wWorld Circuit boss Nick Gold isn't one to blow his own trumpet. Not least because he gave up playing the instrument almost as soon as he'd picked it up. "I was inspired by Louis Armstrong and New Orleans jazz," he says, "but I quickly realised I couldn't have chosen a more difficult instrument to play. I knew I'd never get where I wanted to with it, so I thought I'd leave the playing to those with talent."
Instead, the young Gold decided to become a primary school teacher. "I was actually quite looking forward to going to teacher training college," he says, with customary vigour. But he was still obsessed with music. While waiting for his course to start, Gold spent the summer working in specialist record stores like Honest Jon's and the long-lost Mole Jazz, as well as volunteering for a company called Community Music, "who were supposedly building this national jazz centre".
The jazz centre never happened, but Gold's involvement did lead to the offer of a "dream job" working at a new label called World Circuit. Founded in 1986 by Anne Hunt and Mary Farquharson, the label was established as a spin-off to their touring organisation, Arts Worldwide, to release records by the world music artists they had brought over to tour.
Gold's role was, he says, "to do a bit of everything. Hunt and Farquharson were both completely inexperienced in running a record label. And the only experience I had was collecting records and working in a record shop. But I did know that records had to look good to attract people to them and that if a distributor pushed something just a tiny bit harder, a record store was more likely to stock it. I realised from early on how important it was that the distributors actually knew what they were handling."
Within a year of joining the label, Gold bought it. And to this day, World Circuit still work with specialist independent distributors and every record is beautifully packaged.
The personal touch and attention to detail is at the core of the label's ethos and its success. Capturing the essence of the music is a priority for the hands-on label boss who also produces many of his artists' records. "I see my role as facilitator rather than producer," says Gold. "When you've spent time in the studio with the musicians, you get some idea of the heights they can reach. They craft and nurture something so beautiful, you see it as your job to try to capture that on record."
World Circuit soon established itself as the voice in world music, as evidenced by the brilliant retrospective compilation the label released last month to celebrate its twentieth birthday. Gold was instrumental in discovering and developing all of his label's acts, most of whom come from west Africa or Cuba. When pushed, he admits feelings of pride: "When you look at the lists of artist featured, you have to pinch yourself that you ever met them, never mind worked with them."
But the turning point came with the release of the Grammy-winning Buena Vista Social Club in 1997. Produced by Ry Cooder, the eponymous album introduced the world to the charms and talents of septuagenarians Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González. It sold eight million copies worldwide.
"The album's success changed us," admits Gold. "The scale was huge, especially as there was only two of us working at the label at the time. We had to grow quickly. You could never kick back. It brought with it a huge amount of work. But it put us in a wonderful position."
With more money, World Circuit could now afford to be perfectionists. "If we felt we hadn't captured something we could afford to go back into the studio and try it again - perhaps invite another artist to collaborate," says Gold. "Rather than feeling strapped and pressured into getting something recorded in just one or two days, we could now afford to experiment more."
But Gold has never tried to replicate the success he had with Buena Vista Social Club: " I think if we'd gone out with that sort of ambition again we might have fallen on our faces. Commercially there remains an element of risk for us. But as far as believing in the value of the music we put out - having faith it will be appreciated - there's never any risk there."
He's absolutely right. From Mali's desert blues maestro Ali Farka Touré and his country-woman Oumou Sangaré's hypnotic wassoulou rhythms to the funk-fuelled sound of Senegal's Cheikh Lô and Toumani Diabaté's soulful kora masterpieces, World Circuit has consistently shone a light on the best in world music, with barely a dud release in its twenty years.
For Gold it's all about communicating passion for something he believes in. "When I was young, I was an anorak record collector," says Gold, "and when you found something you fell in love with, you'd play it to your friends and wanted them to love it too. World Circuit is the same but on a larger scale. When you discover an artist you love, you can't believe someone else wouldn't feel the same. The biggest validation is when we go to Mali and kids try and sell you pirated cassettes of your acts in the street. I suppose you should be pissed off. But on the other hand, it's proof that you've succeeded in not messing up the music, because it's popular in the country it came from. The musicians are going, 'why are you happy? They're ripping off your stuff.'" Gold's words are gilded with pride: "Because it means that they like it."
'World Circuit Presents' is out now
Introduction: With Grammy-winning artists like Mali's Ali Farka Touré, who died earlier this year, and the global phenomenon of Buena Vista Social Club heading up an impressive roster of musical talent, World Circuit consistently raise the benchmark for inspired world sounds from genre-defying artists.
History: It was hardly a glamorous start for Nick Gold (pictured). Working from the caretaker's kitchenette, he was employed to help run the fledgling label in 1986. But within a year, he'd bought it from its founders and moved the operation to his parents' basement. The signing of Malian legend Ali Farka Touré in 1987 put them on the map and into a proper office, but it wasn't until the release of the multimillion-selling Buena Vista Social Club that the label found their much-deserved wider acclaim.
What they say: "What I look for in the artists I sign is whether they move me or not. Whether I love the music, whether it touches me - you know within moments of listening to something whether its something you want to work with or not," label boss, Nick Gold.
Notable acts include: Ali Farka Touré, Toumani Diabaté, Buena Vista Social Club, Orchestra Baobab, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González.
Top Tips for 2007: Oumou Sangaré, Orchestra Baobab and Toumani Diabaté release long awaited albums.
Pub fact: The backstage riders on Buena Vista Social Club tours included warm milk and ice cream.
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