Label Profile – The Rough Guides

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The Rough Guides
(World Music Network – 2002)
by Eugene Holley, Jr.

You’re going on a trip and you need a no-nonsense, easy-to-read travel guide about your destination. That’s where the Rough Guides come in. With over 200 paperback books deatailing almost every travel destination on the globe, the guides have taken away the stufiness associated with the “scholarly” travelogues of the past. Now, the Rough Guides have done the same thing with music. With over 30 music guides and 100 CD compilations, that company has made it easier to sample many forms of music in a relatively short time, while providing good information at the same time. The CD’s come in two categories. The most common Rough Guide CD’s feature a specific country or genre. My favorite this year is The Rough Guide to Afro-Peru. This set highlights the intoxicating Afro-Peruvian music of that country’s Pacific coast. Like all Latin American nations, the music of this region is a blend of Spanish, Indian and African harmonies, dances and rhythms created by the descendants of African slaves.

While Cuba has the clave and Brazil has the samba, Peru has the lando and festejo: two dance-oriented song genres that are played with percussion instruments, including a quijada (jawbone). This set includes the Negro Nightingale, Susana Baca and her haunting “Golpe E’ Tierra (Hablan los Negros.” Discovered by David Byrne in the ’90s, Baca has exposed this music to the world and she’s to her music what Celia Cruz is to salsa. Also included are rarely-heard tracks by other singers, including Chabuca Granda,who was Baca’s idol, the pioneering ensemble, Peru Negro, whose performance of “Ruperta” shows how the kept that music from dying in their country, and the Grande Dame, Eva Ayllón and her hit, “Yo Te Canto.”

The Rough Guides also feature artists. Thanks to them, I was turned on the late and magnificent Nubian groovemaster, Ali Hassan Kuban, who died in 2001. The Rough Guide to Ali Hassan Kuban is a swinging epitaph, and shows how jazz, James Brown and the music of Ancient Egypt were brought together by this genius. the collection outlines Hassan’s origins in Upper Egypt, and his musical upbringing in Cairo, where he heard African American jazz bands, which inspired him to blend the wedding songs of his culture with Western and native Egyptian instruments like the oud, harmonica, bagpipe, accordion and the electric bass. Kuban’s hypnotic vocals, sung in the ancient Kenzilanguage language, Hassan’s best tracks include a live version of his infectious dance ditty, “Gammal,” as well as his equally booty shaking “Habibi” and “Sukkar, Sukkar, Sukkar.” Imagine The Godfather of Soul getting down with King Tut and you’ll get the vibe this Mr. Kuban put down.

Last, but not least, are the Rough Guide publications. Overall, the main books like the Rough Guide to Jazz, Blues and World Music (in two volumes) are good overviews, written to be read in a conversational manner. But the better books are the smaller, genre-specific entries like The Rough Guide to Cuban Music. This is a pocket-size manual which manages to outline all of the creative and complex inventions and dimensions of Cuban music — from the mambo to the comparsa — in a way that will encourage the reader to the book down and start dancing. Equally impressive are the thumbnail biographical entries of various Cuban legends like Rita Montaner, Beny More, Cachao and many others.

For the most part, the makers of The Rough Guides are on to something. They have made the musical trips as easy and as exciting as the ones we take on planes. s