You can’t beat the Internet for self-education, and when an institution with a stunningly deep and broad audio archive opens its vault for Web downloads, the inner scholar jumps for joy. The recently launched Smithsonian Global Sound Web site [smithsonianglobalsound.org] offers more than 40,000 tracks of historical and contemporary world music you can audition for free and legally download for 99¢ (extra-long selections cost $1.49). This is significant for guitarists: For the first time, we have a simple and affordable way to explore a vast catalog of recorded music from other cultures (much of which is out of print), particularly the string instruments that preceded guitar and contributed to its evolution. Listening to virtuoso players of the Turkish saz, Indian santur, Chinese pipa, and Russian balalaika, it’s easy to get inspired with fresh melodies, rhythms, timbres, and phrasing.
In a rut? Spend a few hours snooping around this site, download a few ragas or maybe some odd-meter Balkan folk tunes, and prepare to be transformed. You can search by geographical region or instrument, nab original album artwork and liner notes, and listen to a free Global Sound radio station that streams random selections from the archives. During your virtual travels, you might discover a track from Luiz Bonfa’s Solo in Rio 1959, or a 1963 oud performance recorded in concert by Khamis El Fino, or Swami Pravatikar’s “Raga Kamavardhani”—a supremely psychedelic veena excursion recorded in 1952. Best of all, the performers (which in some cases means a village or tribe) earn royalties from these downloads, so while feeding your ears, you also feed fellow music-makers.