The designers Charles and Ray Eames had an elaborate protocol for entertaining visitors to their office at 901 West Washington Boulevard in Venice, California. They kept records of what visitors had been shown, so they could surprise each person with something new. The guest/host relationship, for them, was paramount.

But Charles Eames refused to fit a dimmer switch in the room where films were shown. “I don’t want it to look like we’re showing them a movie,” he insisted. “I want them to know that they’re looking at something that’s a piece of work. This is not a theatre – this is part of my workspace.”

Last week, the Real World studios in Box in rural Wiltshire were playing host in a similar way, throwing a party to celebrate 20 years of working, and showcasing some of the artists at work making recordings for the Real World label. A tent on the lawn served as stage for performances and around the mill complex, work was going on. Visitors wandered about, peeking into studios and feeding the ducks.

Sevara Nazarkhan was putting the finishing touches to her second album for the label, moving away from traditional songs towards an Uzbek trip-hop somewhere between Goldfrapp and Björk. She was singing her own backing vocals while her producer, Bruno Ellingham, diligently pasted them into his working mixes. “She’ll come in with 10 different ideas,” he said admiringly, as Nazarkhan swayed and hummed in a cupboard-sized studio on the other side of the glass, “and she’ll sing each of them with perfect pitch, perfect tuning.”

Guo Yue, who plays the bamboo flute, is an old hand at Real World. He has returned to the label for his new album, Music, Food and Love, whose accompanying book serves up recipes. “I have heard Yue’s music,” announced Peter Gabriel when introducing him, “I’ve eaten his food . . . and the rest I leave to your imagination.” Guo’s was the most traditional music on offer, flute solos that pulsated in the air, knocking against the eardrums.

The dub producer Adrian Sherwood, whose second album for Real World is due in September, had just spent several days recording with the blues guitarist Little Axe. The extracts from their previous collaboration, due for release next month, sounded like the darkest gospel, a deep voice singing about “demon days” like Satan echoing in a pit of fire.

“We came in and caned it,” Sherwood said. “This room [the large studio overlooking the lake] is magic. And everyone seems happy who works here.”

“It’s the drugs,” said Gabriel. “Fresh air,” said Sherwood. “We recorded the whole album in 30 hours.”

Simon Emmerson is working on a project called The Imagined Village, giving updated treatments to traditional English folk songs. Eliza Carthy duets with Damon Albarn, and Sheila Chandra with Chris Wood; Paul Weller and Martin Carthy sing “John Barleycorn”. Emmerson played us an extract from Benjamin Zephaniah’s dub rewrite of “Tam Lin”, turning the tale of a Scottish knight abducted by the Queen of the Faeries into a dark tale of modern clubland.

In the early 1990s, Real World was the venue for recording weeks, when artists who had just played at the Womad festival congregated in Box to record furiously. Stephen Hague, the producer, has been digging through those tapes and assembling them into coherent pieces of music. He played a snapshot from the early days of the label: Juan Canizares’s flamenco guitar with singing by Papa Wemba; the Holmes Brothers singing “Burn You Up”; Gabriel himself in full voice on a song written with Andy White. Like the Eames Office, Real World gave due prominence to the work.

One of Real World’s best projects was last year’s Africa Calling concert, a riposte to Live 8’s odd lack of African artists. It may not have boasted the reformed Pink Floyd but Africa Calling was where the real action of the day took place, and the highlights are collected on a live CD. It’s hard to think who else could have pulled such an event together.

‘Music, Food and Love’ by Guo Yue and the
compilation ‘Africa Calling’ are out now on Real World. The other records discussed will be released later this year and in 2007

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