Part of Routledge’s “The Basics” series, this book purports to give a survey of world music in an accessible, readable fashion. It largely succeeds, but may prove frustrating for those with more than a passing knowledge of any of the traditions it covers. Nidel’s text is readable, in that it is direct and simple. With very limited coverage of so many traditions, it needs to be.
Nidel defines World music as traditional music from everywhere, rather than the fusions of styles that became popular in the 1980s and 1990s. He provides an historical summary of each region, mostly focused on events that will be well known to anyone with a familiarity with the region and music, such as colonial events that produced the cultural climate when the music developed, followed by a discussion of the musicians with accessible recordings, usually without any links between the two. Some of his characterizations are debatable, particularly when discussing political issues, but they will save folks without any previous interest in the world outside the borders of the US from the most terrible gaffes, should they ever come into contact with an aficionado of the music they are exploring. One example of this might be the discussion of the Armenian holocaust at the hands of the Turks in 1915. If European history was not covered adequately in the reader’s secondary school, entries like this might be helpful. Some of the entries are debatable, given the format of the book, why do we need a whole paragraph telling us that pre-Islamic Egyptians were portrayed as playing music on the walls of the pyramid burial chambers if we don’t know what it sounded like? What possible influence could there be on the music reviewed in this book? I suspect there are old paintings or carvings of musicians from virtually every region covered; thankfully most are not discussed at any length.
I didn’t have many quarrels with the selections, the few here and there might be debated away in a chat with other folks with a love of a particular tradition. My only really strong objection comes from the discussion of Jamaican music. There is a whole paragraph on Bob Marley, but none of the reggae recordings one might expect, including Marley’s are included. It is difficult to see how reggae, which heralded the way for so many artists from the Caribbean and beyond, is somehow more “pop” than the rock steady that predated it. I did not have a lot of quarrels with the Irish music covered, although perhaps one or two with the Scottish and Canadian selections. But I don’t believe a person would go too far wrong by beginning with the artists recommended here. Of course, the same might be said for beginning a voyage into world music with one of the Rough Guide or Putumayo recordings.
Which raises an important issue for books like this: Is this the best format for conveying this material? What can we learn here that we could not learn from Wikipedia? After all, this sort of book is out of date from the moment of its printing. What we get from this book is quality control, clear, simple prose and Nidel’s expertise. We might get something similar from radio formats like Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s “Fifty Tracks” and “national playlist” where experts debate the merits of essential music lists of various categories. It seems that the only thing stopping experts from giving us evolving guides is a clear revenue model. And the emphasis on available recorded material means that Nidel’s wrok can seem overly focused on the 1980s and beyond, except where classic material has been re-released. Yet older recordings are being resurrected on a continual basis for several genres of music covered here, recordings that may change our appreciation of how we came to have the “traditional” music of today. One need not even venture out of the house to purchase this material, making guides like this more relevant for giving us the lay of the land, and less relevant as gate keepers to our personal playlists.
If the goal is to set an absolute beginner on the road to appreciating the world’s music, World Music, The Basics succeeds. It would make a great gift for a young person with a love of music, but no idea where to begin learning about it. It might also stimulate their interest in history and politics, which are so inextricably linked with so much of the music covered in this volume. Older readers accustomed to more sophisticated prose and even a smattering of world history or strong opinions on some of the regions covered here will be frustrated, but it is unlikely the book was written for them anyway! The Basics is just that, and succeeds partly because its ambitions are modest.