Music: At home on Planet Peter

Last week, Peter Gabriel's Real World label celebrated a decade of championing world music. But does the global roster live in its founder's shadow?
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The Independent Culture
Any preconceptions that world music suffers from second-rate marketing were dispelled at Real World Records' 10th anniversary party in the tiny Wiltshire village of Box last week. Two hundred or so invited guests perused the company's studios, idyllically set in the grounds of a converted 18th-century water mill, as Real World artists from Tibet, Africa, Algeria, Japan and, er, Hackney, performed on three separate stages.

The Real World multimedia department had their iMacs out on the lawn, the Real World showreel ran on a loop in the video lounge, a bouncy castle entertained the kids and the actor Woody Harrelson (spotted earlier doing yoga in a nearby orchard) nudged up the celeb count. Owner and director Peter Gabriel, the global music champion and self-titled "realistic optimist" largely responsible for it all, wandered about beaming like a proud parent.

The evening was ostensibly a celebration of a label that was founded to "provide talented artists from around the world access to state-of- the-art recording facilities and audiences beyond their geographic region". Organisers were, however, savvy enough to turn proceedings into a mini- Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance), the ambitious series of pan-ethnic festivals that has, since its inception in 1982 (bar a fiscally challenged period that saw Gabriel reform Genesis for one show in 1982 to pay off debts), grown into an eclectic global network. It was from the breadth of multicultural talent assembled at Womad that Real World Records was born, and in the Real World studios - often during the annual Recording Week that follows the festival - that many of the label's performances and collaborations recorded. That Womad is celebrating a decade at its site at Rivermead, Reading later this month lent the party's compulsory "Now We Are Ten" badges extra resonance.

"We didn't want to be a worthy, academic label at all," says 49-year- old Gabriel, whose Passion - the Middle-Eastern-influenced soundtrack to Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ - launched the roster in 1989. "We wanted to be vibrant, alive and kicking. We wanted to be facilitators who were following our passion, and for this to be a meeting place, or a dating agency, for musicians." Eschewing dusty field-recordings for a "handmade hi-tech" aesthetic, the artist-led Real World offered Western audiences a multicultural smorgasbord of CDs with an instantly identifiable, multi-coloured logo. Each promised an adventure in a strange land.

Purists were incensed and accused the company of taking a McDonald's approach to culture. The rock press sniggered and wrote things about sad hippies in sandals. Now, as then, Gabriel shrugged it off. "There's a responsibility for those like me, who take from other cultures, to give it back by promoting some of these artists," he says. "And it's all right to be naive and enthusiastic about these other cultures without having to do a 15-year study of someone else's traditions, provided that it's not being presented as anything but that."

From singing Sardinian goatherders to Georgian choirs, from the Drummers of Burundi to Asian fusionists Joi, to collaborations including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook, and Geoffrey Oryema and Brian Eno, Real World music rewarded repeated listening, promoted cross-cultural understanding and demonstrated that there was more to life than meat-and-two-veg rock. It was, in other words, music that most corporate labels wouldn't touch with a bargepole.

Still, the fact that both Womad and Real World Records were packaged under the patronage of a famous pop musician went some way towards reducing the suspicion of the mainstream, helping to exceed Gabriel's rather modest initial aim that each release "should reach a minimum of 2,000 sales".

Of course, marketeers are yet to realise that people don't exist in musical categories: these days we're as likely to buy the latest Baaba Maal as we are Gomez or Underworld. But while the term "world music" still has pejorative connotations, ("Let's get rid of the ghetto and call it `music that's made in the world!'"), the genre is still enjoying a renaissance. Mainstream artists are supping from the apparently bottomless well of non-Western sounds; today's club tracks sample flamenco, qawwali and bhangra; salsa clubs are booming. World music acts get top billing at rock festivals, and feature on film soundtracks and TV ad campaigns. Megastores currently boast banks of world music CDs.

It's unlikely, then, that Real World has changed the face of world music singlehandedly. Gabriel and Co's criterion might be "is this something we would listen to at home?", but the label itself contains few classic albums. (The exceptions being Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Michael Brook's Night Song and Sheila Chandra's Abonecronedrone.) This may be due to the fact that Real World artists are promoted en masse, with albums laid out in the company's catalogue according to differently coloured geographical regions. Similarly, though the likes of Faithless and Sonic Youth have headlined Womad in the past (drawing in punters who would previously run screaming from a "world music" festival), Womad has accumulated an identity of its own. In most instances, none of the acts on the bill represent the audiences' specific motivation to be there.

Which is all acknowledged by Gabriel. "In many ways we're a platform through which artists can reach a wider audience. When people have outgrown that platform they'll go and choose their own thing. But initially it seemed important to have this strong and stylish visual identity." And despite all the anniversary party's buzzwords about "family" and "teamwork", neither has Gabriel managed to blend into the background as much as he'd hoped. For many, Peter Gabriel is Real World and Womad, despite the fact that his solo work is released on Virgin (who just happen to distribute Real World Records) and that he rarely, if ever, plays on a Womad bill. Questions about his next, much anticipated album are politely deflected with a list of forthcoming Real World releases, from New Guinea, Rwanda, India and Ireland.

With guests still sweating from dancing to the Afro Celt Sound System, the evening concluded with a fireworks spectacular and the thought that such an event could never have happened 10 years ago. Gabriel's "realistic optimism" has paid off.

So, now that the music is well and truly overground, will someone do something about its name?