The Rough Guide to Planet Rock
irst: the title—they’re talking about Earth. Rock music is probably the most potent and pervasive sonic export Earth has encountered. See rock clash with the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. See rock sopped from the Niger Delta. Hear it mix with every indigenous music from the variety of subset Earth locales known as “continents” and “countries”; hear it appropriated, improved upon, garbled. Hear it chewed up and spat out. Witness yourself, humble under the great bird-mouth of rock, anxiously awaiting regurgitation.
The question with stuff like The Rough Guide to Planet Rock isn’t whether or not a universal acknowledgement of rock music is a good thing—rock is an awesome thing—but whether or not nicknaming our splotched terrestrial experiment “Planet Rock” is just and accurate.
This is perennially problematic with world music. First, you have to assume that whatever you can actually purchase has done hurdles over marketing departments to get there. Second, there’s a good chance that, in the swift strokes of a 10-page set of liner notes, it will try to explain to you the context from which it came. This, of course, may have been written by someone in your country. At the crux is a notion of difference: do we smooth over them or do we highlight them? Alan Bishop, who saddles the tenacious multi-ethnic documentarians of the Sublime Frequencies label, described the world music market as a “multi-cultural beige latte for the one-world ‘yes master.’” Is that “one-world” Planet Rock?
Well, yes and no. Planet Rock does a surprisingly good job of excluding the kinds of crap that transport listeners to that most unapologetically sterile hell house of world music—the yuppie’s living room. Pan-ethnic global chillout is kept to a minimum. A few tracks falter, and a few tracks aren’t really “rock” by any stretch (though the ultra-New York—en Español, Hebrew, and English—klezmer-rap-rock of Hip Hop Hoodios’ “Kike on the Mic” retains creepy old-world market charm by boasting style as “fresh as a pound of flesh”).
Generally though, the music is fierce, inventive, and exciting. France’s Les Boukakes jerk between polka and Afro-pop and still make room for delightfully stupid guitar effects, and Etran Finatawa crawl through the syrup of West African blues trying to figure out whether that chanting in the distance is just heatstroke or a psilocybin hallucination—it sounds like both. Congolese junkyard dance band Konono No. 1 shows up, welcomed, albeit a little oddly, but they don’t sound half as weird as the Gypsy cheerleaders in The Transsylvanians (who are, of course, from Berlin). The comp is bookended by two American bands: LA’s Dengue Fever (a garage-psych sextet with a fucking intoxicating Cambodian singer, Ch’hom Nimol), and New York’s Ukrainian folk-punk troupe Gogol Bordello.
And though it makes me feel like a post-colonial gawker to admit it, my instinct is to strew accolades around the truly freaky cross-pollinations—here, a distinction that easily goes to Tuvan contrabasso Albert Kuvezin’s rendition of “In a Gadda Da Vida.” If you’ve never heard Tuvan throat singing, well, it basically divides the voice into a low, rumbling drone and a high, buzzing tone that operate independently; it’s sort of like a melodic power generator imitating a bullfrog, or maybe the other way around. His band, Yat-Kha, turns the lumbering cathedral-rock of Iron Butterfly’s original into a spry folk dance—a gracious gesture towards the listener, given that Kuvezin’s vocal sounds like a Simpletext colossus bellowing through a stoma, single-throatedly shaming all Cookie Monster stylists into the shadows of their towering amp stacks. And didn’t rock slide onto this planet as a string of guttural novelties anyway?