Confessions of a World Music DJ
"So how did you get into world music?" the trainee asked me tonight.
When I first came to KZSU, I was planning on being a blues DJ. But there were two superb blues DJs on at the time and I was, quite frankly intimidated. So I fell into my second choice, world music.
I had two world music epiphanies that led me to that genre. The first came in Paris. I was visiting friends on my way to Africa and one of them put a CD on the stereo while we were getting ready to go out to dinner. It was Samedi Soir Sur La Terre by Francis Cabrel, and it was love at first sound. Everything about it just struck me, including the fact that I'd never be able to hear anything like this on American radio. I bought the CD at de Gaulle airport on my way to Malawi and it remains one of my favorite CDs still.
A few months later I was down in LA and heard an interview on the local PBS station with a singer/songwriter from Cameroon named Henri Dikongue. They played a few tracks from his release C'est La Vie and, again, I had to have it. I was able to find it a few weeks later.
Those two CDs were the beginning of my world music collection. And of my love affair. But when I started at the radio station, nearly 10 years ago, I knew next to nothing about the genre. I had heard of a few non-American artists; superstars like Caetano Veloso, Miriam Makeba, Ladysmith Black Mambazo. But not much else. Certainly not enough to do a 3-hour show once a week. My learning curve on this one was so steep that I lived in terror for the first year because every show required hours of preparation. I'd spend entire weekend days in the library, pulling CDs and listening. Finding new artists, following new threads. I discovered how wonderful compilation albums were for introducing me to people I liked. I found those areas of world music that I didn't particularly like (such as gamelan and reggae) and areas that I liked but would probably never play (Indian classical). And I learned that I'd chosen a genre of music where I would be forever doomed to mispronounce every artist on my playlist.
Now I'm the world music director; a job I for which I still feel unqualified. But I do it because I love it, because I love being on the air and doing a great show. (Which I do. Sorry, I can't have false modesty about this. It's not me, it's the music.) And every week I listen to new CDs by artists I've never heard of, and releases by old favorites. I still get a childlike thrill when I open the mail and see "oh wonderful, X has a new CD out!" or I hear some unknown and think "wow, this is amazing." There's nothing like discovering a new musician that speaks to you and it's worth all the occasional crap I have to listen to to find that one gem.
So here I am, 10 years later and a bit wiser (musically) and still loving the music I fell into. I'm so glad I was scared away from doing a blues show (though I love it on those occasions when I do one) because it forced me into a journey that excites me to this day. OK, so I know something about a really obscure (to most of the US. And most of my friends, come to think of it) area of music, but I'm actually proud of myself for the work I've put into the acquisition of that knowledge. And on nights like tonight, when I feel a sense of satisfaction after doing a good show, I think of that night in Paris when I heard music unlike any I'd heard before. And I have to smile. Because sometimes fate is just way too much fun.