For any KUT listener, John Burnett’s name and voice will be very familiar — he spent decades as NPR’s Austin-based national correspondent before retiring in early 2023. In the months since, Burnett says, he’s found himself with some extra time on his hands. “I realized after I retired from NPR after 36 years, I didn’t have enough work,” he says. “I’ve been to all these great places around the world and I’ve always loved music and tried to hear it wherever I was. So, the church we attend – the Episcopal Church of St. David, which is in downtown Austin, is loved by musicians. It has a great acoustic space. And I suggested to the chancellor, Chuck Treadwell, let’s make an international music series here.“
And just like that, the retired journalist found himself in a new job as a music show producer, hosting and organizing the monthly World Music Meetings in St. David’s.
“And the point of it,” says Burnett, “was [that] it’s the unfilled niche in Austin. We’re doing a lot of things right, musically, in this city. But international music has somehow been pushed to the edge of the limelight. And that’s why we wanted to put it front and center because there’s just an incredible treasure trove of international, foreign-born musicians who have chosen to live in Austin, play music here, collaborate here, and perform here.”
So far Burnett has hosted shows with ATASH, South American folk acts Ana Barajas and Cruz del Sur, Moroccan guitarist and oud player Mahmoud Chouki and Celtic quintet Ulla. In January, he will host an evening of West African music with Ibrahim Aminu and Seed Africa.
Aminu sees more similarities than differences in the music of different regions, he says. “I have several boys [who] they understand the language of music,” says Aminu, “because the language… people say music from Iran, music from Japan, music from America. No no no no no. There is music, but there is also language. So all these languages come from music because the universal language gives [the] the same alphabet of our language. And that is what we call language. But the music is the same.”
With several gigs already under his belt, Burnett says the project has turned out to be more time-consuming than he imagined. “Why didn’t someone tell me that being an impresario and, you know, curating and producing a nine-month music series would consume most of my life?” he says. “But… it was a labor of love.”
So far Burnett says, World Music Meetings is getting the audience reaction it was hoping for. “I think people are learning about music they didn’t know about,” he says. “Whether it’s South American Andean music or Iranian music [or] Moroccan music. That’s the point, is to try to educate Austinites, to entertain them, to give them pleasure.
Burnett says the music is the focus of the show, but there will also be conversation and discussion. “There’s also an interview segment,” he says. “I mean, I’m still a hopeless journalist. So we break up two sets with an interview where I get on stage with the musicians and ask them where the music comes from and their journey to Austin. And what is the point of music? What I hope audiences get out of this is that they learn about a world of music that they don’t know about. Not just the sound of the instrument, but the role it plays in West African society, the spiritual properties of that. The role that Ibrahim has as a griot in his culture. This is not western music. It’s a new world of music, and the goal is not just to enjoy its beauty, but to learn that it’s just coming from a different place.”
“We are all connected,” says Aminu. “Eventually. We are all connected.”
World Music Encounters is held monthly at St. David’s Episcopal Church. The next show featuring Ibrahim Aminu and Seed Africa will take place at 5pm on Sunday 7th January.