For some 20 years, Peter Gabriel has lived and worked in a refurbished mill outside the English city of Bath. The mill houses his Real World studios, and at three points during the 1990s, Gabriel invited musicians from all over the globe to what can only be described as a world music camp. For a week, musicians would live and eat and play together, and some unexpected, and unexpectedly good collaborations ensued. Big Blue Ball is a collection of some of those performances, from a motley crew that touched on the traditions of Madagascar, Central Africa, the Near East, American Gospel, indie rock, and of course, Peter Gabriel's own brand of global pop.
Peter Gabriel's best albums are usually slow burns, favoring muted melodies and slip-n-slide rhythms over full-bore hooks. So it's a mild surprise that his jigsaw of collaborations, co-produced with Stephen Hague and Karl Wallinger, with its global scope and 17-year incubation, has this much immediate appeal. "Big Blue Ball" was drawn from musical connections made during open sessions at Gabriel's Real World studios between 1991 and 1995, among them the Holmes Brothers' gospel blues with Arona N'diaye's djembe. Gabriel's fingerprints are all over it - vocals, keyboards, rounded tonalities, layered big-beat grooves, and flares of ethereal texture that add interest and depth. Some songs shine without his help - "Habibe" is a stirring, seven-minute improv led by Hossam Ramzy's Egyptian string ensemble. Meanwhile, Sinead O'Connor, Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota, and Guo Yue's Chinese flute make "Everything Comes From You" a moody, antiwar standout. Not everything is as wonderfully exotic; Gabriel's touch can't fully rescue a couple tracks from easy listening. Luckily, most of "Ball" follows the inventive lead of "Jijy," a brassy Madagascar rap pumped by Rossy's wordplay and Jah Wobble's dub bass.
The album is a miniature of the world music vision Peter Gabriel has designed from his Real World Studios. But Big Blue Ball also possesses a broad East-meets-West feel.
Gabriel is at the helm. Not surprisingly, the streamlined album-opener Whole Thing, led by Gabriel, with World Party's Karl Wallinger on guitar, Tchad Blake on drums and a vocal chorus supplied by Tim Finn and Andy White, is a highlight. But the beautifully ethereal Rivers, fronted by Hungarian vocal minx Marta Sebestyen with guitar-synth colors by Vernon Reid, is a bigger and braver reach.
Wallinger takes over for the finale title tune, a very un-World Party-ish meditation ("big blue ball, no trouble at all"). Add Gabriel's punctuated keyboards, co-producer Stephen Hague's accordion runs and the cheery beat of famed French drummer Manu Katche, and the tune takes on a summery glow.
Gabriel's imprint is all over this music. But so is the sense of playfulness and camaraderie that gives Big Blue Ball ample bounce.
I have been a fan of Peter since I was a freshman in High School. (Now 34) Sucked in by "Across the River" and carried by the Gabriel current back to the tributaries of Genesis and forward to the delta of Big Blue Ball. I have always loved his ability to be patient with a project in order to wait for the right people to be pulled in from all over the ball. This patience and ecclectic calling to participants has never been more apparent. I have also more loosely followed Karl's music and career since I was about 15 when Goodbye Jumbo camre out. From the Waterboys to this amazing collaboration, the Wallinger/Gabriel partnership is synergistic. With an amazing cast of contributors including Sinead, Living Colour's Vernon Reid and so many other greats this project is a testiomony to the power of community building. It is not a bunch mediocre cameo appearances, but a true musical dialougue where so many voices are both heard individually, and collectively in a way which no other mass recording has ever accomplished. This is not anything that could have been accomplished by the same artists writing in issolation, it took a deep willingness of all involved to be humble and listen to the other voices in the room. This album provides a valuable lesson for human existance and community. Bravo
I downloaded it last night from iTunes (so glad it is in iTunes Plus format) and have to say that it is well worth the wait.
Personal highlights are Habibe. The interplay between Natasha Atlas's voice and the strings is at once haunting and beautiful.
Forest is my favorite track. It is so nice to hear Hukwe's voice again. I had the pleasure of seeing him perform at WOMAD USA once and have been mesmerized since.
Whole Thing, Exit Through You, jijy and Shadow have great vibes and it is apparent how integral the rhythm makers were in the construction of these tunes.
The album is balanced by the more "ethereal" Altus Silva, Rivers
Big Blue Ball is classic Wallinger and is a fantastic way to close the disc.
I've seen the BBC documentary that was done for the Real World Recording Week and there are tracks performed that aren't on this disc. I am willing to wait another 14 years or so to hear the stuff that didn't make it.
One thing about the iTunes download is that it didn't come with a digital booklet which is really too bad but since that has nothing to do with the music I only bring it up hoping that those who d/l this in the future receive it.
Thanks guys for a GREAT album.