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Travail-less Travels

Putumayo and Rough Guide samplers offer up armchair adventures for jittery Americans

The vacation plans of the average American have been severely dampened by the fallout from September 11. For many yanqui adventurers, the SUV has temporarily displaced the jumbo jet as the preferred mode of transportation. But for those whose global wanderlust can't be satisfied by a week in the Hill Country, a more vicarious thrill can be found in the countless offerings of world music now available domestically. Bring the mountain to Mohammed.

In recent years, record racks have expanded their world music stacks well beyond the usual suspects; on-line dealers, bookstores and specialty retailers often include a smattering of discs from beyond the border. The flip side of this abundance is that consumers have little knowledge on which to base a buy or even pronounce the artists' names. The astonishing variety of packaged sounds demands some means of narrowing the field.

And samplers provide that means. As interest in world music has grown, dozens of collections have followed. Some follow geographical boundaries; others (such as the many Celtic compendia) are grouped by theme. The best among them direct the listener to further explorations of particular styles or artists but also rate top-tier status on their own.

Flowers of Babel: Putumayo and Rough Guide samplers.
Flowers of Babel: Putumayo and Rough Guide samplers.
Flowers of Babel: Putumayo and Rough Guide samplers.
Flowers of Babel: Putumayo and Rough Guide samplers.
Flowers of Babel: Putumayo and Rough Guide samplers.
Flowers of Babel: Putumayo and Rough Guide samplers.

Two labels, Putumayo and the World Music Network, have led the pack in producing samplers that achieve both objectives. Founded as a New York handicraft shop in 1974, Putumayo got into the record business four years ago and has been prolific since, with more than 35 titles in print. The World Music Network compilations appear under the Rough Guide moniker and are loosely intended as companion discs to the alternative travel guidebook series; more than 50 have been issued in just a few years. Both cherry-pick tracks from the entire recorded playing field -- unlike the majority of world-centric labels, which generally limit their releases to culls from their catalogs.

Pound for pound, the Rough Guides have the edge. While Putumayo sport superior design and (usually) more comprehensive information about the artists, they average about 45 minutes, LP length. The Rough Guides clock in at close to 70 minutes. When sampling the riches of Brazil, for example, even the lengthier Rough Guide must omit worthy entries; Putumayo's feel thin in comparison.

Putumayo makes up for brevity with the music, invariably strong from top to bottom, first cut to last. Republica Dominicana casts an overdue spotlight on an island musically overshadowed by the little giant, Cuba. The Dominican Republic, in fact, is the birthplace of merengue, a staple of Latin dance bands that often features an accordion up front with a booming horn section and tight vocal harmonies. Merengue appears on the Putumayo release, as does a Dominicanized version of the Cuban son, but the disc's staple is the funkier bachata, a street-level music that is to merengue as the blues is to big-band jazz. Once shunned as disreputable, bachata is now part of the Dominican cultural fabric.

The guitar or a smaller stringed cousin replaces the accordion as the lead instrument and seems less blended into a big-band merengue mass, though the power remains. Republica Dominicana includes tracks by many of bachata's biggest stars and comprehensive liner notes with Web links for those who desire further immersion.

Italian Musical Odyssey proves that shlocky crooning, classical masterpieces and homogenized pop constitute only a sliver of the Italian musical landscape. The odyssey begins in Palermo, Sicily, and winds northward through Naples, Tuscany, Venice and the Alps, and over to the isolated island of Sardinia, home to one of the world's most dynamic vocal traditions. Most of the bands were heavily influenced by the Italian folk revival of the 1970s and '80s, which saw younger musicians update regional styles much as the Brits had a decade earlier. The music is distinctly Italian, often sung in the local dialect, though Celtic influences in the North and Arabic or Greek shadings in the South inflect the tunes. Underappreciated even in Italy, the bands have exported little of their material, so Odyssey will be a revelation to even the most seasoned globophiles.

Another Putumayo travelogue covers a lot more turf, but with similar results. Dublin to Dakar: A Celtic Odyssey tracks Celtic influences from Ireland to Africa and in between. Its extraordinary collaborations are not found in nature: Algerian rai legend Cheb Mami joins forces with a Breton band, Bagad de Kemper; Breton harp legend Alan Stivell pairs with Senegalese superstar Youssou N'Dour; another collaboration features the Scottish traditional band Capercaillie and Guinean vocal duet Sibeba. The fusions seem natural and effortless, and combined with tracks from Italy, Spain and Norway, they underscore the pervasive influence of Celtic music worldwide.

Just as challenging but equally rewarding is the Rough Guide's Music of Japan, which explores the gamut of traditional and contemporary sounds. With 19 dazzling, jubilant tracks, this one attempts from the opening note to exhaust and outlast the listener. East meets West on the majority. Stringed instruments such as the koto, sanshin and tonkori, which have long defined the Japanese sound for Western ears, mingle with reeds, percussion and standard electrics. As with most Rough Guides, the target audience is relatively young and hip, but not too young and hip, so the music is daring but not overly confrontational. Not for the close-minded, Music of Japan asks and then answers this question: "Why would anyone preserve the dying art of selling bananas on the street using rap and stick-beating, then record it?"

Much more accessible is The Music of Brazil, the Rough Guide's foray into one of the densest musical jungles on the planet. Including an example of every influential style in Brazil would require a boxed set, but this hits most of the hot spots. While its abbreviated Putumayo counterpart, Brasileiro, rests on the backs of performers with some name recognition stateside (João Bosco, Jorge Ben, Clara Nunes), the Rough Guide showcases artists who have yet to make a splash outside the homeland. Thus a sense of discovery permeates the disc, even on the more predictable sambas. Not especially splashy and even raw at times, the sparkle is hidden in the folds of the music and must be teased out. On a more micro scale, The Rough Guide to Samba takes a similar approach, slipping below the radar screen to find the musicians one might encounter any night of the week in the clubs and cafes of Rio. While other pan-Brazilian collections rival the Rough Guide (Rykodisc's Brazilliance, Luaka Bop's Brazil Classics series), The Rough Guide to Samba stands by itself.

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