If you found yourself scanning radio frequencies in Tripoli, capital of the still war-torn Libya, you might not expect to hit upon the latest slice of garage-psych from Temples or Savages’ ferocious manifesto ‘Shut Up’.
But if you were listening this week, you could well have done. The British Council’s weekly radio show, The Selector, broadcasts UK music to 39 countries scattered across the planet, with Libya just being the most recent addition to their roster.
Back in London, presenter Goldierocks lays out their philosophy: “We play everything from hip-hop through to thrash metal, jazz, blues, electronica… just whatever’s new and fresh and we feel represents the underground culture of the UK.”
She explains that they broadcast everywhere from media-saturated places like Spain to countries like Kazakhstan where listeners may be hearing entirely new genres of music: “In some countries we’re the only source of alternative radio they have, especially somewhere like China, where we broadcast nationwide. Things like the World Service are banned because people see the BBC as a political body. We’re not offensive because radio stations can take our show apart and make with it what they will.”
What this means is that after each show is put together in London it’s then sent to the radio stations around the world as a package which they can dismantle as they see fit. Some re-record the entire show in their local language, while others cherry-pick certain genres. “Different places have different trends,” says Goldierocks. “In the ex-Soviet bloc they love their techno and hard dance music, whereas across Southern Africa it’s more about Afrobeat and this chunky, tribal dance beat. In Malaysia they really like their punk rock.”
Either way, the music gets through. This can lead to some surreal moments for bands who don’t realise quite how popular their music has become overseas. “We helped to get Dinosaur Pile-Up and The Joy Formidable to go and play in Mexico, and they played some of the biggest shows they’ve ever done. They’d never been to the country before,” she says. “It was all off the back of sessions they’d done for us that had been on the radio. That was pretty mind-boggling for them… and for us as well!”
As for Libya, The Selector’s Music Advisor Phil Catchpole points out that with three FM radio stations opening in Tripoli in the two years since the death of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, there’s an opportunity to send a cultural message that didn’t exist before. The Selector team recently visited the country for a launch party and to meet young people who talked about what the future might hold.
“We talked about the resistance and what life is like for young people in Libya and what they hope for as a future,” explains Goldierocks. “We also talked about what they’re listening to and what kind of music they’re making and what kind of UK music they like. It was a really life-affirming trip, although at times I found it very harrowing. You think of revolution as a very adult subject and quite overwhelming, but it’s part of young people’s culture and psyche on such a basic level.”
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Although it was still too dangerous to put on a full gig, they did meet Libyan musicians who brought out acoustic guitars. “One of them is in a band called Guys UnderGround, and he was singing this song in the same way you would hear at any party,” says Goldierocks. “Everyone was smiling, but when you listen to the lyrics they’re singing a Libyan pop anthem and the lyrics are literally: ‘You can burn the bodies, but we’re not gonna bow down.’ To me it felt surreal that they were singing about burning bodies as if it’s just commonplace, an everyday thing, but everyone we spoke to had first hand experience of the war. It’s so raw. I’m so excited to listen to some more music that’s coming out of there – the hip-hop scene is really growing and really strong but that’s ultimately because you don’t need much stuff to make it: you just need a computer and a mic and you can make hip-hop whereas it’s difficult to find spaces for bands to rehearse. It’s hard for other forms to bubble up… but give it time.”
That eagerness to seek out new music as a means of both talking about and escaping from terrifying political realities is something common to many of the countries where The Selector appears on the air. Goldierocks describes speaking to one DJ from Sarajevo, who during the Bosnian war “basically started a rave scene there with half a Prodigy record.”
The story he tells illustrates how far people will go to hear new music, and the olive branch shows like The Selector can provide: “He was telling me how he would go out with his radio, trying to pick up Italian radio just to get some kind of modern music. This is in a situation where if you got found with a radio you’re gonna get sent to prison! People put themselves in a genuinely vulnerable position just to seek out that new sound and find that new culture because they want to be a part of it and take it on in their own way.”