My World: Don Letts

This feature originally appeared in Songlines #102 (August/September 2014) p8. Download a pdf here.

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BBC 6Music DJ, musician and film director Don Letts is credited with bringing together punk and reggae music. Alexandra Petropoulos finds out about the music that speaks to him, no matter where it’s from

“I’m by no means an expert on world music,” DJ and filmmaker Don Letts tells me while we sit surrounded by records and sound equipment in his ‘man cave’ at the end of his appropriately jungle-like garden. Based on his playlist, I’d guess he’s just being modest.

Letts is like an encyclopaedia of musical knowledge. After all he is, in his own words, “as old as rock’n’roll” and recognised by his sizeable body of work in both music and film between the late 70s and 90s. He is credited with single-handedly introducing the punk scene to reggae music, which in turn influenced some of London’s legendary bands like The Clash. He’s directed music videos for a dizzying range of artists including Bob Marley, Elvis Costello and Baaba Maal, as well as directing countless music documentaries. A well-founded knowledge of music is not something he lacks.

“I am a product of 60 years of [rock’n’roll] culture. It’s all been a part of my life. I’ve either been touched by it or inspired by it somehow, so I’m very much a product of the possibility that music has, because it kind of helped me to be all I can be.” Though he does find himself worrying about the future of the music industry: “Western music is suffering from disappearing up its own bottom, and I’m being very polite here. Everyone is dipping from the same pool and reading the same book. It has desperately needed a breath of new life for a very long time, and that’s going to come from all these other places.” Letts expects Western music’s new lease of life to come from artists like those on his playlist – ones who tap into something unique and reach beyond the formula that has become what we know as popular music.

“I’ll tell you what’s a great thing, WOMAD. There are all these young people that are smarter than the average player and realise popular music isn’t what it used to be, not maximising its potential. They recognise the repetition, and the fact that it’s regurgitating itself. It’s really heartening to see all of them listening to these new and different sounds, and that’s a buzz.”

And turning audiences onto new and different sounds is something close to his heart. It’s exactly what he aims to do with his weekly BBC 6Music show, Culture Clash Radio. “I like to try and somehow represent the rest of the planet every week, and in my constant search to find music to turn on the people, I invariably turn myself on…” Which is how he first stumbled across one of his playlist choices, the Creole Choir of Cuba’s ‘Dulce Embelezo’.

In fact it seems that ‘stumbling’ is his favourite mode of musical discovery. Many of the artists he brings up are chance findings – the subtle soundtrack to a movie scene or in the case of another of his playlist choices, a killer track on a funky compilation. ‘Siki, Siki Baba’ is a mash-up of Brussels-based DJ and producer Gaëtano Fabri and the Gypsy band Kocani Orkestar from Macedonia. “I got this on one of these Future World Funk compilations. But, hey, for a lot of people that’s an easy way in. And what is interesting about those comps is that there is this total culture clash of styles that obviously speaks to me, because you know, I’m all about the culture clash.”

It is only fitting then that there is another mash-up on his playlist, but this time it’s bossa nova meets electronic music from Brazil’s Lucas Santtana. Letts obviously has an affinity for Brazilian music, quoting some of the country’s greats – Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Chico Buarque – among his favourite world artists. So how did he first stumble across Brazilian music? “I think the question is how do you not get into Brazilian music?” Though upon reflection he realises that it was likely thanks to adventurous black American artists who explored Brazilian rhythms in their music. “So I was picking up on the rhythms and music without even realising it.”

Setting his sights across the Atlantic for his next choice, Letts selects the track ‘Fanta’ by Baaba Maal. “He’s one of the dons of Africa, isn’t he? I love the guy. I’ve had the great pleasure of working with Baaba. I’ve done a video for him in Senegal and Jamaica.” He admits his trip to Senegal was one of only a handful of forays to Africa, but it was his first, while filming in the 90s, that was the most memorable. “It was a bit shambolic, but it was a trip for me because that was when I got lost in the Namib Desert and nearly died. Funnily enough I got rescued by some German safari guys. I’ve never been so glad to see white people in my entire life, I tell you, oh man!”

For his final playlist track, Letts delves into the world of Bollywood. “My mother is Jamaican but she’s of Indian descent, so [Bollywood] is part of my blood. Seriously, it’s in my DNA, and I know that because the music just speaks to me.” He’s mainly talking about classic Bollywood, and Lata Mangeshkar in particular. “My mum doesn’t acknowledge her Indian heritage at all. It’s just one of these things I stumbled on somehow, and it just struck a chord. It is something that’s very hard to vocalise. You know, it’s spiritual stuff…” The more he speaks about music, the more you realise that it really is a spiritual outlet for him.

Letts believes music is something deep and meaningful. Even though it might get you “shaking your arse,” he finds the voice of God buried in the music. “In many cases I just hear sounds and they speak to me on an instinctive and intuitive level, and I don’t know why. I would never even question it. You either get it or you don’t. I think that’s ultimately what music is about… There are all these different wavelengths out there, and some of them connect with people and some of them don’t but luckily, if you’re tuned into the planet, I’m sure there’s a soundtrack for you somewhere. God is good like that.”

 

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