British pianist, bandleader, TV presenter and all-round music enthusiast talks to Alexandra Petropoulos about some of the artists who have stood out for him on his BBC TV programme (Photo: BBC/Andre Csillag/Relay Photos)
Jools Holland is certainly a man with a passion for music. In a career that has spanned over 40 years, he was a founding member of the British pop band Squeeze, worked with some of music’s biggest names, leads his own Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, presented or co-presented three separate music TV programmes, and was awarded an OBE for his services to the British music scene. He has become one of the leading figures in the UK’s music industry.
But it is his 20-plus years of hosting BBC’s Later… With Jools Holland where his passion shines the brightest. The show has featured legends and icons of music, but more importantly, has introduced the world to artists previously unknown. “We have a responsibility on our show to reflect the sort of music that is happening now,” Holland tells me. “There are lots of other shows with mainstream pop music and there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s great music; but there’s a lot of music that doesn’t have a window. We want to help introduce people to new things, so it might be new British artists, but it’s also bringing them musicians from the world of folk, jazz or reggae, somebody who the wider public aren’t familiar with.”
Over the course of his time on Later… Holland has seen a marked difference in the way people listen to music. “People are less tribal about the way they approach music. It used to be ‘because I’m into hip-hop I couldn’t possibly like English folk music,’ and so forth. But people are more open-minded and I hope we help with that. We’re only trying to find things that make people’s worlds a bit bigger.”
More than just introducing his viewers to the wider world of music, Holland has opened new doors for the musicians he champions on the show, including countless world music artists. Songlines favourites like Mariza, Raghu Dixit, Angélique Kidjo and Fatoumata Diawara have all passed through his studio, and this is just a small sample of the artists whose music fell upon appreciative, yet unsuspecting, UK ears thanks to Later…
When asked which world music artist has made the biggest impression on him, it’s no great surprise that Holland plucks a pianist from the impressive Later… line-up. Cuban pianist Rubén González was part of the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon and first appeared on Later… in 1997 (his first time in England at the ripe age of 77). “I think the thing that was wonderful about him was his whole attitude. The way he played was beautiful and what he played embodied where he was from. The sophistication and beauty of that music is really spectacular. When he played, you heard that world; you were hearing the history of it through one man.”
Holland has selected another maestro of BVSC, Cuban singer Ibrahim Ferrer, who can be heard on the podcast. When speaking about BVSC, Holland again waxes lyrical about an engrained sense of place and how they capture the spirit of Cuba in their music.
This embodiment of place in music is obviously something Holland really appreciates; he brings it up repeatedly over the course of the interview. He is most captivated by music that is able to transport you. For example, the next artist on his playlist perfectly captured the dark lure of Portugal’s fado houses when she sang ‘Ó Gente da Minha Terra’ on the show. “Mariza, she’s got an amazing, beautiful voice. But one time she came on and had with her an instrument like an acoustic bass mandolin. When you closed your eyes you were in Portugal. It was so fantastic, in that case the sound of the instruments helped to propel you into that place, which was very romantic.”
Another group that transported Holland’s audience, albeit to somewhere closer to home, were The Unthanks. “The Unthanks sound like Northumberland and the North-East of England. It’s not contrived; that’s what they naturally do.” Holland admits that he did have a moment of doubt when selecting them for his playlist. “I was wondering if they were world music. But let’s just say if you were in another part of the world doing this interview, they would be – it’s a very strong Northumbrian music they have.”
As well as the sense of place in music, Holland admires artists whose music is an extension of their personality. “I love it, because you’re engaging with the person when you’re engaging with the music. And I think that happens more with a lot of world music artists.” Always searching for something unique in the music, he found someone who sang her personality when the ‘Barefoot Diva’, Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora, paid his show a visit to sing ‘Petit Pays’. “You want to hear the human voice and the human spirit and I think that’s what she summed up. You heard her spirit when she sang.”
Another spirited artist who has appeared several times on Later… is Beninese singer and powerhouse Angélique Kidjo. “She’s just great because she’s got this energy. Some people are balladeers, and some make you want to skip and dance. She’s definitely a skipper and a dancer, you know, she just gets me going.” It seems fitting then that the track Holland has selected for his playlist, a live performance of ‘Agolo’, begins with her saying “From now on, everybody stand up and dance. No more sitting down.”
Even on this short playlist for Songlines, Holland’s appreciation for the world’s musicians and passion for the power of music shine through boldly. He has faith that music will continue to evolve and that he’ll never run out of fabulous artists to share. “People will keep playing and creating new and beautiful things. There’ll always be something new, which is a great thing.”