Sound Tracks: Music Without Borders Coming to PBS

Music Without Borders – the World’s Most Fascinating Music Stories on PBS

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.

Victims of land mines play in the jungles of Angkor Wat, Cambodia

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!”

Dancing with tribal women in central India

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.

More photos from my Cambodia trip

14 Comments on “Music Without Borders – the World’s Most Fascinating Music Stories on PBS

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  2. Wonderful post. Travel is enhanced when we listen with our ears. Dancing with the women in India must have been a surreal experience.

    • It really was, Donna. They spoke no English, but I felt we communicated just the same, through the dance and the music.. It is one of my most enduring memories of India.

  3. Music really unites, no matter where you are or what little one has to play with. I have a friend who did a cd in Africa – they ‘united’ two folklore styles into one – just picked up each others rhythm and the result exceptional. Wonderful post!

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  5. Truly wonderful post capturing a key element of culture and travel. The Cambodian story is heartwarming. Geez, I wish music was a language that I could speak, though I treaure times to hear others play so well – music sets the rhythms of Africa, the moods of Asia and the energy of South America. Fine piece of travel writing.

  6. Beautiful post! Thanks for sharing your personal experiences. I’m incredibly fond of music and traveling together. While traveling,I’ve listened to music to connect with people, learn foreign languages, relax in stressful situations and more.

  7. This is just such an excellent and well written post. You draw the reader there with you. I just can’t imagine how it must have felt for you to be brought into that circle of women dancers. Beautiful photos.

  8. If you enjoy Sound Tracks, make sure to check out Music Voyager, a new music and travel series that will be broadcasting on PBS and Nat Geo Music & Adventure starting in February. Learn more at

    I’m the host of the show, which follows my adventures as I explore the music, food, sights and culture of India, Jamaica, and beyond. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s gotta do it! We’re currently shooting a Road to the GRAMMY special featuring a fascinating selection of this year’s GRAMMY nominees.

  9. Two things transcend the need for language in my experience, or help plump out the lack of common ground – one is soccer (maybe that doesn’t resonate so much in the US, but it does everywhere else in the world!) and the other is music.

    I hope these programs (which I won’t see because I don’t live in the US) will help to promote cultural understanding on a broader level.

    Discovered your blog recently, and am loving it, btw.

  10. Great topic that is often overlooked when we travel! I always get asked to sing a song from my country when I go to various villages and remote travel destinations. I always draw a blank but usually fumble through a kids song of some sort! I always think that I should have a few ready to go that I actually know the words to; but never seem to remember to do that until I’m being asked to ‘perform’!

    • Thank you Ruth! I can always say the same thing about your writing.

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