Sunday, October 10, 2010

Interview with Simon Broughton, editor of Songlines

Songlines is without question the world's leading magazine devoted primarily to the field of world music. (See my post two years ago on the hard-copy demise of Global Rhythm, which happily is still available online, though not currently active.) An exceptionally colorful large-format glossy magazine, Songlines is published in eight issues a year, and has a circulation of some 20,000.

The current issue for November-December (#72, above), has a cover story on the London production of the musical Fela!, which premiered in New York City on off-Broadway in 2008, and on Broadway in 2009, and is based on the life of the enormously successful Nigerian instrumentalist and composer Fela Kuti, who died in 1997, having been a major force in Afropop music, as well as a controversial human rights activist. This issue has additional articles on music from England, Cuba, Réunion Island, Turkey, Norway, New Zealand, Eritrea, Bulgaria, and India, as well as an extensive listing of concerts and festivals. It also comes with two CDs: one with tracks from the ten "Top of the World albums," and a second bonus CD of World Music from Korea.

In a visit to London earlier in the year, I had the privilege of interviewing Simon Broughton, Songlines' editor (and also an editor of The Rough Guide to World Music).

I met him in the Songlines office, off of the Shepherds Bush station on the London Underground, in a neighborhood vastly changed from that in which I had lived while doing dissertation research at the School of Oriental and African Studies in 1969-70. The office itself, bright with the afternoon sun, was what I might have expected: one wall with shelf upon shelf of CDs, and another filled with boxes of files with the raw copy and reference materials for each numbered issue, along with the usual array of computer and electronic equipment:

I asked Broughton about the origins of Songlines, which he said had started in 1999 as a quarterly supplement to Grammophone, a leading British bimonthly publication, begun in 1923, which describes itself as "the world’s best classical music magazine."

When Grammophone decided to drop Songlines--curiously, as he notes, just after 9/11--Broughton and his colleagues bought the rights to Songlines, and began publishing it independently in 2003, initially with six issues a year and a large format.

I inquired about Broughton's own background, and what led him to the field of world music. He had studied classical music in his early years, but was drawn in his youth to travel to Hungary, Bulgaria, and Rumania (he also learned Russian), and found an extraordinary range of music in these countries--particularly Rumania.

He joined the BBC after completing his university work, and recorded under BBC auspices a series of programs on Mali, which awakened in him a strong interest in West African music.

As he notes, his interests have since moved on to include Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, and India.

He explained that the magazine's purpose is to look at "what's going on in the world, but seen through the perspective of music," and asking "Why is music the way it is?" In other words, going beyond the music itself to its roles in society.

When I asked Broughton about the state of world music in London, he responded by evoking the "diaspora from everywhere"--in other words, immigrants from numerous countries around the world. He points out that "every week there is a big name artist playing, and every night there are lesser-known--but often equally fascinating--musicians playing in all sorts of places, whether it's concert halls, or community centers, or bars . . . .":

He goes on to point out that the connections between present-day Britain and its former colonies have led to a concurrent interest in the music of India in particular, as well as of its African colonies, but he also notes the curiously strong presence of Cuban music in London, despite there being no strong historical British link with that country.

In Paris--the other major European city where he finds an equally broad and vibrant, yet distinctly very different, presence of world music--he notes the musical connections with France's former colonies: such Francophone African countries as Senegal, Mali, and Guinee (though he does mention a surprisingly lively presence of Malian music in London); North Africa; and Indochina, particularly Viet Nam.

Broughton goes on to identify in Paris (most probably as a result of serious "state support", or government patronage, comparatively absent in England) a very serious presence of "ethnographic music"--that is, music in the purely traditional styles of the countries of origin, without undue influence from "world music" and its tendencies toward blending and integration. He cites, as specific examples of venues hospitable to such traditional performances, the Maison des Cultures du Monde (this link in French can be translated) and the Théâtre de la Ville (click here for a link in English). At the same time, he laments the lack of such concerts in London:

When I asked Broughton about the effect of the financial crisis on Songlines, he expressed his sense that the magazine had not suffered as much as much, with a 5 to 10 percent drop in advertising revenues, as compared with "mainspring magazines," which he estimated had lost (at the time) 25 to 30 per cent. Nor, he notes, did Songlines have to lay off staff or cut rates of pay, as was the case with many other periodicals:

As he wrily notes, "in the best of times, magazine publishing is . . . on the borders of profitability."

Nonetheless, he is enthusiastic about the unique role of of the magazine:

"It is a very exciting publication, because I feel it really does bring you into contact with the world and with music, and a very exciting world of people who are interested in the world's music."

See subsequent entries for more information on Songlines.

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