No musical classification causes more trouble than "world music," a catchall that raises proverbial red flags when it's supposed to be waving real multinational ones. Purists hate the term for its flattening effect. The more diplomatically minded squirm at its hints of cultural imperialism, wondering what semiotic evil lurks beneath its ostensibly innocuous function. And people from, say, everywhere but America and England wonder what an Italian ballad singer might have in common with a big African dance band.
Whatever its implications, however, the notion of world music has helped open borders that are better off blurred. Even if much fusion has been washed out by generic global gloss, no worthwhile musical advance ever evolved through isolationism.
One way around the linguistic thicket is to let music set (and defy) its own agenda. That seems to have been the approach behind "World 2004," a new two-disc collection compiled by English radio DJ Charlie Gillett. Explaining his criteria in the liner notes, the host of BBC's "The Sound of the World" cites contemporary playlist material that simply spoke to "casual radio ramblers -- architects, van drivers and chair makers, breast-feeding mothers and home-working students." The resulting mix features 34 artists from 28 countries, each different but all engaged in a shared world project of getting lost in music.
Gillett takes care to whip up an appropriate mishmash, pairing organic folk music with weird hybrids. With Fat Marley's "Xin," the album starts out in a murky netherworld, where vocals by an Indian man and a Chinese woman float over a base of Brazilian reggae. The gauzy production sounds decidedly modern, but it diffuses into organic Argentine accordions and crisp Gypsy beats in the next few songs. Highlights abound from both sides of the traditional vs. cosmopolitan divide: the blind Portuguese vocalist Dona Rosa sounds timeless singing blues-bent folk over acoustic guitar, while English electronic act Sidestepper makes a mellow meld of time spent in Colombia, Cuba and Jamaica.
Gillett adopts a conciliatory tone in his liner notes, trying to lure listeners into what he calls the album's "collage of virtual unreality." But tracks such as Markscheider Kunst's "Kvasa Kvasa" make a convincing case on their own; leaning tropical rhythms against glancing African guitars, the song gives a danceable base to vocals that point to their homeland -- Russia.
The second disc features more of the same, which is to say bits of anything and everything. Gillett shows off his sly sequencing hand by following the Israeli folk song "Fellini in New York" with "Dentro al Cinema," an Italian jazz jaunt sung by Gianmaria Testa. The album's mostly non-English lyrics make connections less than literal, but shifts in tempo and mood tell stories of their own. After unassuming folk tunes by artists from Venezuela and Switzerland, the Israeli-Palestinian group Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble wanders in with a glimmering song that rises, slowly and steadily, like the sun. It's a gesture of cultural unity performed in the name of music, but it's also the kind of knowing nod that "World 2004" treats as perfectly natural.