A voyage of discovery

Tim Cumming charts the rise of the Rough Guides series from its origins on a leaking houseboat on the Thames
Click to follow

At the end of the Eighties, Phil Stanton was a young world music enthusiast living in a leaky houseboat on the Thames when he hit on the idea of a setting up a record label to showcase the incredible music he and his wife, Sandra Alayon, a Colombian-born concert producer, had heard on their travels. For the most part, it was music they knew had no other chance of reaching UK audiences.

At the end of the Eighties, Phil Stanton was a young world music enthusiast living in a leaky houseboat on the Thames when he hit on the idea of a setting up a record label to showcase the incredible music he and his wife, Sandra Alayon, a Colombian-born concert producer, had heard on their travels. For the most part, it was music they knew had no other chance of reaching UK audiences.

"At that time, we were looking at issues around distribution," Stanton recalls. In other words, he knew what was out there, but there was little or no system of getting it to people who might be interested. Today, he is label head of World Music Network, one of the leading players in an increasingly sophisticated industry and the label behind the Rough Guides CD series.

World music is now a major cultural force, with its own festivals, trade fairs and award shows. Dedicated magazines such as Songlines cater to a steadily expanding audience, and labels such as Stanton's World Music Network rub shoulders with World Circuit, World Routes, World Connection (you see a theme emerging here) and Wrasse. The shelves of megastores are heavy with offerings from every corner of the globe.

"There was very little exposure for world music before 1989," Stanton remembers. "There were a few labels in France and a couple in England, but that was it." Previously, Stanton had lived and worked abroad - he had been a teacher in Sudan - and his wife was working in concert promotion, bringing over the likes of Celia Cruz, Oscar D'Leon and Manu Dibango, and setting up London's first Latin club in Leicester Square.

Their first label, Riverboat, ran as a modest, specialist label for five years, releasing the likes of South Africa's Soul Brothers, the instrumentalist Hassan Eraji and the Gaelic singer Talitha MacKenzie. For Riverboat, the gears changed with the success of the Rough Guide to World Music in 1994.

"We already had the idea of forming a network, and it was pure synchronicity that we hooked up with the Rough Guides," Stanton recalls. "We had a meeting, and out of that came the idea of the World Music Network and an introductory CD to go with the Rough Guide to World Music. They were an immediate success." The book and accompanying CD sold in their tens of thousands and, a decade on, there are more than 150 music Rough Guides in print, with 25 new releases a year.

"After the first guide to world music, we did West Africa, Scotland and Ireland," says Stanton. "Then we went into Kenya and Tanzania, India and Pakistan, the Andes and Zimbabwe." The labelincludes specific genres and artists as well as themed CDs such as the popular Parisian Café Music and Mediterranean Café compilations.

With the strength of the Rough Guides brand, the UK remains the company's biggest market, but World Music Network sells to more than 35 countries. "The market generally is not that easy," says Stanton. "But interest in world music is definitely growing around the world. More people are travelling." Compilations are a big market, with ethnically-flavoured chill-out CDs filling the shelves to cushion the small hours of a clubber's come-down.

What makes the Rough Guides stand out is their public-service ethos of informing and guiding newcomers into rich and unexplored areas. That's the ethos Stanton started off with on the leaky London houseboat, and it's what helps to sustain the label's success.

The intelligent design and careful attention to detail serve them well. With the new Rough Guide to Irish Music - the original was released in 1997 - the company revisited the album and released an entirely new compilation reflecting the latest developments. Buyers get sleeve notes and track-by-track descriptions and a discography for each artist. This off-the-beaten-track formula has proved reliable and effective - with the music and the travel guides - and they've kept to it.

New releases include guides to Zydeco, Jamaican Dub, Central Asia and a brilliant, bravely chosen introduction to the works of Tango's modernist maestro Astor Piazzolla. Riverboat continues to sail with forthcoming titles from Cuban Son band Sierra Maestra, and a historic coupling of a southern Sudanese rapper with the Abdul Gadir Salim orchestra from the Islamic north of the country. It is the first time musicians from the two ends of the deeply-conflicted country have performed together. Stanton added another label, Introducing... to the World Music Network last year. It is a mid-priced vehicle to give new artists such as the Zulu guitarist Shiyani Ngcobo their first international profile.

And as a kind of umbrella to all three labels, the company's website (www.worldmusic.net) hosts an hour-long internet radio show that changes once a month, featuring new tracks and interviews with musicians and compilers. "We're getting about 10,000 listeners a month," says Stanton. "It's very encouraging, and also shows the thirst that is out there. In fact, the thing that I would like to see is much more radio play and coverage for world music."

He points to the unwritten rule of British broadcasting that, if it isn't sung in English, it doesn't get daytime airplay. "I would love to see a World FM like a Jazz FM," he says. "I just think it's long overdue."

The Rough Guides to Boogaloo, Irish Music and Dub are out on 14 March on World Music Network


Paris Café Music

One of the best-selling titles, this album covers the history of bal musette from its café origins in the 1900s to contemporary manifestations, conjuring an image of Paris in which Edith Piaf and Jean Sanit sit comfortably with their Gitanes and tragic lives.

The Music of Morocco

Andy Morgan, of Tinariwen, compiled this music, from a heritage stretching from Roman Lupercalia to trance-like gnawa, Berber roots and Arab-Andalucian ensemble.


This wide-ranging Argentinian mix is real tango, mixing sleaziness with elegance and ranging from Carlos Gardel classics to the experimentation of Astor Piazzolla.

Salsa de Puerto Rico

A high-energy exploration of Puerto Rico's influence on salsa. The album features some of the most dynamic rhythms in the world - and performances from Willie Colon, Orchestra Harlow, Eddie Palmieri and the great Tito Puente.


A worldwide demonstration of modern Arabic fusion, with music from Marrakesh to Montpelier, and from Berlin to Beirut.

The Music of the Balkans

Represents some of the most varied and powerful folk traditions in the world.Includes artists such as Esma Redzepova, Saban Bajramovic and Boban Markovic, to name three brilliant Roma artists.


The soundtrack of contemporary Asian Britain, bhangra is rooted in the traditions of Punjabi folk, but plugging electric guitars, synths and drums into the mix.

The Music of Central Asia

A fascinating selection of hardcore grunge alongside shamanic fiddle-playing, power-ballad pop and the intricacies of instrumental Islamic music.

Cajun and Zydeco

Two of the most thriving regional styles in the US. Driven by accordion and violin, these dance forms are enjoying a renaissance that spreads beyond the borders of south Louisiana.


Another of the Rough Guides' biggest bestsellers, this album features belly dance music played and composed by both Arabic and Western contemporary musicians.