NPR Curious Listener’s Guide


The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to World Music

Chris Nickson (2004)

Grand Central Press/Perigee Trade

One of a series of listeners guides published under the National Public Radio banner, including ones of Celtic, Blues, Folk, Jazz. This 265 page edition is by British music journalist Chris Nickson, who was until recently US based and who has authored of over 30 books. A regular contributor to many magazines he has been music commentator for NPR’s All Things Considered. He runs the website, a very nicely put together and informative site which you can see here.

This guide outlines some of the musicians and musical styles associated with a variety of countries around the globe. Among musicians you will find The Gipsy Kings, Tito Puente, Bob Marley, Beny Moré, Ravi Shankar, Paco de Lucia, King Sunny Ade and The Chieftains; styles outlined include Argentine tango, Trinidad’s calypso, Brazilian bossa nova, Chinese opera, Russian folk and Indonesian gamelan, among many others.

Why you might buy it:

This is the book equivalent of an interesting in-flight magazine – not something necessarily to be read from cover to cover but rather something to dip in and out of. The writing is lively enough and avoids the pitfall commonly encountered in similar titles of ending up as a series of lists. A good index, reasonable A-to-Z glossary of terms, list of 50 ‘essential CDs’ and suggestions for further sources of information provide readers with plenty to get them started on any quest for delving deeper they want to engage in. As Nickson says, “These are starting points, and people who are interested will work back to the sources, much as many did with the blues by discovering it through groups like the Rolling Stones, then finding Muddy waters and John Lee Hooker, before following history all the way to the Mississippi Delta”.

Why you might leave it:

These books are extremely easy to criticise – as the authors are well aware, no single book of this length could possibly do justice to the huge volume of musical styles found on our planet. That said, from a Latin music perspective, it seems inconceivable that the music of Puerto Rico has been omitted, as has the music of Panama, Venezuela and Curacao (To give an idea of what to expect, the rich musical heritage of Cuba gets three pages, though over the course of the book Cuba and its music does feature more than that in total). There are also, unfortunately, a couple of times when you might let out a small ‘Latin music aficionado’ sigh, for example in the extract below (Beny More) Conjunto Matamoros become Conjunto Matamoras and in the glossary salsa is described as a (Willie Colon, look away now!) “Pan Latin rhythm….”


Foreword by Youssou N’Dour
1. What is World Music?
2. The Story of World Music
3. Varieties of World Music
4. The Musicians
5. The Music
6. World Music on CD
7. The Language of World Music
Resources for Curious Listeners

Selected extracts (from):


At the start of the 1980’s, “world music” was still largely the province of ethnomusicologists. A few areas, like reggae and salsa, were in the popular domain, but most were still ensconced in academia. Now it’s an industry, served by magazines, marketing and record labels that specialize in the genre. World music has its big stars, a very few of whom, like Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour or Cuba’s Buena Vista Social Club, have even briefly crossed over to commercial success.

1. What is World Music?

Music develops, and traditions become renewed and expanded by successive generations. But it’s really in the past one hundred years that music other than classical has been accepted, collected, and codified. Prior to that the styles were simply folk forms, the voices and sounds of the people, not deemed to be worth a great deal of attention. But, to quote Louis Armstrong, “All music is folk music. I never heard no horse sing.” It’s the heartbeat of all popular forms of music. And everything that has happened since has grown from it.

2. The story of World Music

The term World Music was first used in 1889 at the Paris Exposistion Universelle, where music from Indonesia (then Java), Japan, and Vietnam could be heard. For the citizens of Paris, celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution, it was indeed a brave new world. For most it confirmed their Western superiority. But some, like the composer Claude Debussy, were taken by the possibilities of the new sounds. Over the next twenty years there was a realization by people that their heritages were slipping away as the world changed, and rural traditions slowly died with growing urbanization and mechanization. In England Cecil Sharp and others began collecting folk songs, and people across Europe did much the same.

3. Varieties of World Music – Senegal (first half of entry):

Surprisingly, modern Senegalese music doesn’t have very deep roots. In essence, they reach back only to the early 1960’s, when the Star Band was the top name in Dakar, with a repertoire of mostly Cuban music and the lyrics learned by rote. They eventually began to introduce some local elements, including songs in Wolof and the sabar (otherwise known as the tama, or talking drum).

The big musical name in Senegal, and the one most widely recognised in the West, is Youssou N’Dour, a man whose career began with the Star Band. It’s certainly true that he’s a towering talent. But he’s far from being the only extraordinary musician from the area. Over the past few decades, Senegambia has proved to be as musically fertile as anywhere in West Africa, producing not only N’Dour but also Baaba Maal, Cheikh Lo, Ifang Bondi, Orchestra Baobab, Wasis Diop, Positive Black Soul, and Ismael Lo – a list that just scratches the surface.

Senegambia shares the djeli tradition, and some instruments, with other parts of the old Mande Empire. Here, though, they’re known as griots (griottes for women), and their modern day influence is arguably somewhat less. A former French colony, the main language of Senegal is Wolof, although French is still widely spoken, and Islam is the predominant religion.

Following the local success of the Star Band, other groups sprang up in their wake, most notably Orchestra Baobab, named for the nightclub where they played. While many bands let their music develop in a more Africanized fashion, Baobab stuck close to the Cuban style throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s; the legendary 1982 release Pirates Choice was a high point. After eventually breaking up, they were persuaded to reform, older but still full of melody, in 2001, and even issued a new album in 2002.

The real turning point for Senegalese music occurred in 1977, when the younger members of the Star Band, including an eighteen year old singer named Youssou N’Dour, broke away to begin something fresh, energetic and defiantly Senegalese. The new Etoile de Dakar was, perhaps, the local equivalent of the punk revolution going on in Britain at the time, cutting through everything their elders had done with attitude and griot wails. After just two years they split in two. Half following N’Dour’s fellow vocalist El Hadji Faye into the short lived Etoile 2000, and the others backing N’Dour in Super Etoile de Dakar.

This was the band that turned everything upside down. They pushed the talking drums, sabars, forward, letting them chatter across the rhythms, and turning up the guitars. The result was something unique, exciting, eminently danceable – and completely Senegalese – called mbalax. Built on cross-rhythms traditionally used in talking drum ensembles, it took dialogues between drums and voices and gave the parts to guitars and keyboards too, making for a full, driving sound.

3. Varieties of World Music – Peru (full entry):

Like Chile, Peru is associated with the lyrical Andean music of the natives, with the ringing, trebly sound of the charango and the lull of the panpipes. It’s not all Peruvian – the Andes run through Chile and Argentina as well – but the peasant image of musicians certainly is. There are plenty of such bands with varying degrees of talent, but they form only one part of the area’s traditional music. The traditional music of Peru extends from the more familiar sounds of the mountain areas to the relatively unknown coastal regions.

Something often forgotten is that African slaves were also transported to Peru, and that a sizable Afro-Peruvian population exists within the country. For many years their music and culture were overlooked. It’s largely been just within the past four decades that the highly Rhythmic sound has broken out of its ghetto, and within the past twenty years that it’s been sen as credible. While diva Susana Baca is the big name, with several lauded albums to her credit, she’s far from being the only cat making waves: Pepe Vasquez has become a star at home by marrying traditional Peruvian festijo (festive music) with Afro-Peruvian rhythms.

4. The Musicians – Beny More (full entry):

Beny More (1919-1963):
Dibbed “El Barbarao Del Ritmo” (The Barbarian of Rhythm), Beny More is probably the single most influential singer to have come out of Cuba. However, he was equally talented as a musician and arranger, making him a powerhouse of Cuban music. Born Bartolome Maximilliano More Guiterrez in Santa Isabel de las Lajas, he started out by playing guitar at dances and festivals, but by the time he was twenty, he was in Havana and starting to make his name as a singer. In 1945 he toured Mexico with Conjunto Matamoras and ended up staying in the country a little while, eventually working with the great Perez Prado. They were a powerful combination, and fame quickly followed as they helped revolutionize Latin music with the mambo. By 1953, More was ready to go home. Back in Cuba he formed Orquesta Gigante, which backed him on the greatest records of his career, ones that were profoundly important in the development of the Cuban sound. He died at the age of forty-three, in large part due to his offstage excesses.

[end of extracts]

Other Reviews:

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