Peter Sellars

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Theater Director Peter Sellars travels the world nearly nonstop and his Guest DJ set is a reflection of his journeys, as well as his deep connection to how music reflects the human spirit. From gospel to an Afghan music master, he picks five soulful songs.  Peter is also a Professor or Worlds Arts and Cultures at UCLA.

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Track List: 

1. M'Bifo- Rokia Traore'
2. Utrus Horas- Orchestra Baobab
3. Raga Madhuvanti- Homayun Sakhi
4.The Last Mile Of The Way- Sam Cooke & The Soul Stirrers
5. Ella's Song- Sweet Honey In The Rock


Tom Schnabel:  Hi, I’m Tom Schnabel and I’m here with theater director Peter Sellars, who is also a Professor or Worlds Arts and Cultures at UCLA.  Today we’ll be playing excerpts of songs he’s selected that have inspired him over the years as part of KCRW’s Guest DJ Project.  Hello Peter.  How nice to see you again.

Peter Sellars:  It’s nice to see you at last.

TS:  You’re very peripatetic; I don’t always know where you are and where you might turn up.

PS:  Well, one of the things I’ve been… I’ve been not in L.A.  I’ve been in Mali, for example, with Rokia Traoré, and collaborating with her on a project with a text by Toni Morrison. Being with her as she’s writing songs is pretty overwhelming and so the first thing I’ve brought is a song from her Nonesuch album, that is a song of such pure and deep love, and then, as we worked on this project, she re-did the lyrics so it represents the opposite. 

And the most bizarre thing, as Rokia said, the distance between deep, deep joy in a relationship and unbearable pain is very slight.  And like Bach, a few musical adjustments and the music of bliss turns into the music of torment.   This version on the Nonesuch record is music of bliss.

Song: Rokia Traoré – “M’Bfio”

TS: So here’s music of Rokia Traoré, Bowmboï is the Album and M’Bifo is the cut. Peter, what’s next on your list?

PS:  People who love African music and love Cuban music and just love music are obsessed with the Orchestra Baobab, which is this amazing moment when rock music was born in Africa in the late ’50s and early ‘60s by listening to Cuban music.  And so music has gone back and forth across the oceans twice, and the laid back funk that goes inside the tight Cuban groove is beyond belief.

TS: By the way, the name of it, as you no doubt know Peter, “Pirate’s Choice”, is that this was the most pirated cassette of anything in Senegal.

PS: It is and it’s just a classic and irresistible

Song:  Orchestra Baobab – Utrus Horas

TS:  How would you characterize this sound of Orchestra Baobob for someone who didn’t know much about Cuban music?

PS:  The thing is, it’s in everybody’s DNA.  This music sinks so deep into that slow beautiful groove, which is sweet, but also hurts.  And it has this incredible melancholy and heartbreak inside the joy, and the two are the same. 

So many people think of African music as something you dance to and super high spirits, but obviously the depth of humanity, that that continent expresses, and coming off of just the sheer weight of people we’ve lost from AIDS.  If you think of the threnody that should come from that continent in our lifetimes, it’s overwhelming.

TS:  I’m Tom Schnabel, we are here with Peter Sellars today.  He has brought in five rare tracks for us. What’s up next?

PS: I’m just dying for people to hear Homayun Sakhi, the great, great master of the Afghan Rubab.  Homayoun, as you can hear, is playing Afghan music, not just in the traditional way, he’s heard every kind of world music, he’s heard pop music, he’s heard electronic music, and he’s reinvented this traditional instrument far from Afghanistan.  And so that wild energy that you’re getting, is somebody who’s bringing this incredible scope of life experience.

TS:  Tell us what the Rubab is.

PS:  It’s a string instrument related to the sitar, but you’ll hear the drone strings are going at the same time as the upper strings, everything is moving at the same time.  You say, ‘he has to be dubbing this about four times.’  No. He’s doing all this live, keeping every one of these melodies going.  He’s doing quick cross-cutting through every color of the instrument, and it’s a universe and it’s a whirlwind.

TS:  Let’s see what it sounds like.

Song: Homayun Sakhi – “Raga Madhuvanti”

TS: Some amazing Afghan music from Homayun Sakhi.  What’s up next?

PS:  Just, in terms of renewal, not just from immigrants, but people who were brought here as slaves, there’s nothing more profound in the whole American tradition, than this amazing blend of African music and American music that was Gospel.  And early Sam Cooke…

TS:  1955

PS:  Oh my God “Last Mile of the Way”, you hear this kid, this just kid open up with the sound of hope in his voice, the sound of such beauty, such keening beauty, such powerful, metaphysical joy cutting through all of the sorrow, and lifting and lifting and lifting and taking you the ‘last mile of the way’.  

Here he is with the Soul Stirrers.

Song: Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers -- “Last Mile of the Way”

PS: I think one of the hardest thing in America is there’s very little music that mourns and that actually represents sadness, aside from the heartbreak of Country Western music.  You know, so much of our musical palette is triumphant, and the music of slaves is what keeps us all humble, keeps us all real, keeps us all human, and takes us to, not only the place of failure, but the place where you got to keep going and something has got to lift you to keep you going.

TS:  Music by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers from 1955.  We move to our last song by another great Gospel group, Sweet Honey and the Rock.

PS:  Well you know, what comes of Gospel. Gospel, of course, in the Civil Rights Movement is transformed into music of activism, music that does bring direct change in people’s lives -- spiritually, mentally, emotionally, but also on the streets, in a movement that is going to change the world. 

Sweet Honey and the Rock, of course, with the amazing, one and only, Bernice Johnson Reagon, this is their anthem,” Ella’s Song”, which is about the death of black mothers’ sons, being as important as the death of white mothers’ sons.  And this is a song of permanent activism and permanent, permanent honoring of the youth. 

You know we’ve been through a period where great culture is frequently recognized in the elders and honoring them, and it’s now time to turn that around, it’s time to honor youth.  We are in a culture that attacks youth, that is blaming youth for everything and is criminalizing youth.  And we’ve just got to turn that around and honor youth and value them and treasure them

This Is one of the songs that treasures youth forever.  “Ella’s Song”, the great anthem by Sweet Honey and the Rock.

Song: Sweet Honey and the Rock – “Ella’s Song” 

TS:  Peter, one thing I’ve noticed in your playlist for the Guest DJ Project is that everything is very soul-filled here.  Everything is very, very deep in the spirit.

PS:  It’s one of the greatest solaces that music has is to remind you what’s real and let the other stuff fall away.  And so, I’m actually more interested in music that reaches inside the place that at the moment, nothing else is willing to address or speak from, the spirit of just overwhelming generosity, forgiveness and renewal, because it’s time to forgive and renew.

TS:  Peter, thank you so much for coming by KCRW today.  I am an admirer of all the work that you’ve done.  So thank you so much for joining us today on

PS:  Tom, it is thrilling to be with you again. Lot’s of love.

TS:  For a complete track listing and to find these songs on line, go to and subscribe to the podcast through iTunes. (music)






Tom Schnabel