Some of my most enduring travel memories are inextricably linked with music. As I trekked a jungle trail connecting temples at the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia, I happened upon a group of musicians performing traditional Khmer wedding songs. They sat or squatted on a crude raised wooden platform in front of exotic instruments, producing an ethereal sound that stopped me in my tracks. So mesmerized was I by the haunting melodies that I almost missed the crudely lettered sign explaining that the musicians were victims of land mines. Startled, I looked more closely and spotted three prosthetic legs propped up against the stage; at least two of the musicians were amputees and two were blind. I later learned that thousands of land mines still lie undiscovered in Cambodia and that hundreds suffer severe injuries or are killed in land mine accidents each year.
In an area of central India so remote that locals had never before seen a white person, the young women of the tribe fitted my fingers with tiny cymbals and pulled me into their circle. To traditional music played on hand-carved flutes and rudimentary stringed instruments, we stomped out rhythmic steps – two steps forward, one back – while tribal elders looked on, pointing and gesticulating, as if to say, “look, she’s doing it!”
Throughout much of history, the only way to experience the diversity of world music was to travel, but in recent years technology has made it possible to sample music from around the globe without leaving home. The new primetime PBS series, Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders, will take us on a musical odyssey that reveals how music is transforming politics and culture. From the bayous of Louisiana to the backstreets of Havana, from the nightclubs of Paris to desert music festivals in Mali, the producers will interview everyone from Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famers to Bollywood singers, violin virtuosos, and bluegrass musicians. The one-hour pilot crosses three continents and serves up a diverse menu of Russian pop, afrobeat, Portuguese fado, and symphonic work. PBS has posted several promo videos for the new series on YouTube, including this short piece about Nigerian sensation Fela Kuti, who created some of the boldest, most colorful afrobeat music ever written:
The pilot episode airs on PBS Monday, January 25, 2010 at 10 p.m., but check your local listings for specific times in your local market.