Dangdut, Karo, Ramvong . . . Essential Listening. Paul Fisher Muses on Many Years on the Far Side of Resonance FM

in Art/Interview/Latest/Music

Paul Fisher (Far Side Radio, Resonance FM) talks to Jude Cowan Montague (The News Agents, Resonance FM) for The Sunday Tribune.

TST: Let’s start of talking about your Resonance FM show, ‘Far Side Radio’. How long has it been going? Far Side seems to have always been there, essential listening on the station, but when and how did it start?

PF: I started presenting Far Side Radio, almost right at the beginning of Resonance, so what’s that..since 2002? Until 2001 I lived in Japan, and presented a show there called Far East Radio, which begun in 1997, so I’ve been presenting a weekly show now, almost continuously, for 22 years! In Japan, where I lived for 11 years, I was also working with a lot of musicians, including from Okinawa, a musician called Yasukatsu Oshima, who took part in the LMC tour Japanorama tour in 2001, which is how I think I came into contact with Ed Baxter who at the time was putting Resonance together, so it was quite good timing. 

TST: I am myself a big fan of the show because of the range of music played. I began my adult music career by singing folk songs in Sumatra Barat, saluang music of Minangkabau. Your label brings music and culture of the Far East to Western ears. Tell me something about your work as a distributor and promoter of music culture, when did that start and how does your work with the website and shop run alongside the radio show, how do the two complement each other.

PF: I’d been working in the music business in London during the early 1980s, doing all sorts of stuff, including A&R for record companies and management companies, basically going to tons of gigs to look for new bands. I think I’ve always been interested in discovering something new.  I’d also started working at a local record shop, where I was suddenly exposed to every type of music, such as jazz, blues, folk, and all sorts of other obscure music. I remember in a meeting at EMI with head of A&R, I realised I really wasn’t interested in discovering the new Duran Duran anymore. When I was asked what I was listening to, I answered with some old, blues and jazz guys like Fred McDowell and Charlie Parker, and at the time obscure American alt-rock bands. Not exactly what they were looking for! So, I decided to get a job with the distributor of all these incredible record labels from US, UK, Europe called Making Waves. However, they went out of business a year or so later. In 1986, I started a record shop with a friend in West Hampstead called 303 Music. This was the time that the term ‘World Music’ was coined, and we soon became a kind of specialist in world music, selling records from around the world, including imports from Kenya, Nigeria and stuff. 

I then went to Japan for a holiday in 1989. Before I went I was given the name of the only two Japanese subscribers to the magazine Folk Roots. Although I didn’t quite appreciate it at the time, these subscribers just happened to live where I was going; to Kumamoto, in the south. A bit like a Japanese person going to Cornwall and being handed the names of two people to contact and them both being in Cornwall.  Anyway, one, Naoyuki Iwami, owned a record shop, the other, Kiyoshi Funatsu, a folk mail order company. They lived in quite a rural area and I took a bus there and turned up at the record shop. Iwami san couldn’t quite believe I had come all the way from the UK. He phoned Funatsu san and they played me all kinds of Japanese and Okinawan music they thought I might like, such as Okinawan Shoukichi Kina from the 1970s and a minyo, or folk singer called Takio Ito. Then someone made me a tape of Haruomi Hosono’s 70s albums like Tropical Dandy and Makoto Kubota’s recording of Kina’s hit, Haisai Ojisan and stuff like that. 

In the UK, the world music scene was dominated by Latin and African music, but I realised in Japan they were more interested in music from Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, China and elsewhere. It wasn’t just traditional stuff, but current stuff, really rootsy and unlike anything I’d heard before. No one knew anything about this music in London, so I thought I had to go back to discover more, sold my share in the record shop and headed to Japan. 

I interviewed some musicians, such as Shoukichi Kina, for Folk Roots, and then readers started asking where they could buy this Okinawan and Japanese music.  Because there was nowhere, I started selling them myself. I did a deal with Iwami san and started buying CDs from him. I then went to Jakarta, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and other places and bought loads of cassette tapes and a few CDs too, and then started selling those. In those pre-internet days I started off making catalogues and selling by mail order. 

Thirty years later, Iwami san’s record shop has closed down, but he runs all the Japanese side of Far Side Music. 

The great thing about doing the radio show is it forces me to listen to everything in a kind of organised way, obviously keeping up with all the new releases but exploring all sorts of other themes, like different instruments, labels, genres of music and delving back into history. It feels like there’s so much music to explore that I’ll never finish, with a significant percentage of the world’s population in East Asia and the much of the music relatively unknown. 

TST: I wanted to thank you for all your hard work for music and to ask you about some of the different areas of listening. I have so many questions here. Can I first ask, what about Indonesian music. It’s a vast archipelago, connected by the lingua franca of Indonesian, with so many different types of song tradition and now young contemporary music-makers are moving into all kinds of experimentalism as well as pop. Are there any particular artists you’d like to mention as being of special interest, and what do you think about Indonesian music in general, the changes we have seen over the last forty years or so? 

Apart from Japan, Indonesia was probably the first country whose music I fell in love with. At first it felt all a bit overwhelming, so many islands and so many genres of music from different regions, such as jaipong, dangdut, kroncong, gamelan, gabang kromong etc..I travelled around quite a bit, and found the hub of the Indonesian music industry in Jakarta, warehouses with mountains of cassettes, and would spend hours  there. Travelling around Indonesia, my favourite area musically though was Sunda, in west Java, especially Bandung. I ended up releasing an album by a singer called Detty Kurnia from there, who I interviewed. What I loved about Indonesian music in general was the way that local styles were combined with western and all sorts of other styles in a quite wacky way, like dangdut reggae, dangdut disco, funky gambang kromong, pop Batak,  Qasida modern. Not just in Indonesia, but all over southeast Asia there are so many great female singers. One fairly recent female singer is Murni Surbakti, who is a Karo singer from Sumatra. Another female singer I like is Rasmee from Thailand. 

TST: The 1960s and 1970s was a time of great experimentalism. I love Cambodian rock, the work of Pan Ron, but many people still haven’t heard this music despite the revival. How could you introduce this special period of pop music in Cambodia for those who haven’t heard it, what tracks should people look out for and what do you think it is that gives this music such vibrancy?

The first time I travelled around Cambodia, I hadn’t heard of Sinn Sisamouth, Ros Sereysothea or Pan Ron, but soon got to know their names and music. There were loads of CDs and tapes, many with great covers, and they all seemed to be by these artists and one or two more. Most were this 60s inspired rock with Cambodian elements in varying degrees, and absolutely loved them. Quite a few years later I noticed articles in magazines about Sinn Sisamouth etc, their music being played in various films, and then bands in California (Dengue Fever) and in Cambodia, covering their tunes, and then various releasing appearing outside Cambodia. In fact, now I can’t CDs in Cambodia of this stuff anymore, which is a shame.

Musically, the Vietnam war had a massive influence not only in Vietnam, but Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, even Okinawa, with the GI’s bringing all their music, the radio stations playing American music and local bands playing music they thought the GI’s would like on  the US bases, often their version of western rock and roll. The 1960s and 70s were definitely a golden age  for music throughout southeast Asia. 

Talking about Cambodia,, other current singers seem to be inspired by them, with this updated ramvong (circular dance) music. Then there’s this amazing Khmer Surin from near the Thai border. One good way I found of discovering music in Cambodia was to go to a wedding! Traditional music during the day, then this ramvong circular dance bands at night. 

TST: Could you sum up the ethos of Far Side Music and the Radio show? Why do you do it? It’s clearly a labour of love and very hard work.

I think I essentially enjoy discovering new music, either present or from the past and then sharing that music. Both the Far Side web site and the radio show are a great outlet for that. With the internet things have changed completely, in that before I literally had to go and buy a physical product, whereas these days you can find so many things on You Tube. I like discovering things on the internet too, but nothing can quite match the excitement of something live or something physical.  Buying physical product too has become easier in some ways, in that I don’t have to go to a country to buy something, but harder in that there are less record labels. I still manage to import rare stuff though, like from North Korea. 

And, what is great  now is how artists are releasing their own music  on their own labels, usually in a very limited way, and I can sometimes help to provide a platform for them to promote and sell their music. 

TST: What personal qualities do you have that has made this work such a success? You seem a modest and determined person, who loves music and has a curious mind and ears. What deep qualities have you had to draw on to keep the project going.

PF: I think basically I’ve tried to avoid getting a proper job! It was certainly easier, ten or fifteen years ago. I lived in Tokyo for about 8 years, and worked for quite a few record companies in Japan, exporting, licensing, producing, tour managing, as well as writing for the Japan Times and doing a radio show, and for quite a few record companies in the UK and elsewhere too, importing, licensing and doing lots of compilations. These days the record companies have either disappeared completely or cut right back, so I have a lot less of these collaborative projects. I still book artists to play at festivals etc..but quite a lot less than I used to. What’s hard with the web site is keeping up with technology in that what looked great and technologically advanced at the beginning of the decade, looks dated by the end of it. So, I’ve just done a big revamp. At least it now looks current, but there are things I’d like to improve still if I had the time!

TST: Looking to the future, what can we expect from Far Side? How are you going to build on what you’ve achieved and where are you going with the show?

PF: Apart from keeping up with technology, I have tried to keep pace with people’s tastes and trends. I’ve loved Yellow Magic Orchestra, and all the many YMO family of musicians for years, and have had a loyal base of customers who would buy virtually anything released by Haruomi Hosono, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yukihiro Takahashi. But then about five years ago, I started selling Hosono’s early albums on vinyl to a whole different audience, and that has continued. CDs are still relatively popular in Japan, so there’s always plenty of new albums out, but vinyl is definitely growing. Labels in the US and UK have also started licensing albums by Hosono, Akiko Yano and others, albums that I’ve sold for years also on vinyl, but there’s always more in Japan not available anywhere else. Later this month, I’ve booked an artist called Sachiko Kanenobu, whose debut album from 1972 has just been released in the US, to play at a festival in Rotterdam, and I’ll be running a vinyl store there too. I couldn’t quite have imagined that happening a few years ago. 

Also, the trend for 60s, 70s, 80s music from Thailand, Indonesia, Cambodia, Korea and other places looks set to continue, so I’ll be digging more for the those records too. 

With the radio show, I’ve recently joined ‘Select’ on Mixcloud, where the shows are archived. Their idea is to make a more ‘sustainable model’ by getting subscribers. One of their suggestions was to make archive shows exclusive, and as I’ve got so many shows I can archive I’ve decided to give that a go. I put up some early shows broadcast in Japan. I have no idea if it will work or not, although a bit sceptical that it will. 

TST: If you had (and you do have!) to pick a highlight and a lowlight of the radio show over the years, what would they be?

PF: A lowlight,  also a sort of highlight when I think about it now, was in the old Denmark Street studio, when the boiler exploded at the beginning of the show knocking out the fm transmitter, so we were only broadcasting online. Then it poured with rain and water cascaded into the studio and into the server, eventually cutting the broadcast altogether. Slightly embarrassing was when Miranda Sawyer reviewed Resonance for the Guardian. During my show, my phone went off, and she wrote something like I ‘cooly said, oh, sorry, that won’t happen again. 30 second later the phone rang again. As it was Resonance, no fancy ringtone, just the standard Nokia’. I try now to switch my phone off! 

Highlights are the guests usually, too many to mention and difficult to pick out one. Occasionally when a musician who I have heard on album is playing live just a few feet in front of me, especially a particularly beautiful piece, I get quite emotional and almost feel like crying. In recent years I can remember feeling like that with Vietnamese dan tran player Tri Nguyen, Korean zither player Yu Kyung-Hwa, and Japanese musician, Hasiken. 

TST: How important has Resonance FM been to helping develop Far Side? With so many podcasts these days being produced in different ways, what is special about Resonance FM that contributes to what you do? Is it important at all any more, have things changed?

PF: Resonance FM has been an integrated part of my life for many years. The shows often follow Far Side Music, in that I play new releases or re-releases or whatever it is I’m into at a particular time. What’s been especially brilliant though is the number of guests we have. I think word has spread and I get so many requests to come on the show. It’s great that musicians coming from Japan or elsewhere have an outlet where they can play live and, usually, promote an upcoming gig. I’ve met so many people down the years. I still think Resonance and live radio has a very real place on the radio. Resonance is full of great, inspiring, surprising shows, you can turn on almost anytime and be entertained or amazed or challenged or even confused! Of course things have changed regarding podcasts but apart from live, all Resonance shows are also available to listen to anytime on Mixcloud. 

TST: Finally, a philosophical question. What is music? And does it matter to the future of the planet and the human race? Does the Far Side have a role to play?

PF: I think music is capable of arousing all sorts of emotions in humans, and we carry the music we have listened to around with us all our lives and relate it to certain periods and episodes, whether that’s joy, sadness or any other emotion. Music was there from the beginning and humans can’t live without music. Music brings people together like no other art form. Some of my best experiences personally have been  introducing different musicians I have been involved with to perform and record with each other.  Some of these collaborations have been life changing, and the fruits of those relationships have even passed down the generations. I get emails fairly regularly from people who have bought something or who’ve just bought one of the compilations I’ve done, or even heard radio show, saying how a piece of music changed their lives in some way, or how they were reminded of their teenage years, or how they have discovered all this new music. Things that spring to mind are hearing from an old US military guy who had been in Japan just after the war. He’d been on a recording of Japanese folk tunes with the Shunchu Gun Soldiers, and he found the CD on our web site after about 60 years. We get quite a lot of people in the UK or US buying 1940s or 50s recordings for their mum who is from Okinawa or Malaysia or somewhere  and hear how they brought back so many memories, or sometimes people want some music play at funerals. 

Recently I was contacted by a guy in America whose father was an American GI  based in Okinawa,  and mother was from Okinawa. He had lost touch with his family in Okinawa, but found a CD on our web site by his uncle. He recognised that his mother had shown him the same photo of her brother as was on the cover. After a lot of trying I managed to track down his uncle, and he wrote him a letter to introduce himself and explain who he was. A few weeks later, his uncle sent him a really beautiful sanshin, (the local instrument) and now he’s learning how to play the sanshin, and has actually really come on as a player. So, if music is about connecting people, then if I can carry on making even a little difference to people’s lives in that kind of way, then I’m happy. 

Listen to FAR SIDE RADIO on the livestream at ResonanceFM

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