For many readers of ‘SEIN’, Peter Barakan’s program is the place to encounter music from around the world, and his program is also where they learn about the message or background behind the lyrics.
“I am pleased to hear that. When asked about my title, I always answer a ‘broadcaster’. Besides music programs, I once appeared in a television news program called ‘CBS Document’ in 1988 where I was given the broadcaster moniker. It means someone who expresses themselves through broadcasting media. Like a writer using words, I just candidly express my thoughts and feelings, and questions within the context of a show. Of course I introduce the song but if it’s useful, I touch upon the content of the lyrics since the way the message is expressed sometimes does not come across to listeners correctly.
The songs of Bob Dylan that caught the attention of a young Peter Barakan in junior high school dealt with social problems of that time. Peter Barakan had said that songs were not just something to be enjoyed, but can be used to tie the society with the period. We asked if that is the criteria for the songs Peter Barakan selects.
“Approaching it in purely musical terms, I want to spread the word of these musicians from around the world who are giving birth to these wonderful songs to as many people as I can. That is why I do not allow others to choose the songs I play. Also I don’t read from a script or speak in a well-mannered way. Many current radio programs in Japan seem to place greater emphasis on chat and less in songs. Songs are chosen by the station and are simply played, and the presenters are reading from a script. That way of doing things takes away from the wonder of a song and, for me, removes its meaning. If you view ‘a chosen song as a form of expression’ then that should not be neglected.”
In his books, Peter Barakan has written about the growing wave of commercialism in the broadcast industry.
“At one time in many countries, one company was not allowed to own multiple stations. This has been deregulated nowadays to the point where there is a case of one company owning a few hundred stations in America. When this happens, things are done according to the management of the parent company, and where streamlining and commercialism cast a shadow over proceedings. The personality of each individual station is simply discarded and a trend towards bland and inoffensive programming suddenly appears. The result is a landscape where all programs sound identical”.
Saying “it’s popular” and has commercial “value” are not necessarily the same thing. It is the same for music and other fields, not just within radio.
“From my experience, there is a difference between what the listener likes and what the sponsors ask for. Though I have worked for various broadcasters, the longest I have continuously worked for is the public broadcaster NHK FM. It is because they attach more importance to content rather than ratings. For myself, it isn’t that I’m completely against commercialism, but to be fully committed to it is a problem. There are people who would drift away from radio if there is only just chat from an idol or TV personality on every station. Since radio waves belong to the public, those engaged broadcasting stations and programs, even those in commercial broadcasting, should carry some sort of social responsibility. If there is the calling that existed with radio when I was a child, the wonder of music can continue to be spread with passion.”
So what is “good music” according to Peter Barakan.
“Hmmm, there is too much for me to answer (laughs). To put it right down to it, ‘Music with the spirit of the blues’ perhaps. But I don’t mean blues as a genre. In his autobiography, a blues singer named Willie Dixon wrote that blues was ‘the facts of life’. In other words, all about living. Facing the joys and sadness of life and to express those feelings is music with the spirit of the blues.”
It is that kind of music, regardless of genre that strongly attracts Peter Barakan.
“I have absolutely no intention to force music from my programs upon listeners. For them to take notice is enough for me. Not just with music, but also with movies and books, if nobody introduces them, then it’s existence is not known and it ends there. Culture was from the very beginning not forced on others, it’s not something that can be done, but you can introduce something with your own personal feeling with it. If someone could potentially be interested, a little push and some motivation can be the beginning of something fun for them. Even now, I will continue to deliver programs and projects that speak to the listener’s curiosity. Open your ears and your mind and let’s listen to the radio again!”
The decisive moments hidden in everyday life
“If you ask me about my favorite photographer, then I’ll have to answer with Henri Cartier-Bresson. In photographs that are as artistic as they are documentary, he allows us to see divine ‘decisive moments’. Just look at the photo on the left, of the boy jumping the puddle. It’s this precise moment, his shoe just about to touch the water.
No matter how often you look at his photographs, you’ll just never really understand it — how did he manage to take these? He is my favorite photographer; I will never get tired of looking at his work.” (Peter Barakan)
Henri Cartier-Bresson, born in France in 1908. Cartier-Bresson began exhibiting his photographs in 1933 in New York and Spain. In 1947, together with Robert Capa, he founded the iconic photographer’s group ‘Magnum Photo’. His 1952 exhibition “The Decisive Moment” has had a tremendous influence on photographers and photography worldwide. Henri Cartier-Bresson passed away in 2004, aged 95.
Born in London in 1951. After coming to Japan in 1974, worked on jobs related to publishing, focusing on broadcast media where he introduced his selection of music from around the world to listeners. Writer of books such as ‘Radio-no-kochiragawa’ (Iwanami Shoten) ‘Peter Barakan’s music diary’ (Shueisha International)