Various Artists, The Rough Guide to Pakistan (World Music Network, 2003)

Sometimes I have the feeling that the fine folks over at the World Music Network label are grasping at straws. I mean, a Rough Guide to Pakistan? Are we so reduced in how to market music that we have to rely on geopolitical boundaries? What's next, a Rough Guide to East Timor? Eritrea? Hibernia?

What we have here is a disc of Central Asian music, with an emphasis on Islamic forms. Abida Parween, Mehdi Hassan, and, of course, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan are the best known names here, each with an appreciable audience in the rest of the world, but there are some real gems here. Tsiganes de Sind perform a glorious medley called "Popular Melodies" which weaves through many of the instruments of the region, and has some fabulous percussion work. "Aaj Jane Ki Zid Na Karo" is a gorgeous ballad by singer Farida Khanum, a lilting, almost minimalist work with gentle harmonium.

But a full half of the disc is given over to Pakistani Pop. And not a stellar sort of pop, either. "Jhullay Lal" by Sajjad Ali is typical Indian soft pop, right down to the "classical" touches, in this case a flute solo trading lines with a Fairlight synth orchestra. Noor Jehan, an actress, contributes a 50's Bollywood classic with "Jis Din Se Piya." And I won't even go into how annoying Vital Signs sugary Japanese-pop take of "Guzray Zamaney Waley" is. Oddly, the disc ends with a traditional song by Khan, rather than his later period pop-infused stuff.

I suppose this is the problem when compiling such broad overview discs. To give a taste of everything that's available, one does have to balance all the available options. Obviously, in compiling this disc, not too many options were found. It's not that it's necessarily a bad disc; the problem with this Rough Guide is that it feels like two discs slammed together, one traditional ghazals and the like, the other with an eye on the bhangra crowd. It's not that cohesive, and it makes for an odd listen. I found that I could program a pretty good 45 minutes or so, but that's not what a compiler should set out to do. Also, the sound sourcing on this disc is horrendous: I have heard such a badly mastered Rough Guide in years (and trust me, I've heard a lot of them!).

Interesting, yes: superb, no. The Rough Guide to Pakistan is simply to unfocused for me to take too seriously. Track down some of Khan's offerings, or Parween's (she's utterly enchanting), but save your Rough Guide selection for one of their better offerings.

[Big Earl Sellar]