WOW! If you are interested in traditional music from around the world, then this is the perfect present for you (or your loved ones). Running to over 1600 pages, in four volumes, it will help you while away your winter, while discovering music from parts of the world you may never have considered before. Not only can you discover new songs from countries you had forgotten even existed, you can listen to them all on the exceptionally easy-to-manage website!
This is a highly personal project from blogger and self-confessed compiler of lists Nick Wall. What you will not find is a "Rough Guide" to World Music, nor a detailed global encyclopedia or discography of ethic musics. Instead, Nick has documented a much more interesting personal journey: to find at least one song from every country in the world. That's 200 countries! So, what started as a kind of personal challenge, to create a 'mix-tape' comprising music from every country in the world, ended up as an attempt to understand how music reflects their cultures, and the stories of their songs and artists.
As I did, you will probably read these books and listen to these songs only to challenge the choices Nick has made. But that's OK - this is meant to be his personal "list". What you will not fail to gain, however, is a richly refreshing immersion in the musics and cultures of countries you would never have thought of exploring. As he says,
"It is not intended to be a reflection of what music is most popular in any particular country. And it's not a comprehensive guide".
Nick's introductory chapter, "Beginnings", is repeated in all four volumes. This means that you can choose to buy only one volume at a time, from a favourite region of the World, and not miss out on understanding his approach, purposes, and tentative conclusions. As he explains, this series is list not about "World Music" - that is, music derived from ethnic styles but tailored to a global market, often made by those 'exiled' from their mother country by economic or political circumstances. Music by such ex-patriots is only considered where they have "influence and relevance in their home country". Rather, it is a study of traditional music.
Nick uses the term "traditional" specifically, to distinguish it from "world music". "Traditional" music is that which is "rooted in a country's past heritage and culture, music that employs traditional instruments". However, reading of some sections of the books suggests that this is a very subjective decision - as Nick says, he is mainly interested in "current music". So, for example, the UK section quite rightly includes Anne Briggs - but she hasn't released an album in over 20 years. It also includes Billy Bragg (Levi Stubb's Tears) which is over 30 years old! Given this definition of 'current', it is easy for the reader to pick holes in the song selection. For examle, if we are trying to identify the past heritage and culture of England, where is the Copper Family; and if we want current expressions of that culture, what about Imagined Village?
Other readers would no doubt question the entries for other countries. Perhaps the USA under represents its indigenous culture, or black music - where does jazz fit here?
What about "jazz manouche" in France? Nick would respond that he discarded far more songs than he includes - he is confident that his selection represents the best, according to his criteria and tastes. This is "real music, the music of the people …. a celebration of diversity…. and of past music tradition".
I would also suggest that - at least for some of the larger countries or regions - it may have been helpful to include some more detailed maps. This would enable the reader to understand better some of the diversity within countries which are often ethnically diverse. Indeed, many are quite artificial "nations: the result of arbitrary decisions drawn on the map in colonial times, rather than reflecting any true nationality.
Consideration of the musical links across boundaries could also be explored. Two examples spring to mind in Europe: the spread of gypsy/roma styles (especially through the Danube basin), and Celtic music. On the latter, the reference to fests noz as "French" would elicit a terse response in Brittany! I have been to such events in Brittany where Welsh, Irish and Scottish traditional groups have sung alongside Breton groups, all in gaelic/celtic language. All the Breton speakers in the audience understood the lyrics - but, the French (and British) on-lookers, not a word!
One result of this focus on national boundaries is that Ireland has six entries, and the 3 Celtic regions of the UK four, reducing the English folk heritage to 3 songs, (including the aforementioned Billy Bragg). Compare that with five songs for Serbia which shares a degree of common heritage with the other countries of the Balkan Peninsula (another 11 entries, plus 2 for ethnically separate Albania). Hence, the focus on "countires" (ie. nations) hampers the exploration of shared traditions. This, perhaps, gives a picture of heritage and culture distorted through the lens of post-colonial state boundaries - as inauthentic, in some ways, as a World Music scene born out of globalised marketing.
Beyond these thoughts, however, it must be recognised that Nick Wall presents us with a thoroughly readable, well-researched and stimulating analysis of the sheer variety of music across the world. Every section stimulates the reader to explore the music on the website - and beyond. At the same time, we are encouraged to engage with the cultures, history and personalities of every single country. That's no mean feat.