The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & Middle East – Volume 1 of 3 (Book review)

Iconic, essential, quite possibly still a ‘work of lunatic scholarship’, The Rough Guide to World Music is back but what kind of shape is it in all these years later?

There are many parts of this wonderful — and at times infuriating — guide that are simply dazzling. A light shone on underexposed parts of the world, sounds captured in words and brought to your table for wonderment and pleasure.
Fly writer Katharina Kane (né Lobeck) delivers one such chunk on the music of Guinea. At other times it seems to lose its way. Unforgivably, its pick of the best songs from Mali misattributes and misspells Salif Keita Ambassadeur International’s seminal ‘Mandjou’. This is equivalent to a dictionary of football spelling Pelé with two ‘l’s.
Rumours abound that the editor had his own ‘Heart of Darkness’ journey trying to keep a stern eye on all this material from all these contributors hence the decision to go for three volumes instead of the original two. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that the press shot of the book jacket above and the one on Amazon still have ‘Europe’ in the title. Volume 2 will cover Europe, Asia & The Pacific with Volume 3 dedicated to Latin, USA & Caribbean.
I for one, however, think it makes perfect sense to dedicate an entire volume to Africa and the Middle East. Since the first edition, the world has grown immensely. We are no longer living in an environment where the average person can only get their hands on music from a bare handful of artists. Combine the ready access to information from print magazines and increasingly websites like Fly, add the purchasing opportunities from Amazon and the specialists, then throw into the mix a growing appetite both among consumers and producers to send music across boundaries and it becomes increasingly hard to squeeze everything into the boxes we used yesteryear.
There are innovations too in this new edition, the Playlist sections for example tell you just what you should download onto your iPod before jetting off to one far-flung corner of the globe or another. However, there are too few bobby dazzlers and compared to Mondomix’s Petit Atlas des Musique du Monde, the production values are not great. Poor paper, no colour photographs and a roll call of the usual names for writers and photographers…
So could it be better, swisher, more lovingly detailed, more innovative, fresher and tighter? Undoubtedly, yes. Would I do without it? Not on your life. Flawed it may be but indispensable it remains. Roll on volumes two and three.
The Rough Guide to World Music: Africa & Middle East – Volume 1 of 3 is out now on Penguin, with a mere 650 odd pages.
At time of writing, is doing it for a rather tempting £13.

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