Spinning the Musical Globe

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During his boyhood summers in Southern Spain, Madrid-born Angel Romero would skip out on afternoon siestas and turn on the tube. Fooling around with the TV dial, he stumbled upon Moroccan and Algerian channels that captivated him with their exotic music. On the other side of the globe, young Japanese musician Akira Satake plucked away at his banjo and immersed himself in rootsy American folk tunes and the traditional music of his country.

Romero and Satake's mutual appreciation for world music would lead to their 1996 founding of their own music label, Alula Records, based in Durham, N.C. The two met in New York, where Satake had been shopping his contemporary world CD Cooler Heads Prevail, and Romero was marketing director at a record label called Ellipsis Arts.

"We found that we liked the same type of contemporary world music - the kind with authenticity," says Satake. "So we started the kind of company with the music we were looking for." Alula showcases sounds from about 25 different countries and scouts out the sonic traditions of other locales. Many of the tunes have a modern bent, with multiple cultural infusions, but they strive to preserve the integrity of the music's traditional roots. The albums feature contemporary Moroccan Gnawa music, Estonian folk music, Celtic compositions from Ireland and Scotland, and Gypsy rumbas from Spain and southern France. Music from Alula artists like Habib Koite, Tim O'Brien and Gerardo Nunez has garnered praise from The Boston Globe, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The company is hardly a behemoth; it puts out seven or eight albums a year, but its impact is growing, as Alula has begun to license music for commercials, television and retail venues. "World music scratches your ear," explains Satake. "When you hear a haunting voice or an instrument you've never heard, people say, 'What's that?' Especially for TV commercials, you get tired of hearing a saxophone or a synthesizer. You don't pay attention. I guess the exotic authenticity of world music can be a tool for pop media - commercials, movies. It brings out the audience's imagination, their deeper feelings."

Out of Alula's toolbox has come a track licensed to Audi from Bushes and Briars by Celtic songstress Susan McKeown, which provides a soothing backdrop to a '99 spot titled "Father and Daughter." In addition, music from Moroccan Jamshied Sharifi's album A Prayer for the Soul of Layla backed scenes from the ABC News show The Century and Les Moissons du Sahel, a Belgian documentary about the Sahara.

The company's latest licensing project involves two songs off From the Tobacco Road of Cuba, a compilation of music from Cuba's cigar tobacco region Pinar del Rio. The tracks will be used in an upcoming PBS documentary Greener Grass: Cuba, Baseball, and the United States.

Romero and Satake say an impetus behind forming their label was to present and produce world music in an approachable way. "There are many good world music companies, but there are still so many artists who are not really introduced properly," explains Satake. "They're not reaching a broad audience. We wanted to have good music that also appealed to a broad audience."

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