“Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders” is a film that explores the world through music. The program’s host, Marco Werman, discusses the pilot that premiered on PBS in January and efforts to make “Sound Tracks” an ongoing series.
Ted Simons: Marco, thank you so much for joining us on "Horizon."
Marco Werman: Good to be here.
Ted Simons: "sound tracks" what is this program designed to do?
Marco Werman: It's designed to take people around the world, really. And introduce them to different cultures, and different places, and find out really what's going on in those places. But we don't want to do it as foreign correspondents with flak jackets. We're looking at something else. We're looking at the music. And the people who make that music. Sometimes it will be profiles of those artists, sometimes it will just be about societal pressures, political pressures that come to bear on the music itself. And why the music sounds the way it does.
Ted Simons: Talk about some of the places you've gone, some of the things you've seen and heard.
Marco Werman: Not for this show and for this show, Lagos Nigeria for soundtracks, elsewhere, Cuba, I lived in west Africa for about five years in Togo, Burkina Faso, a number of countries, in Europe, Brazil, I've been to once, Chile once, Mexico several times, I've never been to the far east, that's a goal at some point. Yeah, I'm kind of an Africanist, I lived there for a while, and I love what it has to offer musically. But also I'm fascinated by the political narratives.
Ted Simons: I want to get to the politics there in a second. But when you go to these places, we can stick with Nigeria, because it's part of the pilot episode, these artists that are tremendous artists that have had quite a lot of success here in America, but do you -- when you go in, do you expect something and wind up seeing, hearing, experiencing something else?
Marco Werman: You know, whenever -- I've been practicing journalism for a long time. I've been a reporter, and I always try to keep my mind open when I go into a place. I think there's a certain tendency to imagine things and have a certain expectation about a place, and then you get there and often times those expectations are kind of blown apart. So I always try and keep my mind open. But Lagos is a good example, because a lot of people were telling me, you really shunted go there. It's pretty dangerous. It may be the most dangerous city in the world. And that's probably true. It may be one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't go there.
Marco Werman: 16 million people vying for space in one of the world's fastest growing cities.
Marco Werman: We went, I found it to be an incredibly chaotic place. The traffic alone made me glad that I was leaving the very day I left. But you see a grit and a desire to move on with life and not get stuck in the poverty and the violence and the corruption, and the constant blackouts. There's no electricity there to speak of. It's incredible.
Ted Simons: How is that -- how does the music reflect that particular lifestyle? Â¶Â¶
Marco Werman: If you go back to Femi Kuti who died in 1997-- his songs were about daily life in Nigeria, his songs were about the political corruption. He had a song very famous song "suffering and smiling." There's a pigeon English in Nigeria that came out that way. Â¶Â¶ It's about the people, and we feature it in the story. It's about the people who have to cram into these buses every day, sometimes two, three-hour commute, and sweating, yet they're smiling. They're suffering, they're really not happy with this existence, but they're smiling anyway. And it's just the determination and the drive it takes to kind of go to another day. It's really admirable.
Ted Simons: It's interesting how the songs there in Africa, that you chronicle in your program, very political, very politically oriented, a lot of change talk there. And then we go to Russia, where your program profiles what has to be called propaganda music for Vladimir Putin. Talk to us about that.
Marco Werman: Well, Vladimir Putin I think discovered early on that music was a powerful tool. Â¶Â¶ He didn't even have to write the songs. There were people so in love with him, namely these young female singers we feature in "a man like Putin" which is the name of the song translated, who really wanted to praise him. And the producer who kind of cooked up this whole kind of scheme, it's surreal. You can't believe you're watching this. And I think one thing that I find most fascinating is that if you don't pay attention to the lyrics, it sounds like another pop song you might hear. Â¶Â¶ I mean, not to like diss Lady Gaga-- it could be Lady Gaga up there singing about Putin, if you just take the lyrics out.
Ted Simons: Singing about Putin because he's a guy who doesn't drink, doesn't get drunk and doesn't drink. That seems to be a recurring theme there in the Russian pop universe.
Marco Werman: You can't escape it.
Ted Simons: And then we have in your program we have a singer from Portugal. Â¶Â¶ The words for those of us who aren't in that part of the world, can't mean much. But the music means much. Talk to us about society's cultures, where the lyrics are important, and where maybe not necessarily as important.
Marco Werman: Well, having lived in Africa, I think that's the entire continent has a real kind of connection with rhythm. It's percussion, it's drums, even the bele kind of xylophone, its very percussive. That's not to say they don't pay attention to lyrics. Lyrics are very important in the story shows that you write songs and artists musicians write songs based on what they see around them. If you go to Portugal, Mariza is this incredible Fado singer. Â¶Â¶ Fado is a style of music that goes back to the Portuguese empire, when the sailors would leave on their boats to go out to sea to conquer these new unknown lands, and their loved ones would stand on the docks and say goodbye, and knowing they would never see them again. Very possibly. And that longing, that mournfulness, you can hear that in the music. Â¶Â¶ You know these songs, maybe you might not understand the words in Portugese, but you know the emotion. You can identify the emotion in these songs. So I personally think there's some cultures that are more connected to lyrics and others that are not. Here in the United States I think people kind of fall into two categories. Those who pay attention to the words and those who are really more interested in the beat.
Ted Simons: You mentioned the United States, let's talk about American music. The impact of American music around the world. We tend to think that Michael Jackson helped bring down the Soviet empire and these sorts of things, when you're out there, when you're in Chile, when you're in Kazakhstan, do people know about American music? And can you hear that influence in their own music?
Marco Werman: Absolutely. First of all, the hip hop nation is now the hip hop planet. Everywhere you go you can go to Bhutan, you many find a local iteration of hip hop. If you speak with the musicians in west Africa, in Senegal, for example, used to endure Wasis Diop -- these are people who grew up listening to James Brown, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones. They cite them as influences. Sometimes you can hear that in their music, but the fact is that there are certain elements, little musical devices even that they folded into their music. And that's just the planet we're living in today. And that's why I think this interconnectedness between other musics and the United States, own musics, is just such a compelling way of telling stories.
Ted Simons: Do you find there are completists, there are absolutists who worry the world is - you worry about America becoming so cold you can't go to the hollers in West Virginia now and still hear the same kind of music you might have 50 years ago. Is there a concern on your part that you can't go to Africa, you can't go to South America, and maybe find the pure music, because they are listening to a lot of American music down there?
Marco Werman: You know, I'm not so sure that one kind of absorbs the other and cancels it out. They're always going to be kind of traditional pockets, and you can go to any village in Mali today and find people who are playing music that they were playing 500 years ago. Same instruments, and they probably have heard some American music, some Anglo-American pop, but it's not their concern. They're sticking with the old traditional stuff. So it's kind of hard to say, it's hard to imagine a world where nobody is untouched by western influence. But it's still happening.
Ted Simons: Yeah. Last question, the pilots, done deal, and it's -- we got that going here. How about further shows it's a difficult environment right now as far as getting money for these things. What are you seeing out there?
Marco Werman: Not much. Not much at all. But we're -- we've got grant proposals in, we've been short listed with a group of 16 for a CPB grant, which will help if we get it produce another handful of shows. We're confident about that. And we just got to keep looking for money. It may not be a series at the end of the day. Maybe it will be a series of one or two programs per year. I hope it's more than that, but we can't tell, and we also don't know whether it's going to be essentially an exclusively for television. Maybe handheld devices. We don't even know where people are going to be watching our next bit of television.
Ted Simons: Indeed. Why is the MiM screening this?
Marco Werman: The Mim is screening this because I think A, it's about music, and it's another approach to music. It's another prism to look at the world through music. But I think essentially the mission of the MiM and "Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders" is the same. Trying to not -- not to kind of backpedal too much, but I think after 9-11 the world got really spooky for a lot of Americans. And I don't think the answer is to build up walls to shut rest of the world off. I think the task now is to take the walls down. And kind of make people feel comfortable about the planet that we live in. I think the MiM and "sound tracks" are both trying to do that.
Ted Simons: Good for the musical instrument museum as well and good luck on your future endeavors.
Marco Werman: Thank you very much.
Ted Simons: This is great stuff. I hope you all the success.
Marco Werman:host, "Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders";