Monday, April 5, 2010

Sounds of the Subcontinent

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, the airwaves emanating from the basement of the Student Activities Building on the University of Michigan central campus could very well be carrying the strains of afternoon ragas Patdip or Brindabani Sarang, the intricate sounds of a masterful tabla rela, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's qawali, world fusion sounds of Shakti, a catchy Rajasthani folk tune, or the foot-tapping rhythms of Bollywood music. In fact, this does indeed happen every Sunday, from 3-5pm. WCBN-88.3 FM, the University of Michigan's student-run community freeform radio station in Ann Arbor, has broadcast "Sounds of the Subcontinent" (SOS), a special South Asian music program, for the last 16 years.

WCBN started broadcasting in 1972 and by 1974, the community began to get actively involved. But it wasn't till 1994, that Sukumari Polavaram, a graduate student in French, took the initiative to start "Sounds of the Subcontinent," a South Asian specialty music program on WCBN.  Various students have hosted the show over the years but since 1995 Richard Wallace has been involved on a consistent basis. Richard was a graduate student in Urban and Regional Planning when he started his association with this show, and since 2005 he has been the sole host.

The objective of SOS is simply to expose western audiences to the music of South Asia, along with providing some background on the music that is played. The vision has always been a pan-South Asian one, playing non-sectarian music, including music of the diaspora.
Old announcements

Over the years, the music played on this show has included a wide range of eclectic genres such as Hindustani and Carnatic classical raga music, Bollywood, Qawali, fusion, etc., both vocal and non-vocal. The repertoire has included for example, jazz by Alice Coltrane and trance rock by the British Indian group, the Cornershop. On occasion, guest musicians have been invited to the studios for live music and conversation, such as tabla artist Ray Spiegel. Some community members such as my friend Lakshmi Narayanan, have also guest co-hosted the show.
A part of the music collection at WCBN. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

Broadcasting at the moment at a relatively low power of 200 watts, the FCC has approved WCBN for 3,000 watts which would extend the range considerably in the next year or so. However, even within the limited broadcast area within Ann Arbor, SOS receives a fair amount of community involvement and feedback, with listeners calling in with requests. 
Richard Wallace browsing through the vinyl record collection. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

I recently spent a Sunday afternoon at the WCBN studio, chatting with Richard Wallace. Reminiscing about the early days of the show, he had interesting stories about the unique personalities of the hosts and the vision they brought to the show. His own association with SOS has been long, and his passion and commitment to South Asian music is obvious. I asked Richard about how he chooses the music to play on any Sunday afternoon. He told me that he often goes through his own (vast) collection of music, browses through music shops regularly, looks through the music sent to the station by labels such as Peter Gabriel's Real World and other international labels such as the Italian Felmay/Duniya. He also goes through music websites and news sources, or someone may send him an email with an interesting suggestion. When I asked him to generalize about what his audiences like, Richard said, "In general, western audiences seem to prefer Indian/South Asian classical music, whereas South Asian audiences request more of the non-classical genres."

Richard recounted an interesting incident involving the well known T-series label from India. Being a non-commercial radio station, WCBN has the liberty to play music without worrying about licensing fees.  But that did not prevent T-Series to call all the way from India to demand that they be paid licensing fees or WCBN stop playing their music!
Richard hosting the SOS show. Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

On special occasions, SOS is planned around specific themes or event. Themed shows have been broadcast for India's 50th anniversary of independence, the passing away of well known musicians or the Cricket World Cup. During my visit to the station, I heard Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha on SOS, to mark the death anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.  
A technicolor Ganesh on a felt cover protecting a record turntable at WCBN! 
Photo: Sreyashi Dey, 2010

WCBN is warm, friendly, quaint and interesting. The people - students, staff and community members - quirky, diverse and fun. The music is an eclectic mixture of any type of music imaginable, from reggae and pop to punk rock and rap, in addition to the specialty shows playing music from around the world. "Sounds of the Subcontinent" is a unique representation of South Asian music in the Ann Arbor area, and I was delightfully surprised to come across Ganesh, the Hindu god of auspicious beginnings and the remover of obstacles, making sure that it continues to be so by protecting the vinyl record turntables and more!

Listen to the "Sounds of the Subcontinent" on 88.3FM every Sunday from 3-5pm.


elen said...

That was a fun and interesting experience to do a show with Sukumari. I picked my favourite songs with Onam and Kerala themes from MP's vast music collection and we chatted about the same.
Every time I hear the sounds of WCBN driving around on a Sunday afternoon I feel a sense of joy that the show did not die after Sukumari left town.

Kristin said...

Fans of WCBN, SOS and this blog might be interested to know that next week, WCBN will be screening a series of musical selections from several South Asian films.

Once a month, we do a free movie screening at Arbor Brewing Company at 114 E. Washington St in downtown Ann Arbor. On Wednesday, April 14, we will screen a compilation many weeks in the making.

Scenes from newer films like Om Shanti Om and Dor are featured; also, a number of scenes from Sholay, Khal Nayak, Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Gumnaam and many others will also appear.

My one caveat will be to say that this compilation was put together not by someone with great expertise in Bollywood/beyond, but someone wishing to entertain WCBN listeners and the usual crowd we tend to get at ABC for these free movie nights, so whatever you might expect, the results will most likely be different.

It will be a great time, I assure you. Please join us!

9pm, April 14, Tap Room, Arbor Brewing Company. FREE!

-Kristin Sumrall
WCBN Program Director