Former journalist Scott Allan Stevens discusses his perspective on “world music,” an increasingly ambiguous term and genre that he knows well from his years of hosting KAOS FM’s Spin the Globe radio show and of reviewing music on his blog SoundRoots. (If you are quick enough, you might even win a CD!)

Scott Allan Stevens

How many years has Spin the Globe been in existence and where did you originally get the idea for it? Did the show or the SoundRoots blog come first?

First, thanks for inviting me to Apsara…I appreciate the opportunity to talk to another group of readers with globally open ears and minds!

My radio show Spin the Globe emerged after I’d been listening to global music for more than a decade; this music was essentially the soundtrack to my international studies emphasis at university, my work as a journalist, and some far-flung travels. After four years as an editor at the Christian Science Monitor in Boston, I returned to my native Pacific Northwest and rediscovered the great community and radio stations here. I found out about free training at KAOS FM in Olympia, Washington, and I knew I had musical knowledge and a personal music collection that would add something new to the airwaves, so I signed up. In September 1999, Spin the Globe first aired, and it has been a wild ride ever since.

SoundRoots came along later in 2005 as a way to share CD reviews, a concert calendar, and other info in the time between Spin the Globe episodes. The “Monday’s MP3” posts are probably the most popular; recently I’ve had some guest posts, which is helpful since I’ve had less time to spend blogging. I’d love to post the many interviews I’ve done over the years; I guess that’s a project for the future.

Do you find that the core of your listeners are from Olympia, the South Puget Sound Area in general, or now with the internet are they simply from around the world? What about your SoundRoots readers?

SoundRoots has readers from all over the world, most from the United States and other English-speaking nations, though many visitors are from France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia, among many other places. Spin the Globe has something of a three-pronged audience. First, the listeners of the KAOS broadcast are, of course, concentrated around Olympia. Second, I know a number of listeners catch the show via the live KAOS webstream. And third, Spin the Globe is available online for a few weeks after airing. According to stats for 2011, the show has the most listeners in the United States, Japan, Canada, France, the UK, and Germany. I’ve also received emails from listeners in Serbia, Brazil, Malaysia…you name it. But not North Korea. Not yet, anyway.

“World music,” as you aptly state on the Spin the Glob website, is a bit open to interpretation. If pressed, how do you define it in a few sentences?

How hard are you pressing? Seriously, I’ve thought a lot and written some about this (see my conversation with Scott Kettner of Nation Beat). I’m trying to use the phrase “world music” less and less, though it’s still useful if I have only a moment to convey the idea. Or I’ll say that I’m interested in global music with distinct ethnic roots. And yes, that can include anything from Inuit overtone singing to Ghanian drumming to New Orleans brass bands, as well as modern fusions building on such traditions.

A performance during the 2009 WOMEX festival in Copenhagen. (Flickr/Programa Música Minas)
A performance during the 2009 WOMEX festival in Copenhagen. (Flickr/Programa Música Minas)

In the years that you have been hosting the show and blogging, how do you think that the world music industry has evolved? What do you think are the forces behind any changes that you have seen? Who are the major players nowadays?

The huge shifts in the music industry in general have also hit the “world music” sector, clearly. The internet is probably the single biggest change, allowing artists to connect to listeners more easily and directly and also bringing the scourge of illegal file sharing. For fans of global music, though, the ability to go online to search and buy music from all over the world is amazing. You may be the only person in your city to own a CD by some little-known artist from Kenya or Vietnam…how cool is that?  Some record labels are flailing as the musicians connect directly with fans, cutting out the middleman, and I’m seeing an amazing number of self-released CDs these days. At the same time, it’s great to see innovations by some labels. The Rough Guides are now packaged with an entire bonus CD, for example, and a download will never be as good as getting a complete package such as the CD, DVD, artwork, and extensive liner notes that come with the Smithsonian Folkways recordings. Innovative artists and labels will survive.

How, if at all, has the internet changed the way that you find music to play on your show and review on your blog? What are some of the resources that you use?

The internet is a huge part of the research I do each week as I prepare for Spin the Globe and as I write reviews. For musicians I haven’t seen perform live, YouTube can be a great way to get a sense of their performance style. I’ll also visit band and label websites for info. Many global music labels have freebies to entice visitors, by the way.  For example, Indies Scope usually posts a free song from each of their releases. Download a bunch of those and you’ve got a great Czech compilation!

While I like videos and interviews with artists, I try to avoid reading other reviews before I’ve reviewed an album. It’s much more interesting to read them later and see the points of agreement and difference with other reviewers.

I also follow dozens of music blogs in Google Reader, many of them focusing on older, out of print LPs. For example, I just nabbed a great mbaqanga album from 1979 from Electric Jive. (While I love blogs like this one, I’m aghast at the blogs that post entire new albums for free downloading. If listeners don’t pay for music, artists don’t get paid. If artists don’t get paid, they’ll get another job and listeners lose. It’s that simple. I always post links to the artist’s website and a legitimate source for the music, because SoundRoots is about discovery and exploration, not about giving away free music.*

A Brunswick recording, distributed in China. (Flickr/Bunky's Pickle)
A Brunswick recording, distributed in China. (Flickr/Bunky’s Pickle)

Finally, how do you think that the internet may help or hinder artists around the world, especially independent musicians?

Again, it’s all about the innovation. I’m a photographer as well as a radio DJ and blogger, and photography is going through many of the same issues as the music business. Both involve a product that can be easily stolen and pirated. Like photographers, musicians need to keep up with technology and use it to connect with their audience. The internet (along with tablets, smartphones, and whatever comes next) allows one to reach well beyond the local market to make fans, sell product, and even fund future product through crowdsourcing. Of course the key with music or photography or anything else is to have a quality product to start with. The proliferation of tools to make music (and photos) means we all have to wade through more mediocre offerings. I spend more time than I’d like dealing with music that’s either bad or inappropriate for what I do.

Independent musicians in our turbulent but exciting world can thrive by being good at their craft, observant about their audience, and innovative in connecting the two. And music lovers can contribute by going to live shows and actually buying the music. And, if you happen to live near a community radio station, perhaps by getting your own show to highlight a unique musical niche that the mainstream media ignores. Maybe I’ll see you at KAOS?

*Well, SoundRoots isn’t all about giving away free music. But now and then we like giving away a CD. So head on over and you’ll have a chance to win…let me see what’s kicking around here…Ah! I’ll give away the album Tango 3.0 by Gotan Project. I’ll post the contest about the same time as this interview appears on Apsara. Good luck, and thanks for reading and for your interest in global music with distinct ethnic roots!


The dulcimer a traditional instrument? Not so, says Michael Futreal, a multi-instrumentalist who pushes the boundaries of how people typically view this Appalachian folk instrument. Futreal speaks about growing up as a self-taught musician in North Carolina, his free-spirited approach to the dulcimer, and about his band Twang Darkly.

Michael Futreal performs on electric dulcimer. (Sherry Heflin)

In a few sentences, how would you define your music?

Picture this recurring scene from Twang Darkly shows: someone who has been listening to us for over an hour will come up to us during a set break and ask, “So…what kind of music do y’all play?” I’m always struck dumb by the question. I usually manage to answer something along the lines of “cinematic Appalachian roots rock” or “new-fangled mountain music.”

Here’s the real deal though: in attempting to create new music that I would like to hear, I try to keep myself open to discovering other related music that I want to play. And it really does feel more like discovery than a purely willful act of creation. The Muses are broadcasting on all frequencies, and I can tune into a few of their stations on the broken radio of my rambling Truckaluck. When I stay with the signal long enough, sometimes something magical remains to me through all the rain and rust. These days, I record that stuff as soon as I can, or I just play it for the band and we take it wherever we can.


Who do you consider to be your earliest musical influences? How did growing up in North Carolina and in a musically inclined family shape your first experiences with music? What is the biggest impact of your earlier influences and experiences on your music today?

My brother Andy taught himself to play guitar over the course of my childhood. There weren’t lessons and there were few, if any, how-to books—there was just a guitar. He had an acoustic, but he was primarily playing electric rock like Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult, and Jethro Tull, and that seemed perfectly acceptable to him. I remember him playing Mike Post’s TV stuff like the theme from Magnum PI…he’d create complete arrangements on the acoustic guitar for some of those TV themes. So as I grew up, he was demonstrating that music was something that you could do, not just purchase.

We grew up in Warsaw, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina…the 1970s and 80s for me. Taking charge of our own experiences was paramount because, well, there wasn’t much to do otherwise. We had no cable TV; we had books, records, a basketball goal, some lawn mowers, and four TV channels. Our parents would take us to Raleigh and we’d hit the giant flea market (comics and records!), the mall, and maybe a movie. I wanted to recreate everything that was important and enjoyable out of those excursions. I made silly movies with our 8mm camera. I created comics. It was inevitable that I’d eventually want to start making music too, and that wish took hold as I started to notice how much Dire Straits and Springsteen were speaking to me as I transitioned into those angst-filled teenage years. Love, desire, romance, blues, mojo…you name it, and I could have all those things through music in a way that I couldn’t pull off any other way.

As it happens, Springsteen and [Mark] Knopfler were very self-consciously experimenting with American folk music traditions, and this dovetailed nicely with the increased time we were spending in the North Carolina mountains. We’d traveled there nearly every summer as I grew up, but we started going a lot more as I got older. As we’d haunt folklife museums, craft guild shows, and any odd store we’d come across, I’d encounter a lot of Appalachian dulcimers (though not nearly enough actual music).  By the end of my senior year in high school, we’d actually moved to Asheville. Before starting college that fall, I got my first dulcimer with some money my grandmother had left for me. As I was already playing guitar and harmonica, I set up a crude, bounce-based recording system using two cassette recorders, hoping to do stuff along the lines of what Springsteen had accomplished with Nebraska.


Music by Twang Darkly, Futreal’s band, accompanies video footage from his family’s early vacations to the North Carolina mountains. 

Another piece of the puzzle, I think, comes from my oldest brother, Bill. Knowing I was interested in blues and folk stuff, he wisely told me to seek Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Wolf’s the Real Folk Blues was a revelation to me. And Hooker N Heat…oh my god! How could anything so completely off-the-hook…so clearly performed without any plan…be so fabulously dead-on kick-ass? As usual, I wanted to be able to do that sort of thing too! It turns out to be a lifelong project, of course.

You started out playing harmonica, and would sometimes practice in the woods. What was this experience like? Do you still try out new instruments in this type of setting?

I used to take a Walkman into the woods and play along with Springsteen and Howling Wolf cassettes, because: a) you really can’t play harmonica so quietly, and b) when you first start, you really can’t play so well. So this was simply my best option for letting loose without driving everyone else crazy, and not the more enlightened communing-with-nature that it might seem. That said, I love the woods, and love to hike. I generally enjoy the birds and rustling leaves more than my own sound though, so I try to keep the mojo down low!

I really don’t do this sort of thing now, as the new instruments I’m inclined to try are often variations on instruments I already play to some degree. My wife is pretty used to strange sounds emanating from my side of the house, in any case, and she mostly doesn’t mind. I do wait for her to leave before I give that lamentable bamboo saxophone the business though.

“Crossing Thistledown”

Futreal on harmonica (his first instrument), dulcimer, and electric guitar.

When did you shift to the dulcimer as your primary instrument? What is it about the dulcimer that led you to make the switch?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a primary instrument, but I’ve certainly decided to allow myself to focus more on the mountain dulcimer without regret. My older habit had been always to move on to something out of my comfort zone. For instance, if I was feeling pretty good about my dulcimer playing, Iâ’d try to focus on recording more banjo or what have you. I like to learn, and I like where coping with uncertainty pushes you.

The thing I love most about the dulcimer is the way you can surf the tension between the open droning strings and the limited notes available on the diatonic fret board (the dulcimer is missing frets, such that only a major scale plus a flat seven can be played on a given string). The interplay of those patterns across the strings shapes your expression similarly to the way a rule-set applied to poetry (e.g., writing in sonnet form) fosters an altered state of creativity.

“Devil’s Stompin’ Ground”

Demonstrating the range of what a dulcimer can do.

Even better, because of the weird fretboard, when you re-tune, capo, or re-string the dulcimer (I play with at least six different tunings across two different string arrangements), you get dramatically different musical possibilities. Suddenly, it’s not just sonnets, but villanelles and sestinas.

The dulcimer has also shaped the way I hear and play other instruments. When I’m playing guitar, banjo, or even gourdtar, I often employ very similar kinds of approaches, allowing some strings to drone while I pursue modal melodies and chords that work against the drones. I use a lot of dulcimer-inspired “alternate tunings.”

Sailing in the Junkyard Sea, an album you released with your brother Andy, features the oud. How did you decide to pair a North African/Middle Eastern instrument with Appalachian folk instruments like dulcimer and banjo?

I wish I could tell a good story about the epiphany that put these things together, but in this specific case it has more to do with what instruments were on hand and what happened that particular day…our only plan was to play and record whatever happened. So most of the tracks on that album, including the title track, began life as pure improvisations recorded live during two days in Cambridge, UK. Andy usually has a simple stereo recorder set up in his den, right next to a bunch of acoustic instruments, including laud, oud, and several guitars. He keeps each of his guitars in a different tuning (which I started doing myself after that session), so they really are effectively different instruments. The title track “Sailing the Junkyard Sea” happened when I randomly picked up a guitar and started playing along with something he happened to be doing on the oud at that moment. As soon as there are two of us playing, we’re drawn into some flow…and something beyond either of us emerges.

“Sailing the Junkyard Sea”

Title track from Michael and Andy Futreal’s album.

At some point, I’ll probably reconstruct the essence of my part in that recording and then unleash it within a Twang Darkly session to see where it goes. Bassist/guitarist Joel Boultinghouse and I work together in a substantially similar way, just riding the resonances that happen when we start playing.

More broadly, though, I just really enjoy unexpected combinations of instruments. From my point of view, getting too hung up on tradition and what “goes together” risks comfortably reproducing expectation at the expense of creativity. It’s not that traditional musical forms and instrument matchups can’t be creative tools, but more that I simply enjoy going sideways.

You first started playing dulcimer in an unusual style at a medieval-themed dinner in college. Since that time, in what other ways have you pushed the boundaries of how people normally think a dulcimer should be played?

Well, some folks would be quick to point out that I play electric dulcimer with free use of distortion, neither of which is “traditional.” I think the electricity brings a new layer of expressiveness to the instrument. It is easier to work with electrics in a live setup, which is part of why I do it, but I’d be needlessly limiting myself if I ignored the additional musical possibilities that the electric dulcimer offers.

I think another aspect that puts me in a minority has to do with the way I maneuver outside one of the supposedly important division within our ranks. That is, the dulcimer-playing community seems to be concerned over the distinction between traditional “drone and noter” playing and modern “chord style” playing. I’m certainly willing to play chords and chord fragments, but drones figure prominently in what I do, and I’ll often use these chord fragments as a way to play harmonized modal melodies.

“Greensleeves in Blue”

Twang Darkly’s rendition of a famous English folk song.

I’ve encountered folks who talk about the dulcimer as a “traditional” instrument and get rather defensive about how it should be handled, what repertoire it should play, etc. According to dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith, though, the dulcimer tradition only seems to date back into the early 19th century, maybe 1818 or so. Before that, there were no mountain dulcimers, but rather some folks migrating south from Pennsylvania with a different instrument, the scheitholt (a Germanic zither). Once these folks got among the Scotch/Irish people down in the Virginia Appalachians, someone broke with tradition and created something entirely new. I’ll bet that probably tweaked some of the scheitholt players. Traditions arise from change, so I figure it’s fine to be willing to try new things with “old” instruments.

The bottom line here is that I’m not too keen on arbitrary limitations based on supposed tradition. I make choices, yes, but I don’t find it too useful to believe that my choices in one circumstance mean that I’m obligated to make similar choices across the board. And I certainly don’t believe that someone else having made a choice a long time ago warrants any special consideration simply because a lot of folks followed suit so as not to “do it wrong.” Tradition is valuable, but never more so than when it provides building blocks for “new” ideas.

The members of Twang Darkly jamming together. (Courtesy Michael Futreal)

Of all of your musical projects over the years, what is your favorite to date? What is your latest Twang Darkly project?

I’d have to say that the band Twang Darkly itself is my favorite musical project to date. We’re building an extensive repertoire, both from our ongoing re-imagining of my older material, as well as from the outpouring of new material that our collaboration has prompted. We’re feeling out how we can perform and what our music can be.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and guitar) and Troy Messina (drums). They’re gifted musicians with an almost supernatural ability to ride a groove wherever it leads. I have a very loose improvisational approach with most of our material, elaborating on the structure and melodies in whatever ways seem right on a given night. Joel and Troy are always right there with me: we’re listening to each other and feeling our way. Being part of that is like an out-of-body experience sometimes. I think, “How are we doing this?” But this is the best part of music, being in a non-verbal resonance with your musical partners. It’s a powerful and fine intimacy to share.

I’m very excited that we’e about to embark on recording a new album. Our first collection, Live from Wire Mountain, was recorded very simply with a recorder out in front of our PA at rehearsals. For the new stuff, I’ve invested our Twang earnings into a new studio setup that can better accommodate a band. We’ll likely still record the core of the songs live, because that’s what we do best, but we’ll also be willing to do a bit of the fleshing out that a studio approach affords…things like adding a bass line to a tune where Joel and I are both playing guitar for the live version. Maybe I’ll explore more flute and such too.  Who knows? We’re making it all up as we go! I hope somebody listens to this new album and wonders, â”What kind of music is that?”


Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)
Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)

Given that many of the seeds of American folk music traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with the country’s early European immigrants, it is not entirely out of the question then that some of the techniques and sounds that evolved over the past couple of centuries should eventually double back. On Remember, an album originally released in 2009 by guitarist Yair Yona, American folk music has traveled through the Straits of Gibraltar and found its way to Israel.

Reissued last year, Remember boasts 10 masterful (and musically witty) fingerstyle guitar melodies embodied with the spirit of American and British masters of the genre and, of course, Yona’s own wonderful creativity. The tracks consist largely of fingerstyle acoustic guitar, with a variety of other instruments and different styles of music joining in on some of the songs.

“Russian Dance”

On the track “Russian Dance,” for example, Yona conjures up the sound of a Russian folk dance. The instruments—12-string guitar, banjo, accordion, and mandolin (sounding like a balalaika)—blend perfectly here, with the banjo carrying much of the tune. Through the changes in tempo and intensity, it is not difficult to imagine the dance steps that would accompany the song.

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through (As It Carries the Passenger Fahey On It)”

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through” pays homage to late guitarist John Fahey, and is another song in which Yona’s talent for sonic imagery displays itself. Electric guitar builds the crescendo behind six-string acoustic guitar, signifying the floodgate opening and the passage of a large ship through it. As the melody winds down, the heavy gate closes and the ship continues on its path downriver.

Remember is by far one of the most original and enjoyable albums that I have discovered this summer. Listen to it for just a few minutes, and you will find yourself unconsciously tapping your feet and swaying your head in time to the rhythm of its pleasingly twangy melodies. Be sure to check it out, as well as Yona’s site, which contains samples of his forthcoming album due out later this year.


London’s Lucumi Choir—a non-audition, all-volunteer group—presents stirring vocal and percussion arrangements of Santeria liturgical songs and contemporary Cuban music. Established in 2006, this community-based group attracts artists from around the world. Founder and director Daniela Rosselson speaks about the experience of growing the choir over the past several years.

Full choir at the Barbican Theatre, February 2008. (Reynaldo Trombetta)
Full choir at the Barbican Theatre, February 2008. (Reynaldo Trombetta)

When did you first encounter Cuban music?

I first encountered Cuban music in the late 1970s. First, via music with Cuban roots, such as salsa, and also via my father, who was interested in the nueva trova movement in Cuba.

After that, the first couple of live bands I saw at Ronnie Scott’s [a London jazz club] in the early 1980s were in the shape of Irakere and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s Grupo Proyecto. I also saw the Conjunto Folklórico, which came to visit the UK at that time.

How did you get the idea for the London Lucumi Choir, especially its being a non-audition, volunteer group? What is the meaning of the name?

I am a initiate of the Lucumi faith also known as Santeria. I have been practicing this faith for over 24 years, and there is a whole liturgy of spiritual songs associated with it. The songs are beautiful and I had the idea of forming the choir since I wished to have a large collection of voices singing them with modern vocal arrangements.

I am also a musician, singer, arranger, and teacher, and I find all my skills and interests combined in this project. The choir is non-audition since it is a community choir, and therefore does not wish to exclude any member of the community.

Many people believe they cannot sing. This choir encourages people like that, and indeed most people can and should sing. As a teacher of singing, I have very rarely encountered truly tone-deaf people. There is very little to no funding these days for the arts, and therefore the choir is run by myself on a voluntary basis although I receive a small token amount for teaching every week.

Solo dancer, January 2011. (Savinien Zuri -Thomas)
Solo dancer, January 2011. (Savinien Zuri -Thomas)

How do you describe the music that the choir performs? What are some of the different cultures and traditions that it represents?

The music consists mostly of spiritual songs from the Lucumi tradition although we also perform other Afro-Cuban genres, such as rumba, tumba francesa, palo, and so on.

We present songs from contemporary Cuba. These songs are now sung all over the world since the Lucumi faith has become widespread and there are practitioners in many countries, including the United States.

We also have performed a contemporary piece of music by Nigerian composer Juwon Ogungbe based on a Yoruban tale. The Lucumi tradition originates from the Yoruban lands of West Africa.

What has your experience been like growing the choir over the past several years? How many members does it currently have?

This has been my first community project. We have between 14 and 25 members, but not everyone turns up to all rehearsals. We have had over 65 people pass through the choir’s doors [since we began in 2006] and we have around 15 original members.

Running the choir is a difficult projectcommitment is the most challenging issue with people continuously coming and going. Since people see the project as a hobby rather than a job, they have a relaxed attitude in terms of participation. That is the most difficult problem,  especially in terms of performing and recording. However, it is also very rewarding.

There are fewer egos [in the Lucumi Choir] than I have encountered with professional music projects, and I have seen many members develop from being quite shy and unconfident to singing lead solo parts. I have also noticed that people’s aural and dance skills improve with time and dedication. People that found harmony difficult now sing harmonies unprompted.

The most challenging projects that we have done up until this point have been singing in the BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year competition in 2008, and learning the piece by Juwon Ogungbe by heart. We have also performed this work with dancers, which was a new challenge. I am always looking for new and interesting projects to do.

Yoruba Arts Festival, August 2010. Courtesy London Lucumi Choir.
Yoruba Arts Festival, August 2010. Courtesy London Lucumi Choir.

Because this is a community-based choir, do you find that most of your support is local, or do you find that you attract interest  from people across the nation and even worldwide?

Interest in the choir is worldwide, and we have had members visit from the United States and Canada for the experience of singing with us. Most people that join are looking for a choir with a difference, and have either a spiritual interest in the Santeria faith or have an interest in Cuban or African culture in the diaspora.

Members come from all over and they must really want to take part since it is quite a distance for some people. The fact that we sing accompanied by drums also inspires people that want to sing, but do not want a stuffy environment. Others love to sing, but cannot read music and this choir does not require them to do that.

What is the album project you are currently working on? When will it be released?

We have been together for six years and so we decided to make an album. It will be released later on this year. It contains spiritual and social songs, and features some of Cuba’s top percussionists performing with members of the choir. I hope that people will buy the CD and help keep the choir going.

To experience music by the London Lucumi Choir and to learn more about the history and traditions behind it, visit the group’s website and ReverbNation page.


California's Mojave Desert (photo by Besdos)
California’s Mojave Desert (photo by Besdos)

Canadian musicians Béatrice Martin and Jay Malinowski offer up five tracks of vintage-sounding pop evocative of 1950s and 60s western music on their February 2011 release Armistice.

Through their instrumentization and lyrics, the songs on this album are filled with nostalgia for driving through the lonely desert, stopping at remote diners and gas stations. Song titles like “Jeb Rand” and “Neon Love” hint at what the album offers. Los Angeles-based punk band the Bronx—in the guise of “Mariachi El Bronx”—provides the instrumental backing to Martin and Malinowski’s low-fi vocals.

Short and sweet, “Armistice” is fun but definitely not kitsch. It brings a smile and a warm feeling, like listening to Patsy Cline on AM radio or catching the closing credits of Rawhide.