The man who sold the world another music

Nick Gold doesn't like the term 'world music' - but that hasn't stopped his record label from bringing it to a wider audience. He tells Robin Denselow about a pioneering 20 years
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The Independent Culture

Nick Gold is a worried man. "At first I had wanted to bring out an album of unreleased stuff," he says. "But lots of it needed mixing and that would have taken so long that we would have missed the anniversary. And then people said: 'You've got to have this or that' so I tried to choose highlights. And then I tried to make each track flow into the next, so you can listen to it like a proper record rather than a compilation."

The man who runs the most successful world music label in Britain (yet dislikes the term world music) is sitting in his office in London's Shoreditch, discussing his new compilation set. It's titled World Circuit Presents... and marks the 20th anniversary of an extraordinary music empire.

Like Chris Blackwell, in the glory days of Island Records, Gold runs a label that has become a success largely because of its owner's bravery and impeccable taste. He is famous for producing albums that in recent years have mostly featured artists from only three countries - Cuba, Mali and Senegal. Yet the musical variety is remarkable, covering anything from traditional songs to experimental work "and it's not right that all that expanse of music should be looked at as one category, 'world music' ".

The new compilation shows World Circuit's range, with tracks taken from the label's best-known releases matched against some startling hints of what Gold has hidden away in his vaults. There are songs by the late, great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Touré, heard playing both with Ry Cooder and the kora genius Toumani Diabate, and on a commanding, previously unreleased live version of "Amandrai".

Then there's Diabate himself, along with the great Malian diva Oumou Sangare, Senegal's glorious Orchestra Baobab, and the Mauritanian star Dimi Mint Abba.

From Cuba, there's Gold's biggest commercial success, the Buena Vista Social Club, who are heard playing their best-known song "Chan Chan", and also on an exuberant live and previously unreleased recording from Carnegie Hall. Then there are solo tracks from the individual Buena Vista stars, from Ibrahim Ferrer to Cachaito Lopez. And mixed in with all this are recordings from the very early days of World Circuit, by Sudan's Abdel Gadir Salim and rousing Kenyan guitar band Shirati Jazz.

The recording of the Shirati Jazz album, in 1987, transformed Gold's life. He had come to London after leaving Sussex University, where he studied African history, and had a couple of jobs "working with kids in play centres or feeding my record collection by working at record stores".

Then he was told of a possible opening with Arts Worldwide, an organisation run by Anne Hunt and Mary Farquharson which organised British concert tours for artists from Latin America or Africa who had a big local following but were still little-known here. When British audiences tried to get hold of records by such artists, they often found nothing available. Farquharson and Hunt tried to put that right by setting up the label World Circuit.

It was this that Gold was asked to oversee. His first task was to look after Shirati Jazz, who had arrived in London without their leader "who was being held in Kenya for political reasons - so they didn't know what to do".

Hunt taught him to go through an artist's repertoire, working out how they should construct a concert or an album, and after their show at London's Town and Country (now the Forum), it was decided that Shirati should make an album.

More records followed, including the British debut by Touré. Gold worked with him on his repertoire, went to all his concerts, and persuaded him to play "Amandrai" for the historic recording made at the Town and Country, with Diabate adding percussion.

Touré was to play a crucial role in Gold's career, especially after he had taken complete control of World Circuit in the early Nineties, when "Mary went to live in Mexico and Anne was working on festivals. I was doing everything and bought the other two out".

Gold transformed Touré's career. He suggested he should work with members of the Chieftains on his second album. And when Ry Cooder phoned to express his interest in Touré's work, Gold arranged a meeting at his home in London where Touré was staying. After Cooder had suggested: "Let's try something one day", he booked a favourite studio near Cooder's home during Touré's American tour, in the hope there would be a collaboration. The result was Talking Timbuktu, an album that won a Grammy.

Touré helped Gold in other ways, by acting as a "fantastic unofficial A&R man", suggesting other artists he should work with, from Oumou Sangare to Dimi Mint Abba. He even had a hand in the Buena Vista Social Club project. Gold had arranged for two Malian instrumentalists to travel to Cuba to record with local musicians. The sessions were to take place after work on an album by the Afro-Cuban All Stars, and Cooder had been invited as well. The Malians were unable to travel, as their passports were lost when they applied for visas.

So Cooder joined with a small group of Cubans that included the veteran singer Ferrer and pianist Ruben Gonzalez, who had been working with the All Stars. Gold checked with Touré to see if he thought the project would work. He was not only optimistic but "suggested some of the tunes". So the Buena Vista Social Club was born.

The next few years promise to be another busy period. There's a live album from Buena Vista, recorded at Carnegie Hall at their only American concert, which Gold hopes to release to mark their 10th anniversary. Then there's a new recording of boleros from Ferrer, constructed around vocals he recorded before his death. And there's the possibility of reviving the failed project of taking Malian musicians to work in Cuba.

"There's enough stuff to keep me going for a couple of years," said Gold. "But there's no substitute for sitting in a studio doing something new."

'World Circuit Presents' is released on 16 October

ROBIN DENSELOW'S WORLD CIRCUIT TOP FIVE

TALKING TIMBUKTU

Ali Farka Touré with Ry Cooder

Produced by Ry Cooder, and featuring Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Jim Keltner and John Patitucci, this brought World Circuit its first major success, and proved that the Malian "desert blues" could attract a sizeable Western following.

INTRODUCING...

Ruben Gonzalez

Ry Cooder called him "the greatest piano player I have ever heard... a Cuban cross between Thelonious Monk and Felix the Cat" and this dazzling solo debut proves him right. Made over 50 years after his first recordings with Arsenio Rodriguez, and completed in two days, it showed the then 77-year-old Gonzalez was one of the most exhilarating pianists on the planet.

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB

Buena Vista Social Club

This was the album that so unexpectedly - and deservedly - brought Cuban music to a mass market in the West, and transformed the lives of the (mostly) elderly musicians involved. Ry Cooder joined a line-up that included Ruben Gonzalez, guitarists Eliades Ochoa and Compay Segundo, and those fine singers Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo.

SPECIALIST IN ALL STYLES

Orchestra Baobab

One of the greatest comeback albums, from a band who had dominated Senegalese music in the 1970s. They played Cuban styles mixed with West African influences, and combined great musicianship with an easy-going approach.

SAVANE

Ali Farka Touré

Described by Ali Farka Touré as "my best album ever", but only released after his death: African blues, reggae and echoes of Celtic-sounding folk baroque.

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