Even without the recent war, swooping round the globe to catch qawwali in Pakistan and nose-flutes in Tonga had begun to look like a pampered Nineties luxury, as swathes of the world turned hostile to Western gawpers. Moreover, the world's musical languages are under threat, and when a language dies, resuscitation is impossible. All this makes archive recordings of supreme importance, so it's nice to find them increasingly filling the shops.
The Rounder label now offers 20 CDs from the vast archive collected by world music's founding father, Alan Lomax, whose Mississippi recordings - launching Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy - were just the tip of the iceberg. Lomax's Caribbean collection pre- dates the Seventies vogue and reflects a now-lost innocence; the lullabies and work songs he recorded in Franco's Spain - in the teeth of fierce opposition from local musicologists - can no longer be heard. In Galicia he found a group of stone-cutters singing as they worked. After trying their song in simulated conditions, they decided it would sounded right if they hoisted a big rock for real. On the recording you can virtually hear the sinews crack. A pan- piper he recorded nearby supplied the basis for one of Miles Davis's Sketches of Spain.
The Italian Treasury that Lomax amassed for Rounder is aptly named. You can still hear the trallaleri in Genoa, but not with the polyphonic brilliance of 1954. His Italy is galvanised by new- minted political ballads, and rings with the sound of bagpipe and accordion. In Sicily, he found work songs by almond-sorters and lemon-pickers.
In 1977 Lomax was invited to choose the music to be sent into the cosmos on board the Voyager satellite. …