With the planet on the way out - a wasteland by 2075, said the UN last month - it seems pointless to lament the fate of what we loosely term "world music". Yet what's happening in that sphere is like the battle over Turkey's Birecik dam, but magnified a thousand times. A homogenised electronic flood is poised to engulf music's ancient civilisations: armies of musicologists are massing to salvage what they can.
And the audience for their spoils is growing at an exponential rate. Radio 3 has repositioned itself to cater for their tastes, and classical record companies are desperately trying to cash in, but they don't really know how to do it. For them, world music is just another form of crossover - a quick buzz for listeners, and a quick fix for the balance sheets, to be junked when the next fix comes along. Serious world-music labels, on the other hand, are booming as never before.
This month sees the birth of a series with unique potential, and no less unique provenance. Inside the British Library is the National Sound Archive, and inside that is the International Music Collection, which is a lot more fun than its title implies. With a million discs and 200,000 tapes, this mega-archive comprises dozens of smaller collections donated over the past 100 years. Its first two CDs - of Zanzibari bands and Baluchi flautists and fiddlers - have just been commercially released under the aegis of the Topic label.
This venerable imprint was chosen by the NSA's South African curator Janet Fargion, because it has never defaulted on its original promise. Set up in 1939 to "give a voice to the people", it has built up a unique backlist of folk recordings from Britain, the Balkans, and Central Asia. "This sort of material is usually much better handled by record companies abroad," says Fargion. "But I wanted to keep ours in Britain. Our aim is simply to bring out into the open the riches housed in our archive."
She herself is an Africanist, and the Zanzibari CD reflects what she found on a field trip there in 1989. "I'd come across some archive recordings of women's songs from Mombasa, and I was intrigued to know how music with such clear Arabic and Indian influences could have got so far south." She set off for Mombasa via Zanzibar, which was where her researches initially pointed her, and found herself spending the next 14 months on that island. "Ask any African what they associate Zanzibar with, and first they'll say cloves, then they'll say slaves, and then - in the same breath - they'll say taraab."
This celebratory musical style is the real voice of Zanzibar: what astonished Fargion was its variety, plus the fact that though women performers weren't publicly rated, they were its innovators. She learnt the language, got accepted, and recorded weddings, concerts, and …