World Circuit Records, which celebrates its 20th birthday this week, is one of the few truly successful world music labels, known for its long associations with the Buena Vista Social Club and Ali Farka Touré. Its airy warehouse headquarters in Hackney is soundtracked by gentle Afro-Cuban rhythms, intercut with the squealing police sirens outside.

World Circuit’s boss, Nick Gold, took what he confesses was a “weird route” into the music business. He read African history at the University of Sussex (“a lot of Marxism and post-colonialism”) then pottered through various careers, working in record shops and training as a primary school teacher. Then he joined Arts Worldwide, which brought touring foreign musicians to the UK. After concerts, audiences were clamouring to buy records by the groups they had seen, only to find none was available. Gold’s role would be to set up a label to support the touring artists.

At his first recording session, with the Kenyan Benga group Shirati Jazz, Gold realised that he had found his calling. “I fell in love with the whole process,” he recalls. “Mike placement, the use of echo, getting the maximum energy out of a performance – I found the whole thing fascinating.”

One of the label’s longest-
running relationships was with the Malian guitarist Touré, who died last March. “Ali,” says Gold, “was larger than life. He had a belief that this music he’d been given was a gift, something powerful and of great value. The whole way he carried himself made it unarguable that this was something important.”

Touré introduced Gold to a couple of other musicians who would record for World Circuit: Dimi Mint Abba, a traditional Mauritanian singer, and the Malian diva Oumou Sangare.

When Touré collaborated with Ry Cooder on Talking Timbuktu in 1994, the recording won a Grammy award and propelled the label into a new commercial league. Touré’s records had
previously sold in the tens of
thousands but Talking Timbuktu sold more than half a million. “We got more publicity. It was easier to get our records reviewed.”

At this point, however, Touré decided to retire from music. “He was about to tour,” recalls Gold. “And then there was a Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali, and he just stopped. He was never that interested in making a buck. He seemed to have lost some of his passion for playing. He was angry about being asked about his Blues influences wherever he went.” Touré was adamant that Mali was the source of the Blues, and that he had learnt nothing from the Mississippi Bluesmen.

While Touré was refusing all offers to tour or record, Gold fell in love with Cuban music. He recorded the group Sierra Maestra in London, and conceived the idea of pairing up Cuban musicians with west African players. But while he was setting up the session in Havana, he heard that the Africans’ passports had gone astray. The Cuban bandleader Juan de Marcos González hastily recruited other musicians, Ry Cooder turned up to contribute some slide guitar, and the Buena Vista Social Club was born.

“We recorded for eight days straight,” Gold remembers, “for long hours – the music was just pouring out. I was desperate to have time at the end to record Rubén [González, the virtuoso pianist]. So the experiment with the Africans never happened. Maybe it would have been something wonderful; it wouldn’t have been nothing. But we knew we’d recorded something very special.”

When Buena Vista Social Club was released, with a hefty promotional push from Cooder, it was an immediate success. Jenny Adlington, who worked in London with Gold at the time (she is now the UK label manager for Because, another highly productive world music label), recalls that “for the first few years it was just the two of us in a tiny office above a clothes warehouse. When success happens in a small company like that, you are not sitting around drinking champagne. You’re worrying about how to manufacture and ship tens of thousands of units across Europe, how to get 30 journalists from round the world on a press trip to Cuba, and will Rubén have a warm coat for the winter tour?”

Buena Vista Social Club has now sold more than 7m copies and continues to do brisk business. Gold went on to record solo albums with most of the Club. “People said, aren’t you scraping the bottom of the barrel by doing one with the bassist?” but I don’t agree. It was an extraordinary pool of talent, and we were lucky to catch it just in time.”

Recently, World Circuit’s focus has been on the Hotel Mande sessions, recorded on the roof of a Bamako hotel overlooking the Niger river. Three albums have emerged: In The Heart Of The Moon by Touré (who had emerged from his period of retreat) and the kora player Toumani Diabaté, won the label its fourth Grammy, and the others (a band album by Diabaté’s Symmetric Orchestra and Touré’s last album, Savane) have been, if anything, even better received.

A two-compact-disc sampler of the past 20 years, World Circuit Presents…, shows the label’s variety, from the Maghrebi-tinged flamenco of Radio Tarifa to the Sudanese Merdoum rhythms of Abdel Gadir Salim. Recently, however, Mali and Cuba have become the label’s twin poles. Forthcoming projects are all with artists firmly established on the roster. There are new records from the Senegalese smoothies Orchestra Baobab and from Oumou Sangare. Toumani Diabaté is recording a solo album, and there are more tapes of him and Touré together. Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club had just completed a set of bolero recordings before he died in August 2005 and, at his wife Caridad’s request, Gold has been turning them into an album. He has just returned from working on them in Cuba. And the Social Club’s Carnegie Hall concerts from 1998 are being released as an album.

“We’ve almost purposefully tried not to find new artists because we’ve got such a full plate,” says Gold. “This year has been very difficult, partly because so many people died.” As well as Touré and Ferrer, the Social Club’s percussionist Miguel “Angá” Diaz died in August, at the age of 45.

For Jenny Adlington, World Circuit’s success came from “amazing artists, enough time to develop each project, a network of strong relationships with
everyone – agents, promoters, press and independent distributors – and a total belief and passion in what we were doing”. Gold himself sees the secret as lying in the relationship with his artists. “The Africans all keep their own master tapes, so that they can make their own local releases with them. And none of our releases are just examples of a genre – they’re all by someone.”

“I have nothing but admiration for Nick. He’s neither a dilettante nor an opportunist,” says Charlie Gillett, the veteran world music broadcaster, who is a record mogul in his own right. “He works with people he likes and makes the music he likes.”

‘World Circuit Presents . . . ’
was released on Monday

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.

Follow the topics in this article