Back in the pre-historic era of the 1960s and ’70s, our favourite entertainment was to twiddle the dials of the family radio to navigate through the crackling, fizzing waves of static and catch Radio Ceylon.
The radio would be turned on first thing in the morning to listen to Purane Filmon ke Sangeet (a programme that always ritually ended with a song by KL Saigal). And then we would quickly switch to the English channel, where announcers like the legendary “Happy-go-lucky Greg” Roskowski brought us the latest pop hits, and requests from listeners in places like Dehradun, Jamalpur, Bitragunta and Tellicherry.
There were also other fuzzier stations like BBC, Radio Kuwait and Voice of America, where an announcer named Phil something-or-other presented the latest music and news, interspersed with the sunny catch-phrase “If you see someone without a smile, give him one of your own”. But it was Radio Ceylon that was the big favourite. Old-timers even remember requests coming in from King Mahendra of Nepal, who was a great jazz aficionado.
These childhood memories came back to me recently, after I chanced upon Radio Garden, a really cool music website which has compiled over 8,000 internet radio channels from around the planet, and presents them through an ingenious Google Earth-like interface which you operate with the simple flick of a fingertip on your phone.
Whatever your taste in music – pop, jazz, classical, boogie-woogie, bebop, rockabilly, punk rock, acid rock, Gothic rock, Death Metal, Grunge, Post-Grunge, or simply Easy Listening, chances are there are channels out there, waiting for you to click on them. Indeed, Radio Garden seems to custom-make internet radio for the fans of niche genres of music that are usually hard to find.
Navigating this vast world of music makes one feels like a kid in a candy store: a flick of the finger can bring you uninterrupted hot jazz direct from New Orleans.
Or salsa from Rio de Janeiro.
Or rumba from Havana.
Or J-Pop from Tokyo.
Or the latest hits from Barcelona, Paris, Milan or Hamburg – accompanied by RJ patter in languages that you cannot understand, but it really doesn’t matter because it just sounds so charming.
Discoveries and disappointments
In the process I made serendipitous discoveries:
Like finding channels in West Africa that serve up great French pop music.
Or like locating a channel in Johannesburg that brings you the famously kinetic mbaqang music of South Africa. And another channel in Kinshasa that brings you the celebrated ndule music of the Congo.
Or like the epiphany that the world’s greatest music probably comes from that arc of little islands that loop down from Miami to Venezuela – perhaps because they marry a Latino sound with Afro rhythms – a musical match made in heaven.
Or like chancing upon a channel named Akash Vani in the Caribbean, that offers a mix of bhajans and Bollywood (although its RJs, rather incongruously, speak a Trinidadian-accented brand of English, instead of the kind of Creolised Hindi that one would have expected – and loved to hear).
Or like going to London and discovering no less than 150 different channels, including Greek, Polish, French, Punjabi, Malayalam, Pushto, Bengali, Nepali, Sinhalese – as well as a unique channel that consists of a continuous, uninterrupted stream of birdsong.
But there were also some small disappointments:
Like going across the globe to St Petersburg and Moscow to listen to the great Western classical music that Russia was known for – but finding only a generic homogenised offering of Radiohead, Rihanna and Robbie Williams instead. Which is the price of globalisation, I suppose.
Or like going to Pyongyang to enjoy a taste of surreal North Korean propaganda, only to find that Pyongyang is just a blank spot on the internet radio map. (Surely an important lost propaganda opportunity for Kim Jong-un.)
Or like the fact that there is no easy way to identify the content of a channel as you search – something that a simple one-line descriptor would fix.
But these are minor quibbles, given the sumptuous musical buffet that is laid out for our pleasure.
Listening to the world
Radio Garden started out as a Dutch social research project on how to use radio to cross geographical and language barriers, and connect people with different cultures around the planet – a kind of Radio Sans Frontieres, if you like. The brilliantly friendly interface was then developed by the interactive design studio, Studio Puckey. The result of this effort is to give you the wonderful feeling of being a citizen of the world, wandering at will across a planet with no political identities, only geographical features and tiny green dots to indicate its cities. And when you listen to the music that emanates from around this planet – whether from Shanghai or Stockholm or San Francisco – it seems to reiterate the adage that what we have in common with each other is greater than what sets us apart. A comforting reminder in today’s troubled, fractured world.
Thanks to Radio Garden, I now wake up to music from Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, and doze off at night listening to music from Chicago and Vancouver. And, in between, my home is filled with the sounds of Tel Aviv, Amsterdam, Jamaica and Mexico City, depending on my mood and whim. The world has become my own personal jukebox.
And I cannot help but marvel at the long, long way technology has brought me from the old radio set of my childhood on which I voyaged through oceans of static to catch Radio Ceylon and ‘Happy-go-lucky Greg’ Roskowski.