DJ Gilles Peterson: here, there and everywhere

For 20 years, Peterson has done more than anyone to bring the finest music on the planet back to Britain. But he's still scouring the globe for more 'good bits' for his record label and radio show
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The Independent Culture

"You know what it's like?", comes the rhetorical question from Gilles Peterson – Radio 1 presenter, internationally renowned DJ and head of Brownswood Recordings – when asked to define his musical philosophy. "It's like when you go to a big club: there are some well-known DJs playing in the main room and then you go into one of the side rooms. I'm the guy in that side room, basically playing a little bit of most people's rooms – but just the good bits."

Since he first emerged two decades ago as a pioneer of acid jazz, a reaction to the prevailing acid house movement of the late Eighties, Peterson's quest to find these "good bits" has taken him across the planet. A typical episode of his radio show, appropriately entitled Worldwide, might feature contemporary UK dance sub-genres such as dubstep alongside music from Africa, Cuba and Brazil. Meanwhile, Brownswood Recordings' roster includes both Brooklyn singer José James and the dancefloor-friendly jazz of Tokyo's Soil & "Pimp" Sessions.

If Peterson is unable to give a concrete answer to how many countries he visits in an average year, it's perhaps because his globetrotting antics test the limits of human memory.

"I just got back from Australia," he begins. "I tend to go to Australia and New Zealand, then hit the East: Singapore, Hong Kong, maybe Malaysia, always Japan. Europe I go to a lot; a lot of Eastern Europe. Last year I went to Russia for the first time and I'm a regular in places like Serbia, even Estonia and Lithuania."

Pushed to name his absolute favourite cities, he continues: "Paris has got a really great world music scene and a great jazz scene, much better than London. New York's always amazing, particularly for jazz. You can't beat a lot of the clubs there, even the old-fashioned classic places, but you've also got little smaller clubs like Smalls and some good places in Brooklyn. And Tokyo, of course – that's probably the most inspiring place on a lot of levels for me, because they present music well and they care about it. It's just a positive experience when you go there."

Peterson admits that, as a family man, these international trips can be all too brief, but says he does his best to spend as much time as he can abroad, especially in a country he hasn't previously visited: "I think it's very important to do that, particularly when you're going to perform there, to get into the culture. For example, on New Year's Eve I was in Perth in Western Australia. Wow, there was an amazing scene there. If I hadn't been there a couple of days before, I wouldn't have noticed the little radio stations that were knocking out the music, or this record shop that had one of the best selections in the world. There's always a surprise."

Though sometimes, as with then-unknown American hip-hop group The Roots, Peterson will go to a country hoping to sign a particular act, these surprise discoveries remain vital. As Peterson recalls of his recent trip down under: "I wasn't particularly inspired by Australian music over the last few years, but I have to say this time in Australia I couldn't believe the amount of great music I heard. There was a project out of Melbourne called the Raah Project. They gave me a CD, I checked it out on the way home, I couldn't believe how good it was – it was definitely up there and beyond. It was a bit of Matthew Herbert, a little bit of Sa-Ra Creative Partners, but with its own melodic Australian vibe going on."

"That's the great thing about music today," he adds. "Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, London, Paris, a bit of Africa and America were the main places, and anything else you'd sneer at a little bit. Nowadays you just listen to everything. World music – or whatever you want to call it now – is exciting. Even things like [Malian duo] Amadou & Mariam (see page VI), the production on that record is fantastic. World music in the more traditional sense feels as hip as anything else – in fact, hipper. You've got people like Damon Albarn behind that kind of music, giving it a little extra shine, and DJs and producers are able to remix it as well. And you've got some amazing artists coming through. I think world music is actually going through its own renaissance."

He points to the Afrobeat-tinged guitar music of Vampire Weekend as an example of world music crossing into the mainstream and suggests that listening habits are changing accordingly, so Afrobeat stars like Seun Kuti now sit happily alongside the latest indie or dance records.

Yet while music from all over the world is, in theory, now available at the click of a mouse, there's still no substitute for a trusted guide who makes regular visits to the more obscure corners of the globe – even if some of them are closer than we might expect. Although Ethiopian music is Peterson's tip for crossover success in 2009, he says that one of the most underrated places for clubbing is just a train ride away:

"One country that's really worth checking out for clubs is Belgium," he enthuses. "It's a buzzing place – not just Brussels, but Antwerp, Ghent, Bruges. You'll go to some town and there'll be 1,000 people; when you drop a tune, they'll all know it. You wouldn't get that in smaller towns in the UK."

During our conversation, he speaks with equal passion about Brazil, Germany, New Zealand, Israel, Italy, Norway, Denmark and Finland – to name just a few. Even Peterson, however, hasn't quite crossed out all his must-see travel destinations. "There are quite a few really important countries I haven't been to," he admits. "One of them is India. I'm always talking to [Radio 1's] Bobby and Nihal about it, and Nitin Sawhney and Talvin Singh, and they always say that I'd love it there. I suppose I've still got time."

Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Festival takes place in Sète, southern France, in July. Satellite festivals are also planned to take place this year in Singapore, São Paulo and Istanbul. His Radio 1 show is broadcast every Thursday, 2-4am.

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