Various Artists

Music of the World's Peoples, Vols. 1-5

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The prototypical collection of traditional music from around the world (and possibly the best), Folkways' five volumes of Music of the World's Peoples were compiled and annotated by avant-garde composer and amateur ethnomusicologist Henry Cowell in the early '50s. There's no attempt at geographic or any other kind of coherence -- just a hodgepodge of charming, sometimes baffling, often gorgeous music. Cowell's keen ear makes for extraordinary diversity of conception and style as well as topnotch performances all around. By and large, these field recordings were made before the influence of recorded popular music seeped into local traditions in even remote regions of the globe. Thus, most of the music found here is thoroughly exotic, and the lo-fi presentation only serves to enhance the impression that these sounds come from some distant, unrecoverable past. Unlike its closest analog -- Ellipsis Arts' multi-CD international compilations -- the Music of the World's Peoples series presents performances that, for the most part, show little sign of having been cut short. Most of the pieces form a coherent whole, albeit frequently all too brief. Like the individual cuts, many of these volumes (originally pressed on two LPs per box, currently available on cassette or on CD by mail order only) clock in a bit short. Nonetheless, their scope is nothing short of universal, a catalog of human imagination matched by few if any other releases. Cowell's introductory essay is a quick summary of the folk process as it applies to the contemporary world, followed by helpful analytical remarks and a thumbnail description of each cut.