radio review

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The Independent Culture
There are three main reasons for listening to what the spurious taxonomy of the record-shop piles together under the label "world music". One is ordinary pleasure, the fact that Zimbabwean guitar groups and Balkan choirs tickle you in some previously unknown spot - that's the main impulse behind Andy Kershaw's Radio 1 shows. Where pleasure runs out, there can still be genuine interest in how other cultures make music - and this is generally what drives Radio 3's excellent coverage of world music. And even when that is gone, you may still be driven to listen by the conviction that nothing human is entirely alien - less open-mindedness than sheer bloody-mindedness.

This is the motivation that came into play listening to Echoes from Blue Heaven, a survey of Mongolian traditional music which has occupied Radio 3's Sunday night world music slot over the past fortnight. The most distinctive Mongolian musical form is "khoomi", or overtone singing, in which the singer produces a low drone and a series of harmonics. The effect is astonishing, and astonishingly ugly, a challenge to even the most determinedly open- minded - sure, nothing human is alien, but this doesn't sound human: it sounds like frogs or tractors or malfunctioning electrical equipment.

Naturally, this is all about familiarity. To Michael Ormiston, who presented both programmes and has actually been taught the techniques of khoomi by a master - it can sound heartbreakingly moving. He ended the series last night with a story about an explorer of the 1920s visiting the Altai mountains, home of khoomi, who felt he had found the Buddhists' mythical heaven on earth. "I wonder if the khoomi singers, through the infinite harmonic series, may have already discovered its entrance." Cue sound of man suffering terribly in his bowels. Along the way, too, we heard about a video Ormiston had seen in Ulan Bator of a herdswoman singing to a mother camel which had rejected its calf: she sang so movingly that the camel shed tears and ended up feeding the calf. This, you feel, makes the kind of emotional traumas you see on Oprah seem fairly tame.

This wasn't, you'll gather, one of the most instantly appealing music programmes you're likely to hear; but it's always healthy to be reminded that there is life outside our own narrow daily grind. I suppose you could think of it as a little holiday for the ears.

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