March 1998

Label Watch: World Circuit

In discussing what events led up to his forming the World Circuit label 11 years ago, label head Nick Gold insists that he “just sort of happened into it, really.”

As he explains, “I started doing volunteer work for a company that handled touring artists from Africa and various other places around the world. People started asking for the music and they wanted to make it available, so eventually they began recording the artists as well. A couple of weeks after I was there they told me, ‘Well, we’ve got a band here. They need to make a record.’ And I just had to get on with it. It was that simple.”

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Nick Gold and Andy Hamilton
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Mark Ettel, Nick Gold, Ali Farka Toure, Ry Cooder at Ocean Way Studio, L.A.

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However humble his beginnings, Gold is currently presiding over one of the prestige labels in all of world music. And now that his London-based World Circuit Records has hooked up substantial distribution in the States, Canada and Japan via Nonesuch Records, his boutique label is beginning to make big noise in the industry.

One record that has brought a great deal of attention to World Circuit is the recent Buena Vista Social Club. Produced in Havana by American troubadour Ry Cooder, who also performs on each track, it’s a gathering of some of Cuba’s national treasures, including 89-year-old guitarist Compay Segundo, singer Ibrahim Ferrer and the sensational 77-year-old pianist Ruben Gonzalez. Buena Vista Social Club is Cooder’s first album since the Grammy Award-winning Talking Timbuktu recorded in 1994 for World Circuit with West African guitarist and singer Ali Farke Toure. And while the music is sublime—a relaxed meeting of the minds, hearts and souls by these great Cuban musicians—Gold says the sessions at Havana’s Areito studio were nearly halted by technical difficulties.

“We did one record a week before Ry arrived, which is the big band album with the Afro-Cuban All-Stars (A Toda Cuba le Gusta). And the day Ry arrived, the tape machine chose not to work at all. The engineer took the whole thing apart, so we walked in one day to see the studio floor strewn with bits of tape machine. We had to contact Mexico and have this vital piece flown in and dropped off to us so the session could resume. But actually, I think it was quite fortuitous that we couldn’t record one day because we used that day to rehearse and everyone got to know each other.”

Cooder plays subtle catalyst on Buena Vista Social Club. A touch of slide guitar or Hawaiian flavored slack key guitar here or there may seem out of context for Cuban music, but his input definitely enhanced the proceedings. “He doesn’t force the issue at all,” Gold says of Cooder’s approach in the studio. “What he does just seems to bring out elements of what’s already there...he opens your ears a little bit.”

Gold himself prefers an even less obtrusive role as producer. Unlike some world music offerings that suffer from overproduction and the invasive presence of a Western aesthetic, his World Circuit recordings try to capture the real essence of folkloric musics. “I don’t know if I’ve got a particular attitude about purism,” he says. “Most of the music we do is already very beautiful in its own state, it doesn’t need a lot done to it. It just needs putting onto tape. But it’s like Ry says as well...it’s still nice to push the envelope a bit rather than just doing completely what you might call ethnographic recordings.”

Originally an avid collector of jazz and blues records, Gold’s interest turned to world music while attending college. “I studied African history,” he explains. “That’s where I started to hear African music and I fell in love with it. And it was through African music that I became acquainted with Cuban and Latin American music. Latin American music was very popular in West Africa from the ’50s through the ’60s and it was through musicians I worked with in Mali and Senegal who started playing me Latin music. So it was quite weird getting it through the other end.”

World Circuit has slowly but surely established an impressive catalog of recordings by releasing no more than five or six a year. Each one of those recordings is afforded maximum attention by Gold, right down to the brilliant packaging and superb sound quality. It’s an approach that is lost on the major labels, where noteworthy artists are often lost in the shuffle.

“I think my whole aesthetic for the label might be a bit left over from when I was a collector,” says Gold. “When you’ve got a record that you really like, it’s a very sort of precious thing. And this label is, I thought, an attempt to make records, hopefully, that mean that to someone else...a precious thing that you want to keep and treasure.”

His immediate plans call for follow-up albums by Ali Farke Toure, Senegalese singer Cheikh Lo and Malian singer Oumou Sangare. He plans to be in Havana again by the new year to make three more recordings with Cuban musicians. As for a long term vision for World Circuit, Gold says, “I just want to carry on working with the artists we’re working on. It’s incredible being able to work with artists of this caliber. If you were to work with equivalent artists in other genres, we just wouldn’t be able to afford to do it. So we’re very lucky being able to work with these people.”

And although his original love was jazz and blues, he has no plans to start recording those kinds of projects. “Not at the moment,” he says, “just because there’s so much else to do. There’s so many artists I want to work with in Cuba and West Africa. And also because I don’t want to start releasing a huge amount of records. I think I’m quite happy carrying on where we are at the moment.”

Meanwhile, World Circuit has already developed its own strong signature in the minds of world music record buyers. As Gold acknowledges, after 11 years of striving, “It’s only now that we seem to get some reflection on that, where people are beginning to notice, ‘Oh, I like this record and I like that one. And they’re on the same label.’ So this has developed. And I think that’s come about almost by accident, just by carrying on, working how I was working rather than with that goal in mind.”

While some of the artists on World Circuit have already made triumphant tours of Europe (pianist Ruben Gonzalez recently got a five-minute ovation at a Vienna concert hall before he played a note), the U.S. embargo of Cuba has prevented exposure Stateside. Gold hopes to find a loophole in that bureaucratic tangle. “It looks as if the Afro-Cuban All-Stars will be touring the States in September next year.” One can only hope.

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