'We are all connected': NPR's John Burnett is now the host of a world music showcase
For any KUT listener, John Burnett’s name and voice will be very familiar – he spent decades as an Austin-based national correspondent for NPR before retiring at the beginning of 2023. In the months since then, Burnett says, he’s found himself with some extra time on his hands. “I realized that after retiring from NPR after 36 years, I didn't have enough to do,” he says. “And I've been to all these great places around the world and I always loved music and tried to hear it wherever I was. And so the church that we attend – St. David's Episcopal, which is in the middle of downtown Austin – it’s beloved by musicians. It's got a great acoustic space. And I proposed to the rector, Chuck Treadwell, let's do an international music series here.”
And just like that, the retired journalist found himself with a new job as a music show producer, hosting and organizing the monthly World Music Encounters at St. David’s.
“And the point of it,” Burnett says, “was [that] this is the unfilled niche in Austin.We do a lot of things right, musically, in this town. But international music is kind of pushed to the edge of the spotlight. And so we wanted to bring it center stage because there is just an amazing treasury of foreign-born international musicians that have chosen to live in Austin, to play music here, and to collaborate here and to perform here.”
So far, Burnett has hosted shows with ATASH, South American folk artists Ana Barajas and Cruz del Sur, Moroccan guitarist and oud player Mahmoud Chouki, and Celtic quintet Ulla. In January, he’ll host an evening of West African music with Ibrahim Aminou and Seed Africa.
Aminou sees more similarities than differences in the music of various regions, he says. “I have some guys [who] understand the language of music,” Aminou says, “because the language… people say music from Iran, music from Japan, music from America. No, no, no, no, no. There is a music but there is a language. So all those languages came from music because the universal language gave [the] same alphabet to our tongue. And that's what we call language. But the music is the same.”
With a few shows under his belt already, Burnett says the project has turned out to be more time-consuming that he’d imagined. “Why didn't somebody tell me that being an impresario and, you know, curating and producing a nine-month music series was gonna gobble up most of my life?” he says. “But… it's been a labor of love.”
So far, Burnett says, World Music Encounters is getting the sort of audience reaction he was hoping for. “I think people are learning about music they didn't know about,” he says. “Whether it's South American Andean music or Iranian music [or] Moroccan music. That's the point, is to try to educate Austinites, to entertain them, to delight them.”
Burnett says that music is the focus of the show, but there will also be some conversation and discussion. “And also there's an interview segment,” he says. “I mean, I'm still a hopeless journalist. And so, we break up two sets with an interview segment where I get on stage with the musicians and ask them where the music came from and their journey to Austin. And what's the meaning of the music? What I hope audiences take away from this is that they learn about a world of music that they don't know about. Not just the sound of the instrument, but the role that it plays in West African society, the spiritual properties of this. The role that Ibrahim has as a griot in his culture. It's not Western music. It's a new world of music and the whole point is not just to enjoy the beauty of it, but to learn that it just comes from a different place.”
“We are all connected,” Aminou says. “Bottom line. We are all connected.”