RECORD companies are discovering the world. There has always been a variety of world-music releases from independent-record labels. But now, the majors labels are taking advantage of the increasing fragmentation and diversity of the music-buying public, and releasing world music as never before.
Atlantic, one of the biggest of the majors, has even made a deal to market and distribute the releases from a new label, Celtic Heartbeat, founded by Paul McGuinness (manager of the band U2) and devoted solely to Irish music. The label recently debuted with seven titles: ''Blues Shamrock,'' ''The Voyage of Bran,'' ''The Children of Lir,'' ''Talk to Me,'' ''Clannad Themes,'' ''Anuna,'' and ''The Celtic Heartbeat Collection.''
Alec Finn is the founder of De Dannan, one of Ireland's most popular traditional vocal groups, but he eschews vocals entirely on his solo effort ''Blues Shamrock,'' an instrumental collection of popular Irish tunes.
Maire Breatnach has a reputation as one of Ireland's most interesting new composers. Her ''The Voyage of Bran,'' based on a mythic Irish tale, is a collection of original pieces that reveal a wide-ranging musical imagination and gift for imagery.
Composer Patrick Cassidy utilizes a similar approach in his ''The Children of Lir,'' based on a popular tale from Irish folklore. Frances Black, a veteran of such groups as the Black Family and Arcady, makes her solo debut with ''Talk to Me,'' which has already hit No. 1 in Ireland.
Clannad is one of the most popular Irish groups worldwide, and it hit the big time in the United States with the single ''Harry's Game,'' which was used both in the movie ''Patriot Games'' and in a popular automobile commercial. ''Clannad Themes'' is a collection of the group's work for film and television.
''Anuna'' is a self-titled collection of music by a 16-member choir that performs Celtic music based on medieval traditions. Finally, ''The Celtic Heartbeat Collection'' is a sampler of music from all of the above releases.
''Celtic Graces -- A Best of Ireland'' (I.R.S.) is a well-chosen collection of modern Irish acoustic music from such artists as Planxty, the Bothy Band, Clannad, Paul Brady, Donal Lunny, Dolores Keane, and others.
The instrumental group Nightnoise, whose four members are Scottish and Irish, reveals its Celtic roots in the latest release, ''A Different Shore'' (Windham Hill), blending traditional Irish influences with elements of pop and jazz. Irish musician Peadar O'Riada blends traditional music with classical elements in complex and unorthodox arrangements, as in his new recording, ''Amidst These Hills'' (Bar None), his first to be released outside of Ireland.
Composer-producer Paul Mounsey, in his recording entitled ''Nahoo'' (Mesa), has created an unlikely mixture of Scottish and Brazilian music that utilizes both spoken-word samples of Gaelic psalms and rumba beats. The results are fascinating, if somewhat bizarre.
Strains of Brazil
Speaking of Brazil, the new sampler ''Yele Brazil'' (I.R.S.) is a dynamic collection of Afro-Brazilian music in a diversity of styles, from samba to the vocal call-and-response of candomble to the rhythmic trio electricos. The disc features such artists as Dorival Caymmia, Clara Nunes, and Marisa Monte.
Brazilian music also figures prominently in organist Larry Goldings ''Caminhos Cruzados'' (RCA Novus), a jazz-organ trio recording of Brazilian music by such composers as Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Caetano Veloso.
A good sampler of contemporary Mexican music is the soundtrack to the film ''My Family'' (EastWest), featuring such well-known Mexican performers as Mana, Juan Luis Guerra, and Banda Machos. Gringos will appreciate the selections by Los Lobos and All-4-One.
The Haitian roots-rock band Boukman Eksperyans weighs in with its latest effort, on the Island label, ''Libete (Pran Pou Pran'l!)/ Freedom (Let's Take It!).'' The group, whose last release scored a Grammy nomination and a No. 1 slot on the Billboard World Music chart, combines traditional Haitian drumming and melodies with modern, synthesizer-laden arrangements.
Boukman Eksperyans will be performing throughout the US this summer as part of the 1995 Africa Fete tour.
Heart of Africa
Another artist on tour this summer is Papa Wemba, from Zaire, who is making a bid for crossover success with his latest recording, ''Emotion'' (Real World/Caroline). Produced by Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, New Order), the disc highlights the sinuous vocals of Wemba (who first gained American exposure through Peter Gabriel's last album and tour), performing the funk grooves of soukous modified by modern pop arrangements.
Jazz pianist-composer Randy Weston continues his worldwide musical explorations with his newest release, ''The Splendid Master Gnawa Musicians of Morocco'' (Antilles), although he only performs on one track. The rest of the disc features almost trance-inducing music, the elements of which include extensive chanting and percussion.
Reggae music is featured in two outstanding new collections. ''Ranking and Skanking: The Best of Punky Reggae'' (Rhino) is a compilation of two-tone, ska, dub, and reggae songs from the late 1970s and early '80s. They're performed by American and English groups (Madness, UB40, the Specials) who took classic Jamaican rhythms and popularized them in dance clubs.
''Mash Up the Place: The Best of Reggae Dancehall'' (Rhino) is an excellent introduction to the Jamaican form of hip-hop, in which rapping or ''toasting'' is combined with complex rhythms. These 17 tracks, many of them making their US debut, include several performers, like Shabba Ranks and Tiger, who have gone on to international success.
Another excellent disc for dance parties is ''Big Noise: A Mambo Inn Compilation'' (Rykodisc), a grouping of sounds from the hottest club in London, with music running the stylistic gamut.
From colder climes
Music from somewhat colder climates is featured in French composer-producer Hector Zazou's ''Songs From the Cold Seas'' (Columbia), a mixture of evocative originals and folksongs from such countries as Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Japan. Along the way, he is aided by such figureheads of the alternative music scene as Bjork, Suzanne Vega, Jane Siberry, Siouxsie (of the Banshees), John Cale, and others.
Finally, one of world music's most popular groups weighs in with a greatest-hits collection. ''The Best of the Gipsy Kings'' (Nonesuch) features more than a dozen songs that combine Spanish, French, and North African influences to produce a sound dubbed ''flamenco rock.''
Even if you've avoided world music entirely, no doubt you've heard and appreciated their infectious, propulsive smash hit, ''Bamboleo,'' from their debut album. The group, which performs in the Gypsy dialect of Gitane, has sold tons of albums in the US because of the sheer joyous intensity of the music.