;The problem with enjoying music from other countries (I refuse to call it "world music") is twofold. First, the variety of music that can't be classified as "Western pop" is dizzying in its magnitude: many hundreds of musical styles, each with its own tradition and commingled influences, played by people with unfamiliar names on impossible-looking instruments. Second, music retailers assume that customers know exactly what they're looking for and often dump everything into a corner labeled — here it comes — "world music."

;;Seeing that the first part of this problem directly contradicts the second part, the result is that many people — even those interested in discovering legitimately different music — become overwhelmed and frustrated. Surprisingly, even the advent of download sites has done little to help: The iTunes Music Store has one "world" category (albeit one stocked with a handful of their excellent "Essentials" playlists); MSN Music is a disaster (Sigur Rós is world music? Really?), and all that needs to be known about Napster is that it considers Shania Twain "world" music. The smartly curated selection on eMusic is divvied up geographically, but the selection is also rather limited.

;;With the recent launch of National Geographic's world music website ;(, there is finally a cyberstore that's well-stocked, smartly organized, easily navigable and, most importantly, informative without being intimidating. Downloads are DRM-free MP3s and cost only 99 cents apiece. Operated in conjunction with Calabash Music — which claims to be the "first Fair Trade music company" — the available music covers everything from world music titans like Thomas Mapfumo and "buzz bands" like Tinariwen to a comprehensive array of indigenous sounds and quirky, independent artists. The inclusion of the latter is, in my opinion, one of the things that makes the site's catalog stand out; too often, under-the-radar musicians in faraway lands rarely have the opportunity to get their music into American stores and, when they do, their CDs are unattractive, hampered by low budgets and a lack of design sense. Having their music tossed into the site's marvelous "random" mixes puts them on an even playing field and, sometimes, allows them to eclipse more well-known performers.

;;Oh yeah, those mixes are my other favorite part about the site. As with most other downloading services, you can listen to a sample clip of any song. (Instead of iTunes' 30 seconds, the clips here are one minute long.) But a big advantage is that when you're in a particular category, you can listen to random samplings in a playlist. Hear something you like? Click "Buy Song" and it's yours. Hear something you don't like? Click the "next" button and a new song will cue up. This way, if you're curious about, say, Central American garifuna, you're able to get at least a cursory idea about what it sounds like, as well as an introduction to some of the artists. Being able to drill down either geographically or by genre is a tremendous learning tool. It creates an easy pathway for novices to be introduced to something they may have heard about (like garifuna) or listen to music from a specific region or country without knowing any more than "I like things from Asia." That structure allows die-hard aficionados the ability to zero in on precisely what they want, which is often a hopeless proposition at other outlets. Rather than leaving international sounds the exclusive purview of academics and granola nerds, I strongly suggest you give yourself an hour or so on the site. I can almost guarantee that anyone with an open mind will find something fascinating and fun. If I sound like I'm overflowing with enthusiasm, it's because I am. Even though I have scores of CDs and dozens of gigabytes of international music in my collection, I was overwhelmed by the edifying ease of what National Geographic has done with this site. The recommendations were occasionally off. (They really wanted me to check out Oysterband.) Some musical areas were surprisingly lopsided. (There's a lot of outdated Tamil film soundtracks and odd devotional music in the India section.) And the ability to search by instrument would be a great addition.

;;Those are minor qualms compared to how great it was to discover the first solo album by ex-Aterciopelados singer Andrea Echeverri or the ferocious sound of Konono No. 1 (sort of a funky, Congolese version of Einstürzende Neubauten). Yeah, I wish the download interface was as easy as iTunes', but the tangents that playlists like"Afro-Brazilian religious music" or "Senegalese Beat Down" (music inspired by Senegalese wrestling) sent me on are worth the small amount of clunky work that it took to get these songs on my iPod. So far, this is the best and easiest way I've found for anyone to be exposed to music from beyond our borders.

; [email protected]
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