BEHIND THE SCENES with Marco Werman


How did you come to produce so many stories about music / musicians? Did you come to radio with a background in music, or did your interest in music stem from working in radio

I've always loved music. When I started working in radio, I used to sub for music hosts during the afternoon and evenings. So even though I had worked for years as a reporter and producer of news and features, I came to The World with a love for music

In 1995, when I helped brainstorm how The World was going to evolve through the course of 59 minutes each day, there was a general notion that the music from around the globe would be a great way to communicate to American listeners things like cultural tastes, values, even politics, religion, and history. Initially we thought that just a nice chunk of music with a bit of copy would pull that off, that it would create this little oasis at the end of the show for listeners to digest what they had already heard. The idea was that given The World 's high content density as an international news magazine, an anticipated breathing moment at the finale would be useful. Unfortunately, the first year we produced this ending music feature, The Global Hit, it lacked substantial context

I was given the task of creating that context. Admittedly, at first I wasn't thrilled by the task, which seemed almost a step down from the hard-nosed image of a "newsman." But since the music segment is a daily thing it didn't take long for me to give some shape to the pieces. I realized a few things: on public radio news programs, music features are mostly critics talking about their tastes, you never hear the musicians speak, there is rarely any wider context for the music other than the art itself, and curiously enough, the pieces rarely offer the listener more than 15 seconds in the clear. So I decided to exploit all these shortcomings. Now I love doing this segment

Why did you decide to focus more heavily on Toure's farm than on his major decision to stop performing music live

In the summer of 2000, when Ali Farka Toure came to America, he said it was going to be his last tour ever. I thought that was a pretty bold statement, but when I met him in Boston he told me that he was going to return full time to his village of Niafunke. He made all these noble declarations about how he wanted to give back to his community after having had a rich life of touring around the globe and basically being a Malian rock star. But by the end of the summer he'd be back in Niafunke tending his fields, even though Niafunke isn't exactly the kind of place you might expect someone would choose to farm. It's basically in the Sahara desert. There's some rainfall for two months, and the rest of the time you really have to know a lot about irrigation and soil improvement to get any positive results from the land

At the same time a lot of wise guys in the world of world music claimed that Ali Farka Toure was being disingenuous about his retirement. They all pointed out that he's said this before. It dawned on me that whether Toure was retiring or not, what this story was really about was Ali Farka Toure's belief that he had to better himself by bettering his village and his country. Because of his success as a musician, he has the money to create some projects and he has the leadership abilities to rally his neighbors in Niafunke. Again, it was about creating some context for the story. Quite often stories about rural development can be pretty soporific -- Toure's decision to stop performing music live was a great "in" to this story

One interesting thing . . . at no time was Toure interested in actually playing his guitar, and I was reluctant to stage something. After all, he's the musician, he knows when he wants to play. But this left me with unanswered questions to this day: did he consciously not play to either show that he's now more interested in farming or to convince me that he really is done with his days of touring? Should I have pushed him a bit more to play? If I had, what would have been the point? To satisfy my need to hear him play at his home after spending days getting to him? Or to satisfy American listeners for a taste of this man playing his guitar? At the end of the day, I'm glad I did what I did, which was not pushing him, just letting it be what it was. But I still kind of wish I could have had an afternoon serenade

When producing a music story, how do you balance the narrative, sound effects, and music beds with the actual music you're profiling

I'm committed to hearing a good stretch of the music wherever in the piece that it may fall. These are, after all, programs that at least on the surface are music stories. So let's hear some music that runs at least 30 seconds in the clear. Lengths of programs will vary, and this is even necessary in order to retain an element of surprise, but the music needs to do a lot of the talking

I like to have the artists talk. So when it works, I weave in cuts of the musicians talking about what they do. A lot of musicians are uncomfortable speaking about their music, as the artistic process is not always something that can be easily explained. However, many artists from around the globe are quite comfortable talking about where they come from, which, again, is helpful in creating a larger context for each story

If I'm on-site reporting, I try to bring the listener to the place where the musical inspiration comes from. Sound effects pull that off, but I'm not prone to using lots of ambient sound unless there's a compelling reason to do so. In the Ali Farka Toure piece, there were several compelling reasons. A large part of the actual visit to Niafunke was just getting there. "There" was way out there, and I felt like the remoteness of Niafunke had to be telegraphed some way. Toure's music has a remote, rural (many have called it bluesy) feel, so I wanted to build on that. Sound effects were the way to do s

And finally, I try to let the narrative come naturally. Stories have that naturally temporal element, the beginning, middle, and end. Usually I find that if I just let the story flow out chronologically, and then start answering the questions that remain, I end up with the tale

Why do political issues come up so often in music in your music features

I think a lot of art is political. When I ask musicians, especially young ones, what they think about politically, or if their music has a message, many will say, "We're not political. We leave politics to the politicians." But that's always worth challenging even if it's true. For instance, Cheb Mami, the Algerian rai singer, said that to me in an interview. He comes from one of the most violent countries in the world. He left Algeria because he was unable to perform his music the way he wanted to. He may believe that he's totally apolitical, but how he explains it tells our listeners a lot about Algeria anyway. Personally, I'm interested in what's happening politically around the world, and am always learning something when I produce one of these features. That's what keeps me juiced

*In translating the French voices in this program, you alternate between paraphrasing what the speakers say and having an interpretor translate them. How do you decide when to employ each method? What effect does each have on the flow/tone of the program?

*Whenever I hear a translation overdub on the radio I'm not totally happy. With subtitles, TV doesn't have the challenge of overdubs. But in radio, you go from reality to theater any time you use a translation. Also, there's always the question of how accurate the translation is. I have a pretty fluent understanding of French, but I know that when I translate, when anyone translates, there are certain liberties taken with what's being said. I take into account the tone of the speaker, their emotions, etc., and fold that into my English translation.

*For the Ali Farka Toure story, the story was about him, and he didn't speak any English. In production, if I translated everything he had said, it would have been a pretty tedious 11 minutes. But if I paraphrased his words entirely, that would have been equally tedious. So I mixed it up. I didn't want to jump straight into the translations, in case a listener would hear that and think, "Oh, I have to listen to a translator now for the next ten minutes. I'm outta here." So I saved the longer stretches of translation for the second half of the piece, and used the first half to get into the story, kicking off immediately with a nice long cut of Toure's voice in French, saying how he was really done with performing -- "adieu a la scene." Here the listener got a sense, even in French, of his determination, and it kind of sets up right away what a character he is. Once that was established, I could take the translations in any directionn.

**In the world of documentary audio work, "music documentaries" are quite popular productions. What does it take for a music documentary to really stand out from the others?***

**In no particular order, and not necessarily all in the same story, the exceptional music doc should do the following:***

**A. Give the musicians a face and a personality. The story should show who they are when they're done making music. They're just like you and me. They cook, they have families, they read the paper, and they have concerns about their surroundings and their world.***

**B. Show how the musicians' environments affect their music. Charlie Parker once said, "If you don't live it, it won't come out your horn," and I believe this is true. So how does that translate with each musician?***

**C. Explain why their music is relevant. What is the connection of the music to the world at large?***

**D. Show how the musicians' artistic process evolves.***

**E. Let us hear the music!***

F. Finally, and somewhat abstractly: a really good music documentary, like the music and musician it's documenting, should create a sense of rhythm and momentum with the listener.