A Decade of Global Sounds – WorldBeatUK at 10!

In the decade since WorldBeatUK started it’s impossible to guess how many laps of the globe Glyn Phillips must have made in his never-ending quest to bring us the best in world music. Ahead of his tenth anniversary show (on Brum Radio, Monday March 15 at 8pm!) Glyn charts the history of the show, how he comes across his diverse selection of tunes, the importance of world music and even finds time to talk poetry!

How did WorldBeatUK come about? Where did it start and what were your early shows like

I’d always wanted to have my own radio show since I was about 18-19 when I used to avidly listen to the Alexis Korner Show in the early 80s, but of course options back then were incredibly limited.  As the years passed I became a musician, DJ, promoter, writer, editor and reviewer of what is loosely termed ‘world music’, but radio was just a pipe-dream until the digital age.

However, by 2010, I was friends with people who had shows on Rhubarb Radio (a Birmingham community station based in Digbeth) and they invited me to co-present on there.  It went well and after a few months learning the ropes, I launched my own weekly show, WorldBeatUK, on the 28th February 2011.

I did everything myself (as now!) with choosing, writing, presenting and producing each two hour show.  The studio was on the ground floor right next to the entrance to the Custard Factory with two of the walls being floor to ceiling thick glass – it was like sitting in a goldfish bowl!  It was usually good fun, occasionally chaotic and I had a lot of interaction via people commenting on the show and chatting with each other on the interactive station message board which helped keep the energy up – often a problem when you’re on your own.  Sometimes it could get a little hairy though with unwanted malingerers peering through the glass walls and banging on them whilst I was on air.

I’ll go into more detail about the musical side of those early shows on my special WorldBeatUK 10th Birthday Show, but though my musical remit was even more eclectic than today (if you can believe that!) right from the outset I strove to make high quality programmes in terms of content and presentation.

How has WorldBeatUK evolved over ten years?

It started with wanting to share my – even then – large collection of music with listeners, but also to present new releases from all around the planet. I had more freedom back then in terms of choosing unifying themes or quirky avenues to explore for each show but after a while the increasing flow of new releases being sent to me soon dominated everything else.

Again, I’ll cover this more in the anniversary show but the big changes were moving to Brum Radio in 2015 which has been a wonderfully stable home for me, then in 2018 going both monthly (rather than weekly) and doing pre-recorded rather than live shows.  The energy is slightly different, but the final ‘product’ is more polished. Going from 4-5 shows a month, to one meant that I had to focus almost exclusively on just new releases.

However, starting WorldBeatUK’s sister programme, The Overflow Show, helped me to find a more natural home for all the jazz, soul, electronic and experimental music that was starting to come my way rather than squeezing it into my first show…

Where do you source your music from? Is it now artists and labels coming to you and how much ‘hunting down’ is required on your part?

The vast majority of the music I play comes from the numerous agents, labels, pr companies and the artists themselves that I’ve meticulously built up contacts and relationships with over the last 13 years or so.  I receive about an album a day from all over the world on average, plus singles and eps on top.  It’s a tremendous amount to process and listen to.  But some stuff also comes via colleagues in Brum Radio (if they think it’s something more appropriate to my shows) or via outfits like UK Vibe (who I occasionally write reviews for also) and these often have a more ‘left-field’ approach which ensures I don’t fall into a rut too much!

The ‘hunting down’ part is less in times of receiving music and more in terms of the background research I do on the artists and genres, instruments, cultures etc – it takes up a lot of time on top.  If you just hear a piece of music on its own, it can be a good experience, but having it placed in some kind of wider context (whether that be social, political, historical, cultural, personal etc) enriches the experience, I feel, helps the listener make more of a connection with the music and the artist.  It then ceases to be a disposable ’product’ and starts to become a story or a statement or an emotion or a catalyst that stays with you and influences your understanding of the world.

What’s your favourite or most surprising musical discovery (or discoveries) you’ve made in the last ten years?

I always balk at this question! It is virtually impossible to answer! As in food we all have our ‘comfort eating’ when it comes to our favourite music, but since you asked about discovery, I suppose at a very personal level it’s that the older I get, the more I realise I am able to appreciate English folk and even American Country and Western! After what feels like a lifetime of mostly wanting to hear tropical music and various latin musics, it’s interesting to realise that there are huge reservoirs of new experiences in areas I’d not given much thought to before! However, I suspect that you mean something different, so for instance I could say honestly that until recently I never truly realised that China had so many different musical forms and cultures in its borders – astounding actually.

Also, just a few weeks ago I came across a digital album called Excavated Shellac – 100 tracks from 1907-1968 all taken from original shellac 78s from 89 different countries and not found anywhere else.  What a glorious snapshot of 20th global music!  Fascinating!  But I’m always discovering new stuff, which is the joy really, and even more so when you can share your enthusiasm and interest with others.

In fact, generally, I’m quite enjoying furtling around and poking in musical rockpools and lifting up national stones to see what lies beneath.  For instance, Colombia has a minimum 40+ distinct musical styles, as does Argentina, let alone Brazil.  Canada is chock-full of great musicians and traditions, yet it wouldn’t be the first country on anyone’s world music list – or what about France? Currently a fabulous melting-pot of the world’s musics (and also full of reggae and dub cognoscenti)!  The UK has some serious musicians and fusions going on – and a rich and vibrant English folk scene alongside the Celtic ones.  And what about the music of Cape Verde, or Haiti, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Ghana, Cameroon, Finland, Poland, Iran…?

You will notice that I have not mentioned a single artist here.  This is quite deliberate.  Choice is always personal – the most important thing is to take a chance on something new.  If it works, great, you’re quids in!  If not, just move on, it doesn’t matter.  You might find like it later on instead.  Or not!  Just be open-minded and inquisitive, the world is far bigger musically than anybody realises.

At a time when physical international travel is off the agenda, how important is world music in bringing people together?

Even before the pandemic hit us, being able to hear live music from around the world was becoming increasingly difficult in the UK (especially outside of London) as the higher echelons of government and bureaucracy don’t really value art that does not conform to their pre-conceptions, and so they increasingly introduce and enforce regulations that make live touring by non-UK musicians incredibly difficult, both for the artists and tour promoters.

So, I think that shows like mine were always going to be important sources of new sounds.  With the pandemic shutting off all live music and with Brexit seriously cutting the UK off from the outside world in terms of touring, then I can only despair at the short-sightedness of ‘the powers that be’.  I have a couple of mantras that I use with WorldBeatUK: one is “Take a chance on some new music in your life” and the other is that “by celebrating the differences between us, we can than begin to see the commonalities that link us”.  As humans we differ in details, but are the same in the basics. Appreciating the musics of the world is a microcosm of that belief.

I strongly believe that my kind of inclusive, outward-looking, exploratory show encourages an open-ness of mind and a willingness to take a chance on not just new music, but new ideas and ways of thinking and being that are sorely needed in these ‘pull-up-the-drawbridge’ days of insular thinking.  The pandemic and the climate crisis (not to mention the economic crashes at the beginning of this century) should have shown us that we are all part of a much bigger global community and what we all do affects others, no matter how far away and how different our lifestyles – yet music is a fabulous passport to entering into someone else’s mindset and life.

You have a new poetry book – tell us about the book, your poetry and what it means to you (and how to get the book!)

Yes, this is my second collection of poetry and flash fiction (in fact, my third is almost finished too and hopefully coming out later this year!).  This one, though is called ‘Portrait of the Poet’ (takes its name from a poem written about a portrait of me).

The book contains my writings from a four-year period between 2015 and 2019 – a particularly hard period for me and my family – but is a mixture of humorous and surreal pieces (eg My Wife’s Bum, and Death By Chocolate!) alongside some serious musings about mental health in children, love, life, birth and death.

I came to poetry late in life – even though I’ve always loved writing and performing – and it was a revelation: the joy of moving an entire room with just the power of words.  There’s just you and a mike and an audience and nowhere to hide – I like that challenge.  It also fits really well with my other creative and communicative endeavours (and you only need a pencil and a book to do it!).

At a personal level poetry has helped me through some very dark times in my life.  Birmingham and the Black Country has some great poetry open mic scenes and you should also check out my Brum Radio colleague Rick Sanders’ programme Brum Radio Poets on a Sunday – one day he might even invite me on to it . . .

I tend to write multiple meanings into my pieces but they are also very accessible and readable I would say – there’s no point writing things that are obscure meaning that you fail to communicate anything at all.

Most respondents have said that they’ve shed tears at some of the poems that they really connect with.  Truth is, as my blurb states I am “fascinated by the fragility of the human condition – yet constantly astounded by the strength and depth of love that carry us through this uncertain life”.

I suppose, whether it’s through the mediums of the spoken word, the written word or playing and performing music, what ultimately drives me is communication and the search for humanity and understanding.

Portrait of the Poet is £10 (plus p&p) and you can email me at glyngphillips@gmail.com for details.

Thanks Glyn and congratulations! You can hear his two shows exclusively on Brum Radio – WorldBeatUK on the first Monday of the month and The Overflow Show approximately every third Monday of the month, both between 8-10pm. Listen Again at the show pages!