Interview With Marco Werman: Traveling in Search of the World’s Music
Travel Interviews: Jim Benning asks the public broadcasting host about a new show and his love of music from around the globe
01.25.10 | 10:33 AM ET
Marco Werman is best known to public broadcasting fans as the anchor of The World, the weekday radio show covering news, culture and music around the world. But Werman has another intriguing gig: He’s hosting a new PBS TV show debuting tonight called Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders. The show’s premise is simple: to travel “deep into the heart of international music.” In tonight’s pilot, Werman and other reporters travel to Moscow, Nigeria and Kazakhstan. I caught up with him via email to learn more about his travels and love of international music.
World Hum: What do you hope viewers get out of the new PBS show?
Marco Werman: Sound Tracks merges two passions of mine: music and what’s going on outside the United States. I still believe Americans continue to be pretty insulated from the realities of much of the world. But from my experience in reporting the news, music seems to work magic as a device to convey narratives about the human condition on planet earth. I hope viewers are going to be seduced by the stories that we tell and become more inquisitive about their place in the world.
Any favorite travel or musical experiences you’ve had so far working on the show?
I’ve only done one story, but eating fufu with peanut sauce and palm oil with Seun Kuti at the Kalakuta Republic in Lagos was a delicious high point.
When did you first become interested in music from other cultures and countries? Was there a song or performer that helped open your ears to different kinds of music?
My parents listened to fairly obscure stuff: from Verdi to Cannonball Adderley to French chanteuse Barbara. I grew up listening to the Beatles, the Stones, and Atlantic soul and blues. So my ears were ripe for anything that’d come their way when I went to Togo, West Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1984. The biggest symbolic discovery was the little known duo Jess Sah Bi and Peter One from the Ivory Coast. They made a very popular record in West Africa in 1985 that was a fusion of Afropop and country music. And when I heard it, it was like a light had been switched on in my head about music’s ability to cross borders. My biggest single discovery was getting turned on to the incredible guitar and voice of the late Ali Farka Toure from Mali. It was a Senegalese actor who introduced me to a couple of early Toure cassettes. The first CD I ever purchased, right when CD technology was out, was Orchestra Baobab‘s first release “Pirate’s Choice,” an amazing album. It’s like dropping in to a Dakar nightclub.
Has your interest in international music changed the way you view other cultures and countries?
For sure it has. It’s one of those things all people have in common. Food is kind of like that too. Except we all have to eat, that’s a given. The thing with music is that different people make music for different reasons. Some are hungry for art. But many others make music out of pain, some out of joy, while others are motivated by anger, flattery, seduction, or hatred. That’s what fascinates me: the musical reaction to all the things that are happening in the world today. So music has made me more curious about other cultures. It’s always nice to think that music is a universal language that we all speak. But sometimes it’s just not that easy nor pretty.
Has it changed the way you travel?
It’s changed my destinations for work to a certain degree. So, I’ve gravitated on assignments for PRI’s The World toward those spots on earth that have, as I think of it, musical chakra points: Cuba, Mali, Iceland, France, Brazil, Colombia, Jamaica, etc. But for personal vacations, music doesn’t guide me too much. As long as there’s a plug nearby so I can hook up my iPod and portable speaker, and there’s sun, I’m OK.
We Americans, at least in our popular culture, don’t show much interest in music from non-Western, non-English-speaking countries. (Shakira, for example, had to record in English to sell here.) Why do you think that is?
Because the U.S. has got a very strong musical culture, maybe one of the strongest in the world, certainly commercially speaking; we invented the pop music everyone else around the world wants; we created the templates of the bad boy rock ‘n’ roller, the hip-hop b-boy, the diva. Why should American music fans be attracted to non-English language knock-offs of the originals we created? But therein lies the problem with so much Anglo-American pop music: it assumes that the groove that lies in soul, jazz, blues and rock won’t be found in lesser known musical styles around the globe. Don’t believe it for a second. You’ll be missing out on some seriously tasty music.
Finally, any recent musical discoveries you can recommend?
Always too many to mention, and as usual, I tend to revisit older albums that I feel I don’t know that well. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to Zombie by Fela Kuti, the new posthumous Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate CD Ali and Toumani, and Hector Lavoe’s “El Cantate.”