Sound Check

In 1971, as they transported boxes of their very first release -- by a crusty North Carolina banjo picker named George Pegram -- to the basement of their ramshackle house in Somerville, Massachusetts, it's not likely that the three founders of Rounder Records were imagining the future: an independent record empire that, a quarter of a century later, would swallow a whole city block and boast walls decorated with Grammys. All they wanted to do was get a little recognition for the kind of music that nobody else was bothering to release.

Before world beat was even a seed, Rounder was issuing kora music from Gambia, the sweet guitar sounds of Nigeria's Prince Nico Mbarga, knockdown calypsos by Growling Tiger from Trinidad. Before bluegrass found a mainstream audience, Rounder was shipping Vassar Clements and J.D. Crowe releases to whatever stores would stock them. They reissued scratchy 78s of Hawaiian guitar hotshot Sol Hoopii and string band outlaw Gid Tanner and His Skillet Lickers. Obscure Cajun bands, unknown folkies, convict work songs, country blues -- it all became part of the Rounder catalog.

The formula was simple: for old music, search out the hidden archives of unknown recordings of people who should have been acknowledged as greats. For new music, pay the artists a decent royalty, give them artistic control in the studio (both atypical when Rounder began) and be happy with low sales and small profit margins. Nashville guitarist Norman Blake's releases, for instance, were considered blockbusters when they cracked the 25,000 sales mark. When George Thorogood scored a national hit with his Rounder debut, the company was still so small that Warner Bros. offered to buy the entire label just to get Thorogood. Rounder declined. If they sold out, who would issue those Holy Modal Rounders or Sleepy LaBeef efforts?

Today, the scale has changed, but the focus hasn't. What was once a single label has branched into a web of 26. Alison Krauss goes platinum and Brave Combo nets a Grammy. At the same time, out come reissue CDs of Italian string virtuosi and light Indian classical music, while a new children's CD from Tish Hinojosa hits the bins. Rounder will still record offbeat artists the label knows will never make a dime, and reissue ancient material with no more than a sliver of an audience, just to get the music out. That label-beginning George Pegram record? It's now on CD.

Another example unlikely to generate much of a stampede is The Art of the Cymbalom: The Music of Joseph Moskowitz, 1916-1953. A Romanian Jew who migrated to New York in the early 1900s, Moskowitz toured the world as the premier advocate of the cymbalom, a descendant of the piano and a cousin to the American hammered dulcimer. Even though modern instrumentalists have made astounding feats of dexterity almost routine, it's still hard to imagine how Moskowitz managed to select so many individual notes at warp speeds without blowing it, let alone making a single mistake. But he did. An engaging repertoire of Romanian, Hungarian and Turkish gypsy dance tunes means an exotic hour imagining a blur of hands, and some whirling feet. (****)

On another eddy far from the mainstream, Rounder has assembled a landmark pair of concept discs, The American Fogies, Vols. 1 and 2. With one track each from 50 different bands and individuals, the series charts the breadth of the American experience. If that sounds a little ambitious, it is -- and it works. The first disc charts the themes of immigration and struggle: Native American music, a Tejano accordion song, a Jewish Klezmer melody, a Texas-Polish polka. Of the artists, only mandolinist Andy Statman has a high profile (and his contribution is typically brilliant and unfathomable), but all have something important to say, and a capsule bio on each makes the message a little clearer. Vol. 2 sticks with the ethnic currents but branches into a more settled, assimilated country with blues guitars and cowboy fiddles. To call these musicians fogies misleads, though. The all-women Heartbeats or edgy, urban Hix are about as far ahead of the times as Virginia's wily, blues-toting Foddrell Brothers are behind. And the music is all brand-new and fresh. Just because the air isn't polluted doesn't mean the music's archaic. (****, Vol 1; *****, Vol. 2)

Like a number of independents, Rounder discovered reggae before the majors did and threw a few discs into the flow. Unlike most independents, Rounder has stuck with the music even after the reggae fad has waned. The company's Heartbeat subsidiary has compiled a catalog of contemporary and reissued works unrivaled on the mainland. The newest is The Toughest, a collection of Peter Tosh's earliest sessions for the legendary Studio One and Upsetters labels. Though lacking the crisp production of his later efforts, the sides show Tosh was as militant and uncompromising in his youth as he was in later life. Backed by fellow Wailers Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer as well as the Skatalites and Lee Perry's Upsetters, Tosh presses the outer boundaries of ska with protean roots reggae guitar and his unerringly rootsy voice. Included is the rare first edition of "Downpresser," which he turned into a personal anthem, as well as its gospel antecedent, "Sinner Man." (***)

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Bob Burtman