Iconic Real World Records Label Turns 30

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Real World Records, the music label co-founded by the visionary Peter Gabriel and members of WOMAD, celebrates its 30th anniversary this June. A champion of world music, Gabriel put the profits from his hugely successful 1986 album So into the new label and custom studios, located in a quiet countryside hamlet in England. (Photo below by York Tillyer.)

Over the last three decades, Real World has issued music of wide-ranging styles and genres by artists around the globe. The first releases included Gabriel’s own Passion: Music for the Last Temptation of Christ and the companion Passion SourcesCongolese superstar Tabu Ley Rochereau’s Babeti Soukous, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Shahen-Shah, and the Cuba’s Orquesta Revé’s La Explosion del Momento. Real World albums featured state-of-the art sound and gorgeous graphic design. A rainbow-colored bar along the spine not only made them easy to pick out on the shelf, but also served as codes for regions of the world and denoted the country of origin for an album, which was especially helpful for us Americans who don’t know much about world geography. Although we take access for granted now, it was rare back in the 80’s to find non-Western music on record stores shelves. Real World made it much easier.

Some of my many personal Real World favorites from the past 30 years include those by The Sabri Brothers, Amjad Ali Khan, Yungchen Lhamo, Les Amazones d’Afrique, Remmy Ongala, Ayub Ogada, Estrela Morente, Orquesta Revé, to name just a few.

Before Real World, Gabriel worked with WOMAD—World of Music and Dance—to issue a series of ground-breaking world music albums including Music and Rhythm and Womad Talking Book. It was on Music and Rhythm from 1982 that I first encountered the late Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in an excerpt from a live concert. I remember writing the WOMAD organization, asking about the concert’s length. They said an hour. I was amazed that this level of redline intensity could be sustained for so long. This ground-breaking two-LP set also integrated pop and world music—David Byrne and XTC along side Mighty Sparrow and kora music from West Africa. The eclectic track list mirrored the unforgettable WOMAD concerts in the UK, which featured new wave pop artists performing with what became known as world music artists a few years later.

This spirit of collaboration carried forward into Real World recordings as well, such as in Michael Brook’s amazing album with Nusrat Fateh Ali KhanNight Song from 1996, one of my all-time favorite records. Brook also collaborated with Nusrat on the best-selling 1990 album Mustt Mustt, which included a Massive Attack remix of the title track that became a global hit. Michael Brook’s conception and production of these two albums marked him as one of the most creatively gifted producers of all time. (Photo below of Brook and Nusrat by Stephen Lovell Davis.)

Real World will mark their 30th anniversary in part by releasing Night Song for the first time on vinyl. The label will also issue a new live album (all formats) of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s performance at WOMAD in 1985, where he stunned a primarily non-Asian audience with the power of his music and “moved many…to tears of joy.” (David Ambrose, fRoots.The recording of Live at WOMAD 1985 has been carefully restored from original analogue tapes. These tracks have not been heard for 34 years. (Photo below of Nusrat at WOMAD 1985 by Jack Kilby.)

Last but not least, Real World will release a new compilation album, Worldwide: 30 Years of Real World Music, with tracks from artists such as Papa Wemba, Geoffrey Oryema, Afro Celt Sound System, Amjad Ali Khan, Sheila Chandra, and many more. All three celebratory albums will be out on July 26, and are available for pre-order now.

Watch “The Making of Night Song,” a video that accompanied the original album release in 1996.