Music Planet, beginning tonight, is a major new 8-part Radio 3 series to accompany BBC One’s Human Planet. Presenters Andy Kershaw and Lucy Duran go trekking across the globe to bring us music from the peoples of some of the world’s remotest regions, visiting many of the places featured in the TV series. Here, Andy recounts some of the highs and lows of the recording expeditions.
The routing was not ideal: we had to enter Laos from Thailand in order to get to a rocket festival in, well, Thailand. (Don’t ask why. I didn’t ).* This detour did, however, afford the opportunity to visit another country previously untroubled by Ramblin’ Andy and his band of Radio 3 ruffians. When one has visited around 90 of the world’s 193 countries - soon to be 194 with Southern Sudan or whatever they are going to call the oil-rich bit Khartoum will not readily relinquish - it comes as a surprise to find oneself not on familiar ground.(This was for many years a problem for my colleague, Lucy Duran. No matter the advertised destination of the aeroplane which Lucy boarded, whenever she disembarked, she was always in Mali).
Laos, like many other destinations on our Music Planet capers was, therefore, refreshing. Particularly refreshing was the monsoon-lashed lunch of deep-fried crickets we were enjoying at a floating restaurant - heaving would have been more accurate - on the Mekong river before having to abandon ship, our main course still under preparation as the torrent plucked our al fresco pontoon from its moorings. Laotian music was pretty good too, as you will hear in our Music Planet Rivers programme. The songs we recorded during sunset in a temple qualified, I think, for Rivers categorisation because the temple was close enough to the location of the aborted lunch for us to arrive there still wet through, slouched and slopping under the weight of our clothes.
From Savannakhet, we roared back across the border to throw ourselves heartily into Thailand again and the insanity of the Yasothon Rocket Festival,
an annual event, nationally televised, for which the Thai authorities clear air space above the city to allow the good-natured locals to fool simultaneously with large quantities of explosives and strong drink. Our musical excuse for being there is an appropriately deafening carnival parade leading up to the home-made ballistic missiles competition. If Risk Assessment ever get a glimpse of Yasothon on YouTube, we will never be allowed out of Broadcasting House again. (I’m sure you will enjoy it, however. Have a look: click on this link
Heading south from here, the last stronghold of the Khmer Rouge
in northern Cambodia was, comparatively, meat and drink to your battle-hardened Radio 3 commandos. Up a dirt side road we were directed to the spot on which Pol Pot was cremated by his comrades in 1998. The ground was still charred, marked out by a rectangle of upturned jam jars and covered by a rusting corrugated roof. No more than the old bastard deserved.
, a Cambodian lute player, and the double of Ray Charles, was one of very few musicians to survive the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero exterminations. This cull was just one of many appalling obscenities of Pol Pot’s three year regime. Yet, between 1975 and 1979, there were any number of Anglo-American rock and pop musicians the teenage Kershaw had marked for death. If only Brother Number One had got in touch, I would have passed to him a list and his efforts might have been more usefully directed. We met Kong Nay and recorded him by the pool of the former Hotel Le Royal, immortalised in Jon Swain’s Rivers of Time
book and the film The Killing Fields
A group of rappers we encountered in Phnom Penh were keeping alive the memories of their murdered pop predecessors and making imaginative new music using, as its base, samples of the big Cambodian hits of the 1960s and 70s. Kong Nay, reborn and performing again, is rightly revered by this younger generation.
The shifting itineraries of Music Planet appeared, for a while, to be conspiring to keep me away from my beloved Africa. In the end, producer Roger Short and I scrambled through four countries in eight days. In Zambia one Sunday morning we went hunting for gospel music in communities close to Victoria Falls and found it, glorious and spontaneous in the open compound of a village church. (It was my enthusiasm for gospel, African and vintage American, which once prompted the producers of Songs of Praise to invite me, unwittingly, to be the programme’s first atheist presenter). We recorded more gospel in the maximum security wing of Pretoria prison, South Africa, a session which ended inevitably with an uplifting N’kosi Sikelele Afrika. I was moved to join in. My efforts to learn the anthem in Zulu some twenty years before had not been a complete waste of time. In Kinshasa, capital of the former Zaire, we recorded street bands which - the pioneering path having been hacked out by Staff Benda Bilili - you might next have to sit in the Royal Festival Hall, without fidgeting, to hear.
Namibia, were it not for the constant danger of running into Lord Lucan and a number of Germans not crossed off by Simon Wiesenthal
, gives the impression of being almost as empty as the Sahara. The famous Kalahari Bushmen there all seem to have mobile phones these days. And why shouldn’t they? Modern communications are surely a boon to them when they have to order a take-away, for their celebrated hunting skills did not deliver our dinner the day I went out into the bush with them, intent on slaughtering everything from antelope to zebra. We ended up eating at the hotel…
The Bushmen had much in common with the shark fisherman of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. His technique, which can be heard in Programme 1 of Music Planet
, had much charm but yielded conspicuously poor results. Shaking a rattle, fashioned from sea shells, under the water was sure to scare away all but the most dim-witted of sharks. In his other hand, he clutched a lasso, ready to garotte the first predator to volunteer itself for capture. Bobbing in an adjacent dug-out canoe, I suggested our shark specialist (with a whole village waiting to be fed and singing, gloriously, of his heroism) try the technological breakthroughs we anglers recognise as line, hooks and bait. He was having none of it. Neither, of course, were the sharks. And it will please a certain section of the audience to have confirmed that no shark - like the Namibian antelope and zebra - was harmed in the making of our programme.