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World Music CD Reviews World Fusion

Big Blue Ball

By Tad Hendrickson
Published August 21, 2008

Big Blue Ball
Real World

One of the major perks of having your own studio is that you’re able to try things that are more than a little crazy. So it comes as little surprise that Peter Gabriel decided to throw a series of parties in 1991, ’92 and ’95 at his Real World Studios, located in the English countryside outside of Bath.

The three week-long sessions featured an eclectic mix of 75 artists from over 20 countries. Produced and curated by Gabriel and World Party’s Karl Wallinger, the event encouraged artists to record wherever their muse guided them—in the proper studios themselves, or in rehearsal spaces, bathrooms, the on-site café, outside in the garden, and even in the front entry (where Joe Strummer set up a portable four-track machine and decorated the space with drapes and candles). Gabriel called it a “musical dating service,” where artists were coupled together to work on songs and come up with ideas on the fly, sometimes working with tapes from past sessions.

With the sheer mass of artistic humanity involved, pulling countless reels of studio tape together into something listenable was a Herculean task, and the main reason why this project has taken so long to come out. In the end, Stephan Hague (Pet Shop Boys, Robbie Williams) was recruited to finish assembling the pieces, and Tchad Blake (Tom Waits, Los Lobos, Peter Gabriel) would do the final mix.

The results are about what you’d expect in one sense: although it’s not quite the “one-performer/one-bar-of-music” approach of “We Are The World” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” Big Blue Ball definitely falls into the aesthetic of “music from around the world can be woven into a single rich tapestry.” Sounding much like the music of Gabriel, Afro-Celt Sound System, One Giant Leap, Nitin Sawhney and others, BBB’s voices and instruments float in and out of the 11 songs like fragments of conversations pieced together to create poems. Of course with the skill of the people involved, the fragments alone were pretty unbelievable. Using ambient backdrops and electronic production approaches, Hague pulls it all together remarkably well. At the same time, it’s almost like a musical version of Where’s Waldo, prompting one to wonder what the original source sessions sounded like at the time of their recording. Perhaps the label will eventually offer up the source material for amateurs to take a crack, but for now we have only the finished songs.

One highlight is the dancefloor burner “Jijy,” which matches spitfire raps from Madagascar rapper Rossy with a rhythm track that bounces back and forth between jazzy brass and fleeting blues figures, all of it underpinned by Jah Wobble’s surging bassline and a muscular rhythm track. Also strong is the opening track “Habibe,” which pairs Natacha Atlas with an Egyptian