OK, so cut Peter Gabriel some slack for taking too long to finish an album: "Big Blue Ball," a long-simmering world music project he launched back in 1991, is finally surfacing today.
In the intervening 17 years, he's released four other collections of his music, launched an innovative U.K.-based music download website (www.We7 .com), continued nurturing WOMAD, the world music and dance festival he initiated in 1982 and started a lifestyle-driven site (thefilter.com).
He also assembled The Elders, a group of about a dozen veteran world leaders, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, with the aim of bringing their collective experience to bear on the planet's social and political problems.
Meanwhile, "Big Blue Ball" sat. And sat. And sat. But in truth only partly because of Gabriel's many other interests and commitments. In some respects, it's taken nearly two decades for Gabriel and his collaborators to get a lasso around this large-scale effort.
Over the course of four years, Gabriel threw open the doors of his Real World recording studios for a week at a time, 24 hours a day. That way, musicians he'd invited from around the world to participate in WOMAD would have a forum to collaborate during the course of that event on new sounds and new ideas, unencumbered by geographical, musical or budgetary limitations.
"Big Blue Ball" features collaborations between Gabriel and U.S. roots-gospel group the Holmes Brothers (on the album's first single, "Burn You Up, Burn You Down"), Irish singer Iarla O Lionaird and Papa Wemba's Congolese band and Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota with Sinead O'Connor. About half the songs are sung in English, others are in Arabic, Congolese, Hungarian, Swahili and Madagascar languages.
It's eclectic, but there's a rhythmic pulse to most of the tracks that underscores the many-cultures, one-world idea behind the project.
"We knew we only had this collection of people for a limited time, some of them for just two or three days," Gabriel said from his Real World headquarters in Box Wiltshire in the countryside west of London. "So we decided to spend all time recording and performing and waste none of the time sorting it out. With the many, many tapes, which we were still using in those days, it was a bit of a nightmare."
Engineer Richard Chappell, who worked on virtually all the sessions, recalled that "in the first year, nobody quite knew what to do. In the second year, people started to get more excited about what was happening, and by the third time people had really figured it out. We'd have up to 20 different recording sessions going on in various places at the same time. If it wasn't raining, there'd be people set up outside with portable studios."
Gabriel gave the task of sorting through mountains of raw material to Stephen Hague, who has produced albums by Pet Shop Boys, Robbie Williams and others, Chappell and mixing engineer Tchad Blake.
"There were a lot of wonderful performances," Hague said in a separate interview, "but a lot of them were really unformed . . . My background is more in contemporary pop music, and I'm a real structuralist. My goal was to try to get these things to read from beginning to end, and in the end, I think the album reflects that."
Gabriel and his main "Big Blue Ball" partner, Karl Wallinger of World Party, were more interested in songs than an free-form international jam session.
"Jamming can be fantastic for those people who are participating in it, but it's not always great for the audience," Gabriel said. "So Karl and I mostly stayed in the upstairs room and tried to steer people more toward actual songwriting."
Recently he's said he thinks of "Big Blue Ball" as a fine wine, released only after it had been aged properly. Not only that, but it also represents something larger for a performer whose career has been defined by a commitment to exploding conventions, either through his epic prog-rock excursions as the original lead singer of Genesis, through his genre-bending solo albums of the '70s and '80s and through his groundbreaking music videos in the early days of MTV.
Whereas some musicians strive for hit singles, still others for philosophical or political statements in themed albums, Gabriel is ever on the lookout for ways to change the fundamental shape of what music can and should be.
"I always thought the digital revolution would actually change the content of music, the way same way the piano roll or the 45 rpm single did," he said. "But it's been very slow to come. I really feel there should be a cultural renaissance that digital technology could advance. So even though this project is 15 years old, I think it's still a precursor to a day when people all over the world can work together to generate new ideas."