Sunday 20 May 2012

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

The recent news of John Peel's (the late BBC radio DJ who died in 2004) album collection going online made my heart skip a beat. Not because I was a fan, but because it's always worth celebrating the art of spinning a good record. 
The late BBC disc jockey John Peel
I knew who Peel was but his contribution to British music and his efforts to give musicians a leg-up in the cutthroat world of the music business passed me by. Peel's haul contains 26,000 albums, which makes me wonder what one of his "average" programmes sounded like. Thanks to the BBC (especially BBC4), those who, like me, haven't dwelt long on these isles, have the opportunity every now and then to be introduced to some of these defining moments in the history of pop and rock in the UK.

There was another reason why I got excited over this piece of news and it was based on the admiration I've always felt for radio DJs. Since the late 80s when I began to separate the wheat from the chaff on Cuban radio, I started to pay a closer attention not just to DJs' musical output but also to how they organised their playlists so as to create an atmosphere. There's no point in having 26,000 albums if you don't know how to spin them. It seems to me that John knew exactly which strings to pull and that was one of the elements that endeared him to his followers.

My favourite radio station in my mid to late teens was Radio Ciudad de la Habana ("The capital's young station" as its slogan ran in those days). At a time when most presenters played safe there were people like Ramón Larrea and Juanito Camacho willing to take chances even if the threat of losing their jobs was a possibility.

Reading about John Peel's office at BBC's Radio 1, which was so chaotic that apparently his sidekick Andy Kershaw had to sit on an upturned rubbish bin, reminded me of the first time I visited Radio Ciudad de la Habana.

It was 1994 and three friends of mine and I had just formed an art collective. It was a difficult time. The economic meltdown that had taken hold of Cuba made the dollar shoot up and one "green" was worth up to 130 Cuban pesos in the black market. We'd just had the (in)famous 5th August when riots broke out in Havana and in its wake a second "rafter's crisis" had ensued (the first one was the 1980's Mariel boatlift). The situation was, to put it mildly, rather delicate. In the midst of this, we took over a room at an arts centre in downtown Havana, extending our dominion later to a beautiful patio inside the building and two more rooms. There we arranged concerts, exhibitions and public readings (it was about this time when I started to write in earnest, both poetry and short-stories) every month or, sometimes, every fortnight. We needed to promote the event and so I remembered that there was a very good DJ who worked at Radio Ciudad de la Habana presenting the programme "Hoy" (Today"), the capital's cultural what's-on. The name of the DJ at the time? Carlos Figueroa. Carlos had replaced Alfredo Balmaseda a few years before when the latter left for France. Between the two of them they'd helped me re-discover the type of Cuban music I would have never thought of listening to, let alone playing on my battered stereo. What made them world-class DJs was a combination of wit and humanity. Carlos, in particular, had this habit of remaining silent for three or four seconds straight after a song (especially a classic) had ended. I often wondered whether my old Soviet-era Selena had gone wrong only to hear the DJ tapping a cup with a metallic spoon and saying: "No, your radio is still working fine, but after a track like that, silence is the only fitting response. Fancy a cup of coffee? I'm having mine now, with four sugars, as usual. Because this is Cuba and the rest is piffle." If I ever become a radio DJ, that's one phrase I'll definitely pilfer.

An eclectic taste, a knack for hitting our musical G-spot, sapience, humour and a touch of the eccentric. These are some of the ingredients that, in my opinion, make up a good radio disc jockey. Lauren Laverne, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant (Xfm), Trevor Nelson, Lucy Duran and Jo Whiley (BBC) and Tony Blackburn (oh, yes, the old codger! Capitol Gold). These are some of the names off the top of my head that have made me wish at some point in my life I could get behind a mike, too. It makes no difference that you have 40,000 singles in your house, if you come across as an arrogant twerp. At the end of the day, you have to work your audience, you have to work with your audience and you have to work on your audience. Just like Christian Slater's Mark Hunter does in the movie, Pump Up the Volume, the story of a teenager who moves to Arizona and sets up a pirate radio station. In the film, it is his rapport with his listeners, the majority of them adolescents like him, what makes him a cult hero. There's a sad twist in the plot, but the flick overall speaks volumes (no pun intended) about the art of DJing.

As a last example of how a DJ can really make your day, recently I was driving and had BBC Radio 2 on. Terry Wogan, not my favourite deejay if truth be told, was on air. And yet, what he did in the next few minutes was magical. He had a famous actress in the studio whom he asked to choose a song. She plumped for The Drifters' Save the Last Dance For Me. As the first verses kicked in Terry began to ad lib in between the pauses and soon after the actress joined in. The whole affair lasted less than a minute and yet it brought a smile to my face. It just goes to show the power of a good radio DJ.

© 2012

Next Post: “Pieces of Me, Pieces of Havana”, to be published on Wednesday 23rd May at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. The Cuban tunes I heard while having brunch today at Kuba Kuba still have not left me. No surprise. The music is infectious.

  2. Thanks for this. It's strange how you can follow a person's work and somehow realise that you are following greatness, without ever fully understanding what makes it great. So for plugging that particular hole, once again: thanks!

  3. I totally agree that it's brilliant when the DJ is silent for a few seconds after a great song. It really is the only appropriate response and shows that they know what their doing. DJs who immediately start blabbering get on my nerves.

    The BBC has a long history of quality DJs. Even if, like you, I didn't know much about John Peel's influence, I'm sorry to hear he's gone. It's always sad to lose great talent.


  4. Thanks a lot for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  5. It's interesting how radio has endured over the ages even with competition from podcasts. I often listen to public radio while driving too, although more often for news, and a good program really makes my day. I'm still trying to get my head around the figure 26,000 albums!



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