Travel Column: A Shout-Out For World Music

Jonathan B. Tourtellot
National Geographic Traveler
July 23, 2004
Ever hear of Cui Jian? Me neither, even though he's "John Lennon, Bob
Dylan, and Kurt Cobain rolled into one" and the man who set off the
rock-and-roll revolution … in China, in 1986.

So say the album notes on China, one of the Rough Guides' fascinating destination CDs (

I was expecting that nasal now-meow music (or so it sounds to my unschooled ears) that you hear in old flicks when the Americans arrive in Hong Kong, but China surprised me in its depth and variety.

I liked Cui Jian and even enjoyed a couple of now-meowy songs hiding in mid-CD. In all, 17 tracks range over China's huge territory and history, preparing you for what you might (or might not) hear on a visit.

One of the happiest duties of any geo-savvy traveler is to support local music that you like—buying tickets and CDs, or just enlarging the local audience by one—especially if Top 40 fashion has left the local genre behind.

In Jamaica, for instance, thudding dance club hip-hop has displaced reggae on the airwaves. In Brazil, unremarkable "popular Brazilian music" pushed out oh-so-last-century bossa nova.

But the older and alternate genres always have some local fans, and visitors can help swell their limited ranks, sustaining both traditional and innovative musicians who haven't yet made it on the radio, and may never.

What to Play Before You Go?

Two other good travel labels are Putumayo and National Geographic's "Destination" series. Putumayo (, which has brought many world musicians well-deserved recognition, often folds many places, even continents, into the same album. National Geographic's CDs ( include terrific album notes (even a map) and focus on traditional genres—tango for Buenos Aires, jigs for Ireland, etc.

The Putumayo and Geographic CDs have a consistent sound, but for travel utility, I'd give the edge to Rough Guides for offering a wider musical orientation to each region's diversity, with decent album notes. Listen to China or Mexico or the Appalachians before you go and you'll understand what you're hearing after you arrive—and you'll know what to ask for if it's missing.

Geo-Savvy Tip

Skip overpriced tourist venues and cliché music, which often mask the true depth of any country's musical culture. (How many times in Greece do you really need to hear "Zorba's Dance"?)

Seek places where local fans and seasoned travelers go. You haven't had a fado experience in Lisbon unless the club has Portuguese diners at the tables.

And before landing in Athens check out Rough Guides' Greece: 21 tracks—none of them "Zorba's Dance."

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