural stage in a way that a CD by a single artist rarely does. I close my eyes, sip, and I am in Spain, or Peru, or New Orleans, or the Yucatan. There’s music playing on a radio somewhere, drifting maybe between the wide-flung wooden shutters of a second story window in a peeling pastel building tucked between a colonial era church and a massive palm tree. I take another sip and I can smell lime and cumin and blooming morning-glories.
In the early 1990s, Putumayo World Music grew out of the Putumayo Clothing Company, and began selling compilations aimed at being “upbeat and melodic.” The company motto is “guaranteed to make you feel good,” and I’ve found most of the releases live up to that promise.
The two newest Putumayo CDs, Italian Café and North African Groove, are no exception.
North African Groove is the easiest to like upon first listen. It’s rhythmic, orange, and dusty with a sweet heat that drives each song. There are many moments where one senses a Latin feel, as though standing at a crossroads where the Arabic world and the Spanish meet. There are also French influences, and French lyrics, and performances by a Cuban-Algerian group, a Moroccan, an Egyptian and a Tunisian.