When I was a student, home from university one week, I sat in my parent’s kitchen, eating dinner and talking to my mum and dad, when a song from the radio behind us stopped us all in our tracks; it was the kind of song which you only hear every few years, something dynamic and surprising and new, and though I can’t now remember what the song was, I remember how I came to hear it and who was playing it. It was a song played by Charlie Gillett, world music specialist on what was then called GLR and is now BBC London 94.9. I remember particularly because although I missed him saying what the track was, I did notice him reading out an email address towards the end of the show. So I wrote a quick and fairly hopeful email asking if the song could be identified. I suppose I imagined some producer or tea-boy receiving it and digging through the playlists to answer my question.
What I received, very shortly afterwards, was an exquisitely polite and helpful reply from Charlie Gillett himself, expressing – absurdly, really – pleasure that I had enjoyed the show and identifying, and providing information on, the song in question. This struck me then, and now, as a surprising and generous gesture, much more so for this was well before the time when it became the norm for a radio shows to interact with their listeners via email. Although I have lived for much of the time between then and now away from London, and have thus not followed his show closely, I have always had a particularly high opinion of the man, and an opinion which has heightened with each and every encounter of his show. He is, plainly, a true radical, never compromising his passion for music nor resting on his laurels when there is new music to be explored. It is plainly absurd that a DJ of his incredible originality and passion never made the leap to national radio (apart from the World Service), especially as he is a real trail-blazer in his field.
On the other hand, I have a suspicion that his charm might actually be best observed in the spartan surroundings of local radio; unlike other DJs of his calibre, Gillett has always worked alone, producing his shows as well as curating them; he is the only radio presenter I have ever heard who played more records at the wrong speed, or failed to turn the volume up more often, than the famously shambolic John Peel. Somehow it would hard be hard to imagine him in the plush surroundings of radios 2 or 3. Like Peel he trades not on his smooth delivery or consistency, but rather on his insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm. His ‘Radio Ping Pong’, where he and a weekly guest cheerfully bat records spontaneously back and forth between the two, is a typically vibrant feature. I particularly remember Damon Albarn guesting last year and flumoxing Gillett with a series of increasingly erratic and arcane choices. “Oh, you’ve got me confused now”, he eventually conceded.
Sadly, however, his health has deteriorated in recent months and after a two month absence from BBC London he recently announced that he would be broadcasting his last Saturday show at Womad last weekend, and the show itself, a 2 hour presentation from the Radio 3 stage, was a typically chaotic and rich show, and one that I witnessed from both angles, as I was there at the time and have listened back online, too. Of course it featured some great music – live sets from Titi Robin, Daby Balde and the exhilerating K’naan – and some unexpected silences and moments of confusion. The best moment of the night might have been watching the man singing along to Little Richard as he came out from the news, or just the big grin on his face evident throughout as he sat, centre stage, marvelling at the performances around him. Or the reaction of the crowd, who gave him a heartening reception on his final night.
But I think the best moment was the final, irrepressible performance of K’naan, the Somali-born Canadian rapper who Charlie Gillett pretty much single-handedly brought to the attention of the world-music community. K’naan, an impossibly coherent and dextrous rapper, delivered a four song salvo to close the show and demonstrated real affection for Gillett throughout. The photo below, flecked with rain drops, shows Gillett raising a thumbs up gesture to the young rapper, who ended the show with a heartfelt dedication to the DJ, which was warmly reciprocated by Charlie, who told the crowd how much he enjoyed the set, “What can I say, I’m passing on the baton”.
On Charlie’s website, amongst many nice tributes, there’s a lovely email from K’naan, who writes,
I want you to know that, though I have been absent from your inbox, you have not been absent from my thoughts. I’ve been wanting to respond to you but have been meaning to find the proper moments. Occasion has beaten the moments to the punch. In the middle of some new inspiration from the Ethiopiques collections, writing some new material through some sample ideas, I wanted to thank you. For introducing me to something very pulling.
I spoke to a friend one evening, who’s from the U.K.. and just in remembrance I mentioned that I was sad over your health situation, which I pray gets better, your soul purer for it and your patience endures… after some explanation she uttered the name of it.. which was what you had written on your email… her mother had just gone through it and is better after some time… I really do hope you get better…
I enjoyed my time in your studio… On your site, I read your reflections on that evening… which were filled with continents of compliments… most of which are not in my geographic comprehension… though i am a dreamer enough to appreciate them..
thank you again.
Yeah, thanks Charlie. Thank god we can still hear you on your (thankfully less demanding) World Service show. Which is here.