The Ugandan xylophonists, the Sufi fakir and Saddam Hussein's favourite pop star. It sounds like the line-up for an indie rock festival but it is, in fact, the latest offering from the BBC – an extraordinary collection of some of the most unlikely and most beautiful music ever recorded.
The BBC will tomorrow launch a globally-accessible online archive that features indigenous music from some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones, as well as its most inaccessible states. There are audio clips of singing waitresses performing sea shanties on the coast of North Korea, and harp-playing cowboys in rural Venezuela. The Sufi fakir is, in fact, Sain Zahoor, who plays his three-stringed tumba in the Pakistani shrine of Pakpattan. Saddam's favourite pop star is Qassim al-Sultan, whom the BBC's Andy Kershaw recorded in 2001, singing the praises of the Iraqi dictator.
In all, there will be 100 hours of programming on the BBC's World Music Archive, alongside dozens of photographs of recordings being made in the most remote locations. Essentially the resource – a mix of entertainment, journalism and curation – comprises the output of Radio 3's world music programmes from the past decade. An index offers the music of 40 countries.
Kershaw, who recently returned to Radio 3 after two years off-air, is especially excited to have his back catalogue given a permanent platform. "There are documentaries here I'd forgotten I'd made, some of which uncover the music and the reality of life in the world's most extreme, secretive, feared and misunderstood countries," he said. "I'm amazed some these regimes let me out. Even more amazed they let me in. Since joining Radio 3 in 2001, it seems I have seldom been home. This archive would explain why."
Since recovering from a nervous breakdown, Kershaw has been back on the road, making shows in Laos, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He is about to head off to record further material in the Middle East and Southern Africa. "I haven't finished yet," he added. "Cautiously, I feel I'm getting the hang of this radio caper."
One of the highlights of the archive is a recording made for the Radio 3 programme World Routes, in which presenter Lucy Duran travelled to the mountains of Georgia,to hear ancient polyphonic singing. Radio 3's senior producer for world music, James Parkin, said the programme-makers were only able to reach the remote Svaneti region in a former Russian military helicopter flown by Georgian air force pilots. "BBC journalists frequently fly in military helicopters but not to record folk music," he said. "We went to a meadow where 25 men of all ages stood in a small circle and sang music that hasn't changed for 2,000 years and has probably never been recorded, let alone broadcast before. It was a very moving experience."
Duran described the sound of the choir as "singing of astonishing beauty" and one of her favourite moments on World Routes. She said the discovery of the music of a region provided a gateway to a better understanding of its society. "Finding out about the roots music of a country leads you right to the heart of its culture," she added. "Everything is recorded on location, and we talk to all kinds of people, getting insights into what it's really like to be there, and what makes them tick."
Another rare recording, made in Uganda in 2005, features a xylophone played in a hole in the ground in order to make it more resonant. "The first thing they did when we arrived was to dig a hole," said Parkin. "This instrument has never been anywhere. You have to go to that village to hear it. What we are trying to do is offer music that you cannot hear at a festival or buy in HMV."
The archive also includes recordings of some of the greatest names in world music, such as Ali Farka Touré, Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita.
The BBC is under political pressure to reduce its online operations on the grounds that they damage its commercial rivals, but additional money was provided for this project, which is seen as having significant educational merit. One recording from Jerusalem's Oud Festival shows how the music of the oud – a classical Middle Eastern stringed instrument, is part of both Arab and Jewish culture and attracts audiences from both communities.
The launch of the BBC World Music Archive coincides with the annual Womad world music festival, which Radio 3 has broadcast for the past 10 years, and which begins tomorrow at the Charlton Park Estate, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire .
You heard it here first ...
The Ugandan xylophonists
In the Busoga kingdom, east of the source of the Nile, Ms Duran discovered the giant pit xylophone, played from a hole in the ground. It was made in 2005.
The Svaneti polyphonic singers
Recorded in the remote Caucasus mountains in 2007, this choir of 25 Georgians sing in a style that has not changed for two millennia. They could be reached only with the help of a Georgian air force helicopter.
The Uighur four-stringed fiddlers
In the desert region of Xinjiang, on the ancient silk route through China, Ms Duran met players of the four-stringed fiddle and interviewed the region's most famous singer Pasha Isha, who plays a two-stringed lute known as a dutar.
The North Korean kayagum
In an historic broadcast from North Korea in 2003, which presenter Andy Kershaw called the "last great adventure on earth", children were recorded playing a 12-string, zither-like instrument called a kayagum.
Find the BBC World Music Archive at www.bbc.co.uk/radio3/worldmusicReuse content