Rachel Hopkin

Folklorist and Radio Producer

About Musical Migrants

10 December, 2013

Not long ago, my fellow folklorist/radio producer – Meredith Martin-Moats – asked me to contribute a short essay for her excellent blog which coincided with the re-broadcast of the third series of Musical Migrants on BBC Radio 4. (You can still listen to the series online here.) Here’s the piece I wrote for her:-

Musical Migrants is an ongoing series that I make for BBC Radio 4 and the World Service. Each program is a presenter-less audio portrait about a person whos moved to a new home because theyve fallen in love with a particular genre of music. For example, series one included a Belgian bandoneonist (Eva Wolff) who now lives in Buenos Aires because of her love for tango music. Series two featured a Canadian/English woman (Maureen Sheridan) who relocated to Jamaica following the suicide of her husband because she found reggae music restored her sense of joy. And series three kicked off with the Brazilian Jesse Lee Jones, whose American Dream brought him to Nashville where he now runs one of the citys premier honkytonks.

The seed for Musical Migrants was sown almost 10 years ago when I received a grant to go on a field trip to the southern Appalachians to explore local music making traditions. During that trip, I found that a lot of people who were very active in the old time music scene were transplants who had moved to the mountains largely because of the music. One of the people I met at that time, Bruce Greene (who was described to me as the alpha fiddler) took part in the first series.

When I initially pitched the idea of Musical Migrants to the BBC in 2007, Bruce was the only migrant I had in mind. Once the series got commissioned, I had one of those oh crap moments when I wondered how on earth I was going to find four other people to make up the series. And finding the right people is the hardest part. Its not that there arent lots of people who move for music  there are – but not all of them are able to express the whys and wherefores of their relocation. In addition, Im pretty specific about what Im not looking for, which rules out a lot of candidates. For example, Im not looking for people who move to a place because it has a good music scene in general, or in order to go to music college for a defined period of study or do a short period of field work and then leave. Im also not looking for people who take the music from their homeland with them and introduce it to a different audience (although I think thats a really interesting subject).

Rachel with Ann Savoy in LouisanaIdeally I want people whove moved because somehow the music conjures up for them the sense of a life that they somehow cant live in their native environment  for example, Ann Savoy, who was born in Richmond VA, told me she was raised to be a southern lady, but she was drawn to Cajun music because of its wild freedom; Yoke Noge experienced a raw emotion through listening to Chicago blues music that otherwise went largely unexpressed in Osaka, Japan, where she is from.

Pedro and Victoria Padro Carrillo in MilanIn order to prepare for each series, I send out around five hundred search emails and then make around fifty calls to prospective migrants to find out a little more about them. Sometimes I find people in a relatively logical fashion. For example, I learned of the Italy-based Venezuelan opera singer, Pedro Carrillo, by thinking if I wanted to relocate to Italy for opera, how would I go about it? As a result, I contacted a number of language schools that specialized in courses for singers and one of them put me onto Pedro. But sometimes its totally serendipitous  I got wind of Yoko Noge via a friend of a friend who had mentioned my quest. My friends friend just happened to have spent some time working in a bar in Chicago where Yoko had a regular gig.

I really enjoy producing these programs; I find it fascinating to learn how people create a sense of home in a foreign place through their love of music. Their stories also resonate with me because that field trip looking at southern Appalachians music kick-started my own love affair with Americas traditional culture (Im originally from Britain) which is why, 10 years on, Im in the final furlong of an MA in Folk Studies at Western Kentucky University.