Music on Radio & TV

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The Independent Culture
It's Salman Rushdie's fault. Since he popularised the idea of nations born at midnight, the schedules last weekend had an excuse. Add up the time given to India and Pakistan and the total looks impressive. But who watched except for insomniacs and those who can set their videos? The rest had the imperial nonsense of Jewel in the Crown, disgracefully repeated in place of a creative commission.

At least Channel 4 made amends within its all-night Indian Summer season. Repeats dominated this too, but by focusing on partition rather than independence it ensured that the obvious didn't rule - particularly in the music programmes. A quirk of fate made the longest session a momentous tribute to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the night after he died. In other musical traditions, the early demise of one of the world's great singers at the height of his fame would ensure a hasty change in prime-time broadcasts. Not yet with qawwali, for all that Nusrat had done to take his ecstatic Muslim devotional song to huge mixed audiences. Even so, what would have been a stirring two hours anyway, taken from a live performance, became the vehicle of redoubled emotional intensity.

Most fascinating of the night's subjects was Lata Mangeshkar. Famous voice, unfamiliar face: as the queen of the playback singers in Bombay movies for decades, she put the music to the antics of miming megastars by the hundred. Even if you have only heard restaurant background tapes, you will know her. This time the down-to-earth, bespectacled presence on screen was her own. With her unmistakable sound, virtuoso range of techniques and instant adaptability, she has held the respect of classical as well as popular musicians.

The half-hour Asian Station survey of the Indian impact on British pop was a more current story of vigorous progress in making musical links. Of all the programmes it was the most mistimed, because performers such as the post-rap Fun-Da-Mental are part of the mainstream for a big young audience. But this is probably news to television controllers.

Not so on radio, where BBC Radio 1 spent two hours last Friday exploring the local Asian product. Meanwhile, Radio 3 has discovered that its Through the Night slot is perfect for the leisurely unfolding of a full-length classical Indian performance. Even the greatest fan can't expect the network to fit one in every afternoon (though once a month would be good), but they must hope that the four broadcasts that Mark Tully presented over the weekend are a precedent and not just anniversary tokenism, because they made an imaginative start. The music was arranged by cities, so that you took away a feeling for the way different traditions have grown around musical dynasties. There was a proper place for south India, often passed over by the powerful, male-dominated north.

Monday's Iconoclassics featured the composer Giacinto Scelsi, who is sometimes said to have conveyed an Asian aesthetic with his slow, floating lines and sense of timelessness. In an avant-garde context this was a refreshing stance. But alongside the real thing it sounds stiff - Scelsi obsessively dictated every detail - and at the same time devoid of rhythm. What pretensions this musical era had! They were sent up the same evening when ITV screened one of Gerard Depardieu's finest, and funniest, moments in the film Green Card. Called on to live up to his label as a composer, the character delivers a frantic two minutes of spontaneous piano-bashing that sounds strangely like early Boulez. Table lamps wobble, faces freeze, and one poor soul applauds eagerly. It's so true, it hurtsn Robert Maycock