Music on Radio
Friday 15 May 1998
These days the defining character of British musical life is its breadth. Superstar performers from half the world's classical and contemporary traditions make their regular appearances as though coming to a second home, if they don't actually live here to start with. They, rather than the over-supplied and under-worked orchestras, show why London really is the musical capital of the world. And how often do you hear their music gracing our broadcast media?
On Radio 3, it's a little more than before. The upgrade of the network's weekly World Music programme has largely gone as unsung as you would expect. When it left the Friday afternoon time for late Sunday evenings, it looked as if it had gone into exile. In the process, however, it has pulled itself clear of the old packaging that made its contents look like matters of secondary importance compared to the surrounding High Art. Now the range has broadened and the sense of context increased.
At the moment it is surveying Palestinian and Jewish music, only slightly skewed towards the Israeli point of view and taking in a full range of religious influences. What's more, the presenters are people who are part of those worlds, not just interested observers. The old habit of using a specialist student, like a curator showing off museum exhibits, has the effect of holding the music at a distance.
That habit has been a long time dying and it hasn't entirely gone. You still hear concentrated and wordy programmes in which the actual music occupies a tantalisingly short time, played as excerpts rather than performances. During a series earlier this year on the sources of gipsy music, the programme on Rajasthani folk music needed three "experts" as well as the performers to mediate between music and listeners. Elgar's Third Symphony, broadcast that same week, managed easily with two, and that really did need discussing.
So there is plenty more to do. In the schedules, World Music simply takes over the jazz slot once a week. Jazz has managed to achieve daily status thanks to an articulate and persuasive lobby, while the one for world music hasn't yet passed critical mass. You can only imagine what the airwaves will look like when it reaches the levels of influence exercised by the opera lobby, but that is another story.
Meanwhile, listeners can trawl around the other national stations, where there is also more world music than there used to be, but mainly from the more popular end of the spectrum. Radio 2 can go quite diverse on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and on Radio 1 Andy Kershaw still rules Mondays.
This week had a powerful African content, though it was alarming to hear that the show in two weeks' time will feature a live country-and-western set - there's far too much of the stuff around already. What you will spend weeks searching for, however, is a proper airing of anything lasting over five minutes. The Vilayat Khans of this world need their space on a specialist station, and I think I know which one it should be.
Last time the search paid off was Saturday on BBC Radio Kent, when the general early-evening programme suddenly put out ten minutes of high-quality classical tabla. It turned out to be part of an entire hour featuring percussion music from Africa to Turkey to the Punjab. So much for the notion put about by Kent Opera, as reported by Rosie Millard this week, that the county is a cultural desert. Perhaps the company's chairman should take a trip to North Kent and see among other things what one of Britain's biggest Sikh communities gets up to. But that wouldn't be High Art, would it?
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