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21 août 2007

his is the World Service - of global music

Listened to by millions, from Uganda to Iraq, Charlie Gillett may be the most influential DJ on the planet.

Charlie's world music hot properties

At last weekend's Womad festival in Wiltshire, a lot of the movers and shakers of world music - the record company bosses, promoters and media types - were absent, put off by the floods and severe weather warnings.

Wags had dubbed it Womud. But it would take more than that to put off Charlie Gillett, the 65-year-old DJ and hugely influential world-music enthusiast, who I watched playing a DJ set at the small but appropriately titled Under A Tree Stage on the Sunday.

For his weekly programme on the BBC World Service, Gillett has a considerably larger audience than the Womad crowd - it runs into millions. "One guy emailed last week from Uganda," says Gillett, "to say he woke up from a nightmare, put on the radio and heard me playing Ali Farka Touré - he included his phone number, so I called him back." Other recent emails have come from US military personnel and ordinary citizens in Iraq.

I met Gillett the day after Womad, in the South London house, where he has lived with his family and his massive record collection since 1969. He bought the place for £5,000. "The mortgage was less than my weekly paper bill," he says, which has helped him pursue his often poorly paid adventures in global music.

Next week sees the release of what has become the essential annual overview of the world music scene, his Sound Of The World compilation series. The two-CD set mixes better-known bands such as Tinariwen, Gotan Project and Ladysmith Black Mambazo with his latest discoveries. "One change in the last few years is the number of exciting new women singers," he says. "This compilation is two-thirds female."

Gillett first had the notion that he might have an ear for discovering music in 1962, when he became a Bob Dylan fanatic after hearing a track in a record store in the US "months, at least, before anyone back home". His Masters thesis for Colombia University, a history of popular music, was published to acclaim as a book, The Sound Of The City, in 1970 and is still in print.

He began his first weekly radio programme, Honky Tonk, in 1972 on Radio London, where he stayed till 1978. While punk didn't much interest him - "the rhythms were too boring" - he did discover numerous artists, including Dire Straits. "I played the demo of Sultans Of Swing and seven record companies had rung before the end of the programme." Other acts he brought to public notice included Ian Dury, who he managed for a while, Graham Parker and Elvis Costello ("the only one who rang in to thank you for playing his demo").

He joined Capital Radio in 1980 but "left before I was pushed" in 1983. Listeners complained, and he was offered another show. "I told the radio station I was getting a lot of response to what I called at the time 'tropical' records" and he began A Foreign Affair, the first world-music radio programme.

"I knew from experience that not only would there be an audience, but they would put me right if I made mistakes, and introduce me to music I didn't know about." He was the first British DJ to play Youssou N'Dour and Salif Keita.

The conservative nature of British radio disappoints him. "If you think of how other aspects of life have changed - the number of foreign players in the Premiership, the diverse range of global restaurants in the high streets - radio here is pretty xenophobic." He is puzzled that multi-million selling artists such as Spain's Manu Chao or Cesaria Evora from Cape Verde are so rarely played on Radio 1 or 2.

Gillett makes no claims to musical infallibility - he saw one of the first Velvet Underground gigs and "didn't understand them", and he has of a blind spot for Brazilian music: "a lot of it is a bit too much like lounge music for me." But he follows his enthusiasms wherever they lead "regardless of what is deemed hip or fashionable".

A bout of illness caused him to resign last year from his popular BBC Radio London show - he hopes to "come back with something maybe next year" - but the internet means his World Service show is more heard than ever, and his website has an impressively lively forum.

With the demise of John Peel ("I didn't like most of what he played - but he was great to listen to anyway"), Gillett must be the most universally admired veteran broadcaster in the land - and his enthusiasm remains infectious. I saw him as the sun went down on the last night of Womad listening to the Portguese fado singer Mariza, who he, of course, has helped immeasurably.

"Where does she get that amazing voice from?" he asked, thrilled by yet another great global singer.

Interview by Peter Culshaw ( 02/08/2007

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