Music on Radio

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The Independent Culture
Where the classics are concerned, it sometimes seems that nothing is sacred to the Music Machine's Puckish presenter, Tommy Pearson. Yet worksongs are evidently a more serious matter, to judge from the earnest sequence of interviews he has been conducting this week with folklorists and social historians on the topic of "Music and Work". In fact, it has been quite an intensive few Radio 3 days for vernacular musics, what with five instalments of Bosco Does the Samba as part of a "Brazilian Words" mini-season and a related series entitled Taking Three to Tango (to say nothing of Wednesday's weekly selection from the well-heeled vernacular of the pre-war London dance bands in Cocktails).

Even more than usual, one has felt the lack in the current Radio 3 schedules of a slot in which musical issues can be discussed at length - for this particular collection of programmes has thrown up plenty. For instance: when is, or was, a worksong really a worksong? Obviously enough, when it functioned as a co-ordinating spur to collective effort - as in the rhythmic give-and-take between caller and chorus that sustained the digging of 19th-century Midwest slave gangs, or in the shanties that kept Victorian seamen toiling round the capstan on such ironclads as HMS Warrior, which Pearson visited on Wednesday. Yet, as Roy Palmer pointed out in Monday's programme, the ballads of the navvies who built the canals and railways in the last century served not so much to accompany work as to raise spirits and solidarity in periods of rest. And, in our own time, the mediation of a folksinger such as Ewan McColl, interviewing labourers on motorways and tunnellers in the London Underground and then attempting to write them songs in the same tradition, has added a further ambiguity. As for such culturally contingent developments as ceremonial naval bands or the industrial brass band movement - the subject of this afternoon's final instalment - these, in their cultivated skills, have been known to lean suspiciously in the direction of art for art's sake. Some colliery bands have even tackled Birtwistle.

Of the two Latin American series, Bosco de Oliveira's breathless survey of the samba in five-minute bites could do little more than touch on its African rhythmic provenance and street carnival function; on the attempts of the 1940s dictatorship to project a cleaned-up image of Brazil by exporting the samba exaltacao style along with Carmen Miranda; on how the samba evolved into the Bossa Nova, and so on. Nor was there any chance to tackle the question of why the samba, for all its vitality and socio-political clout, has failed to inspire much in the "higher" artistic way, whereas the tango, with its ancient Spanish habanera background and fatalistic aura, contrived, in its time, to transcend boundaries of nationality, class and culture in the same way as the 19th-century waltz - from the slinky tango bands of early 20th-century Buenos Aires, by way of the "art" tangos of Astor Piazzolla, to Stravinsky's deadpan money-spinner (he hoped) of 1940, not forgetting an intricate little number by America's eminence grise of total serialism, Milton Babbitt, inevitably entitled It Takes 12 to Tango.

No doubt such classical "stylisations" of popular or ethnic forms are all too easy to impugn as condescending, or colonialistic, or whatever. Yet one wonders whether such appropriations comprise anything like the threat to the traditional vernaculars, or indeed to the ancient classical musics, of the five continents as the homogenising blandness of commercial World Music, let alone the ferocious multi-national marketing of lowest- common-denominator Western pop. Amongst other things, ought not Radio 3 to be discussing the urgent need for a musical ecology?

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