The Audible WorldAn Interview wit Yatrika Shah-Rais

Photo of Yatrika Shah-Rais by Sheila Masson


  1. GH: I am struck and amazed by the many different kinds of music that you play on your show. Last Wednesday [April 3 2002] you started off your day of Global Village with the Paul Hillier Ensemble performing seventeenth-century Russian music, followed by pieces from the Elizabethan composer John Dowland and the contemporary composer John Tavenerall
    Zbigniew Preisner
    Zbigniew Preisner
    music that might be termed “classical” music, but probably would not be programmed on a “classical” music station. And then you gave thirty minutes of air time to Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem for My Friend

    YS-R: … A composer who’s hardly ever played anywhere …

    GH: … and certainly would not be played at that length, even on a classical station. Your choices of all those different kinds of “classical” musics covering a span of almost four hundred years on that segment of your program, as well as the wide variety of the music that followed, really piqued my curiosity not only about your background in music, but about you as a person.

  2. YS-R: First of all, I’m from Iran. I was born there and I lived there until I was about sixteen years old. I grew up in a family that was very supportive of music, a family of music lovers. I have an elder brother, and both of us studied classical piano from an early age. My father had a more eclectic taste, in the sense that he also enjoyed flamenco music, European-style world music, and a lot of classical music. My mother was the “classical” music person. So, I got a classical music appreciation from the both of them.

    Yatrika Shah-RaisYatrika Shah-RaisYatrika Shah-RaisYatrika Shah-Rais

  3. My brother was five years older than me and at that time listening to The Beatles and stuff like that, so there was where the rock and roll element came in. I remember that he used to come home after buying these records—45s—and he’d play these singles, and we’d be singing, “Oh yeah! I want to hold your hand!” [laughs] He was very much my elder brother, my inspiration, in introducing me to rock and roll, and then to alternative rock.

  4. Of course there was the classical inspiration that was coming from my parents, and the fact that my brother and I were both playing classical piano. I played piano for quite a while, and stopped when I got too involved with work. I have moved a lot and couldn’t take a piano with me. To tell you the truth, my fingers are very rusty right now … especially my left hand, which trails behind the right!

  5. The world music element … but for us it wasn’t “world music” at the time. We were living in Iran, so when we would listen to Persian music, it was just Persian music—it had nothing to do with “world” music.

    GH: It probably wasn’t even “Persian” music for you, it was probably just “music.”

    YS-R: Yes, just “music.” We wouldn’t have identified it with any specific "West Meets East"category in the sense that I would have wanted to label it.

  6. I think, historically, that elements of world music and the concept of “world music” started creeping in with first experiments of some of the classical and rock ensembles. For example, Yehudi Menuhin and Ravi ShankarWest Meets East [1967] when they started collaborating, and the Sitar Concerto of Ravi Shankar. In terms of rock and roll, I remember I first heard Mike Oldfield’s Ommadawn [1975]—there was so much African drumming that was taking place in there. At the time I wasn’t even really relating to the fact that this was African drumming or not. I was still young. But it was all extremely appealing in terms of the sounds.
  7. My family left Iran in 1975—my brother left earlier—and we went to live in London. Afterwards, I went to live in France where I lived during my university years. In France you get exposed to a lot of world music, because at that time the presence of Africans and North Africans—Moroccans, Algerians, and Tunisians—was very strong. And that was how I was introduced to the music of Africa. And the music of Brazil, because Brazilian music was hot at the time. There wasn’t much happening for middle-eastern music, so any knowledge that I had about middle-eastern music was based on my own background and nationality. My background is in International Relations and Languages—that’s what I graduated in. I was first at the University of Nice—I got a Masters there. Then I did postgraduate studies and a doctoral degree at the European Institute for Advanced International Studies. It was called “International Relations,” but it had a very European focus and was very much about the Euro and the European Economic Community.

  8. When I came to America it was always with the objective of being able to work for an international organization and being able to travel. At first I worked for an environmental organization, and then for the New York City Commission on Human Rights. It was when I moved to New York that all of my musical interests came together because I was exposed to the very cosmopolitan culture there. Living in New York I started exploring lots and lots of different things and I became extremely curious about what the music of all these different cultures sounded like. If I had a Dominican friend, or a Haitian friend, I thought, “What are they listening to?” So, we would all just exchange music.

  9. My real dream was to be able to scout talent: I had this dream of helping some of these musicians get better known and broadcast on the radio. Always inside of me there was this pining for the artistic world. I said to myself, “I’m just a consumer of music—I’m not doing anything about it, and I really want to get involved.” I also realized that everything that I was involved with at work was policy making and lobbying: when you are in an environmental organization you are lobbying all the time, and when you are working for the Commission on Human Rights you are constantly investigating, fact-finding on cases, writing your summaries, and taking them to another lawyer who takes them before the judge. The whole nature of my job was conflict and conflict resolution. I felt that there must be a better way of bringing people together. I realized that the reason why people had so many conflicts and that there was so much discrimination was that people were scared of one another, or felt threatened. For example, there are people who have all these ideas about gays or lesbians, or people who have AIDS, and have this constant fear, and don’t try to understand what that other person is about as a person and not label them by race, religion, color of skin, sexual orientation …

  10. GH: … relating to one person at a time, rather than through stereotypes …

  11. YS-R: Exactly, exactly. There is a lot of discrimination against African-Americans, against disabled people, against Hispanics, against people of other origins. I felt, well, it would be so much nicer if we found something that all of these people could enjoy—and one of the easiest things to enjoy is music. It’s much easier to enjoy than reading in someone else’s language, since there is no language barrier.

  12. GH: You were mentioning earlier that even as a child that you were responding to all these different kinds of sounds as sounds …

    YS-R: … Yes …

    GH: … because music can be experienced as a sort of unmediated sensual experience where you either like it or don’t like it on that visceral level. And with that immediate reaction you can easily find something that you like.

    Yatrika Shah-RaisYatrika Shah-RaisYatrika Shah-RaisYatrika Shah-Rais

  13. YS-R: Exactly. Music is very broad and there’s something there for everyone, so you can really enjoy it. That’s what I thought. Well I said, “I love music, and I’ve always wanted to be immersed in it and explore it. So, let’s do something about it.”

  14. To tell you the truth I changed … I left my job—left all the benefits, left everything. I decided that I had to take another direction in life, but I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t have an arts degree to find a job, so I started volunteering.

  15. The first place that I volunteered for was WNYC radio, which is a public radio station. I was listening to it a lot because of a program there called “New Sounds” with John Schaefer that’s aired every night at 11 o’clock New York time. It is a phenomenal program because it is extremely eclectic and diverse: it was not just world music oriented, it was really new music oriented—things that you don’t get to hear on any commercial station or even non-commercial stations. And I said this is a wonderful learning experience, let me see if I can volunteer my help and my services to WNYC. And lo and behold, they just said, “Yes, yes, come on in—we always need help.”

  16. On the first day I remember, they gave me a lot of envelopes to fill, label, and put stamps on. The next day—actually in the afternoon—they came to me and said, “Maybe you’d like to do something a little … different?” And I said, “Whatever you need to get done, I’ll do.” And gradually I became more and more involved. I started listening to the CDs. John receives piles of CDs, mountains of CDs that were almost impossible for any one person to go through and to deal with. He was the director of FM music programming, so he would receive all the CDs and he had to filter them to the right shows. But he also had to figure what would work on his own show. So I would listen, and even suggest tracks—“This track or that track might work on your show.” Of course, he would also listen to it first. But he started trusting me and that exposed me to a wider variety of music—no longer just world music, or classical, or jazz, but new music—minimalist music, such as La Monte Young, Steve Reich, and Lou Harrison.

    La Monte YoungSteve ReichLou Harrison

    La Monte Young
    Steve Reich
    Lou Harrison

  17. John would have guests in studio and I would get to meet them—it was just
    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
    Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
    wonderful. The first time I met Ravi Shankar was at WNYC. I didn’t know that I would be meeting him in other contexts after that, but that was the very first time. He doesn’t even remember—I was just someone serving him tea! It was wonderful. I met Nustat Fateh Ali Khan the first time there; it was his first tour in the United States for Western presenters.

  18. Then WNYC asked whether I wanted to do stage management for them for some of their live concerts. They also had a series called “New Sounds Live.” So I became the stage manager for that. Then they got a call from World Music Institute saying they had a position open and asking whether they could recommend someone. WNYC recommended me and I got the job. The World Music Institute is a concert-presenting organization that deals primarily with world music, not much fusion, but traditional folk and classical music, and also dance. The World Music Institute tours a number of the musicians so they can afford to present them in New York. I had this double role of coordinating the concert in New York and booking their tour throughout the United States, a sometimes going on tour and managing the tour … which was a lot of fun and a lot of stress! It was usually a really good experience. That’s how I really got involved in world music, and that was that.

  19. When I came to LA I kept my position with World Music Institute whereby I still organized their tours and coordinated whatever I could. But it was a long distance relationship and it had to fizzle out, because you can’t work for an organization and not be there when they need you. Then I got the job the Skirball Center, and for a while I even had a booking agency where I represented artists of my own.

  20. Then—in 1997 was it?—I was at an Iranian classical music concert and Betto Arcos was sitting next to me. I knew Betto because I had taken some of the musicians that I would be touring through the United States and that would come through LA on his show. So he always knew me through that as an artist representative. Betto turns to me and says, “Yatrika, do you want to be on the air? Do you want to host Global Village, one of the days of Global Village?”

    And I said, “Huh? What?”

    He said, “Yeah, yeah, I’m really serious.”

    I said, “You know, I’ve worked on radio, but I don’t have any on-air experience at all: how do you know that I’ll be able to cut it? I don’t know at all how to do this.”

    He said, “We’ll train you. Just do a demo tape so that I show it to our program director. You have lot of knowledge of music, it’s obvious, and we really need someone to fill in.”

    Betto said that he really needed someone to substitute for him and he would prefer a woman because they had mostly men on the Global Village. He was primarily interested in the fact that I had a middle-eastern background and that I would be bringing more of a middle-eastern angle to the Global Village. So that’s how it all started.

  21. I remember the first time I was on air … believe me, I don’t even know how I kept my voice stable—my whole head was shaking! I was so scared because you have to do your own engineering. There I was—I had to remember what I was going to say and I had to remember to play the correct track. Of course, I had my play list in front of me, but I had to make sure that I managed the board right. They did give me some training, but it wasn’t extensive training, so I learned all of it “on the job”—on air, actually, and with much trepidation! At some point I started feeling comfortable. Even when I made mistakes I didn’t become so flustered about it, and said, “Okay, it’s just a mistake—I won’t do it next time. Now I’ve learnt.”

  22. GH: One of the things that appeals to me about your show—the whole Global Village line up—is that it’s like a friend saying, “I just bought some new CDs and I’d like to play you some new things.”

  23. YS-R: Yes, that’s exactly the way that I like it to be. If I have friends at home and somebody asks, “What new things have you bought?” I become the DJ immediately. “Okay, let me play this for you, let me play that for you! Isn’t this really nice? Isn’t that nice? And listen to that!” That’s exactly what I like to do on Global Village. I like to create an atmosphere as if you are sitting in a living room and you’re just spending three hours listening to various types of music. I want it to be friendly and I want it to be diverse—I want it to cover a broad gamut. Sometimes the show is very thematic, like three hours of music from Asia or India. I like to do thematic shows.
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