Peter Gabriel on 25 Years of Real World, Possible 'Organic Dance Record'

Pioneering world music label celebrates with a three-CD box set of hits, fan favorites and hidden gems

Peter Gabriel is celebrating the 25th anniversary of Real World Records with a three-CD retrospective. Credit: Isifa/Getty

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Real World Records, Peter Gabriel's pioneering world music label that connected American and British audiences to stunning voices from around the globe. The label helped introduce the alternative nation to the explosive qawwali of Pakistan's Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, it helped turn Congolese soukous star Papa Wembe into a cosmopolitan pop artist, it broke the pan-global electronic polyglots in Afro Celt Sound System and transformed the Blind Boys of Alabama from cult heroes to Grammy-winning legends (maybe you've heard the theme from Season One of The Wire). And that's the tip of more than 200 Real World releases that connected the dots from Senegal to Armenia to Finland to Japan to Tibet to the all-American alt-rock of Joseph Arthur. 

To celebrate, the label has just released Real World 25, a comprehensive and affordable ($22.17) three-CD retrospective that covers hits, fan favorites and an entire disc of hidden gems. Gabriel was in New York for a Witness benefit, supporting his non-profit that helps train people to utilize video in the struggle for human rights. We caught up with him to talk about the Real World legacy, and it evolved into a conversation about dealing with a crumbling music industry and tight borders.

Is there a Real World artist you can look back on and say, "This really should have been as huge as anything"?
Well, I think Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was one of the highlights of the 25 years for us. He wasn't really known outside the Pakistani or the Asian community, and I think "Musst Musst," when Massive Attack did their remix of it, we thought that could have broken bigger. I'm very sad that we lost him 'cause I think he's someone that would have been a major artist had he had the chance

Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was actually one of Real World success stories, what about something more under the radar?
I think we've had some wonderful African artists. Papa Wembe's an extraordinary singer, Ayub Ogada, Geoffrey Oreyma, Maryum Mursal from Somalia. A quite a lot of my individual favorite tracks are on [Real World 25]. There's a Tibetan Lama to a beautiful piano medley by Jean Philippe Rykiell, it's got so much heart.

So I think we've been very lucky. It's tough nowadays because the record business, in a lot of respects is a corpse. Live music isn't. I always think it's a corpse with a lot of interesting worms crawling out of it.

In the Nineties, labels like Real World was the only way for people to hear Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan or Afro Celt Sound System. Is it challenging running a label when everybody has access to all of this music all of the time?
The practical thing is that the money is gone. Some of the artists were getting 50, 60 percent of their income in some cases, from records. And that's pretty much gone and the institutions like Spotify that have replaced record stores don't pay very much, if at all. For us old-timer bigger artists, we're doing very well on live and it's fine. But for a lot of smaller artists, young artists, or niche artists...

Especially artists who are coming from overseas.
Well, they can't get visas to perform, quite often. So getting [the] live thing to support them is a lot more complex. Borders have tightened up everywhere, partly with terrorism. But we had Youssou N'Dour, who was almost the Senegelese president, and we still couldn't get Visas for his band when he was headlining our WOMAD Festival this year. So I had to write to governement ministers and get help. It's increasingly difficult for world music and world artists. If you're a great musician, a great composer, it shouldn't matter where you're born, or what language you're singing or what instruments you're playing.

So, it's been harder to do everything since 9/11?
It's really hard at the moment to function in the same way as we did. But we're still hangin' in there and we have, fortunately, a small group of very enthusiastic fans. So I think there will be different models. I was introduced to this funding site called Patreon, and I spoke to Jack [Conte, co-founder]. I think he's got a model that can support a musician with maybe 1,000 fans. So, if you can find those people that love your particular niche, then you can maybe get a base to allow you to survive. And once you get that established, you can dream about conquering the world in other ways.

World music can be very trendy in America. We had the "Congotronics" phase, then Malian guitarists, and then Ethio-jazz was all the rage. Do you guys see the uptick when that happens?
Well, sometimes, yes, it allows us to get a couple of Ethiopian records made. The fashion side is a cyclical thing, and it's a wave you might be able to ride on but you can't rely on it. You want to try and get it so that... It's like with food, you know? We eat our own country's food and now we have Italian, we have Indian, we have Lebanese, we have Chinese. If we can expand it so these other traditions and cultures, which are are really rich and interesting... I think maybe the whole hip-hop scene is a possible way to open that up. Because within every country there are good hip-hop artists who, quite often, integrate some of the local music. Often the young people start off wanting to hear the big rapper, but by the end of it they're more interested what their parents' culture was and they wanna bring that into what they do as well.

Do you get a lot of sample requests?
Some. And I'm sure some happen without requests. [Laughs]

Is Real World accommodating?
Yeah. We've actually got another business venture called CueSongs that is trying to make licensing cheaper and easier for people.

You haven't put out any international hip-hop records on the label
No. And I keep talking about that for WOMAD. There's some resistance amongst the WOMAD team. It's probably also just we don't have a huge amount of money with the festival; and once people get successful, they're probably out of our price range. But I would love to have an international hip-hop stage. I think it has opportunities that I hope we'll be able to ride on, to open people up to different cultures. Particularly as the world gets more fundamentalist [and] more racist; music, culture, films, books, art will allow us into the minds and hearts of other people that live on the same planet with you.

WOMAD helped popularize the term "world music" and there's starting to be a lot of blowback.
It wasn't us that did it, but I think there was a group who sat around and thought about it...

Yeah, there was actually a meeting!
I think in some ways it's still a ghetto, even though it can be a little better known and more comfortable. And most artists want to break out and be heard for themselves. But it was a useful entry point for a lot of people. I'm gonna come back to the food thing again. You often ask some guys from the most racist party in England what their favorite meals are, and they'll say, "beer and a curry." So it's an Indian meal, yet politically, they're trying to get rid of Asians or Poles or whoever it is. So I think there really is opportunity through culture, through music...

So the good that the term "world music" does in helping people discover this stuff outweighs the negative connotations?
It's a useful way in, as long as people don't get trapped in it.

One thing about the Real World catalog, although the records come from all over the world, a lot of them seem to have this atmosphere of austerity and haunting...
"Passion" was the word we were looking for in making decisions about who to work with. We wanted people to feel something. There's this interesting Welsh band at the moment... 9Bach. I saw them live and I think they really have something special. It reminds me a little bit like early Velvet Underground or something. They're singing in Welsh, but there is a real character and personality to this simple and inventive approach to arranging stuff. So we do have moments of joy — I think some of Papa Wembe, some of Afro Celts, there's the band Joi... I've always thought its easier to get good music that's sad than good happy music. I think we get quite drawn to things that really touch us — and sometimes that's melancholy stuff.

Well, you can see the thread in your own music. Your first four records were very brooding, but then after that, there was definitely some more happy and uplifting songs.
I'm trying to do some happy stuff. Even now. 'Cause it's very easy for me to fall into some moody stuff. I wanna do something that's more dance-y, and more like an organic dance record. I've got a couple of songs I've been working on the last two weeks that I think are beginning to go in that direction.

Would this be for I/O?
Well, I don't know now. I've had that title out there for a while. And then — it's not Tinariwen — has got an Input/Output record. [Ed. Note, Tinariwen stylizes their name as "+IO:I," using the Tifinagh alphabet.] And I think somebody else has got an I/O record. So I thought, Oh well, keep my big mouth shut next time.

You snooze, you lose.
That's right. No, I've never been quick.

Do you dance?
Actually, yeah. It's funny. I was trying to get to see the David Byrne show recently, and he's got a dancing area and a seated area with Here Lies Love. It was a mix-up on the tickets and I couldn't get in and it was sold out, but anyway. I was thinking, I'm a self-conscious dancer publically. But privately I really enjoy it. You know I was a drummer originally and I love grooves, I love rhythm. My kids would tell me I'm not quite good, but I am enthusiastic.

With Joi and Afro Celt, Real World was so ahead of the curve with dance music becoming pop music in America.
I don't think we can claim much credit there, because it was some people that came to us with their ideas

But you believed in it.
Yeah, we recognized it and thought it was good and wanted to work with it. So in that way we were trying to be helpful. Some of the dance people are getting interested in exploring other cultures, so that's fantastic for us. And if it can help bring some of these extraordinary artists more into the mainstream, then we will be delighted.

Are there dance artists right now that are inspiring you to make music?
It's funny. I don't tend to listen... Normally at home it's film, comedy, news. But both my sons are at different schools, and there's a longer drive time. So I now listen to radio. My six-year-old wants Radio One on, so I'm getting to hear more things than I used to. [We have BBC Radio] 6 music in England, which is a good radio station where quite a few musicians — Guy Garvey [of Elbow] and Cerys Matthews [of Catatonia] — become DJs. There are some areas in which I get exposed. As a young man I tried to keep up with what was happening, and I don't bother with that. It's what I encounter, what I sniff out.