Music of the World, Robert Browning


TeRra R. Han 

8th Cover Story, TeRra Magazine

Robert Browning
Music Curator
Founder of World Music Institute
Founder of Robert Browning Associates


Ars longa, vita brevis. With the Hippocrates perpetual quote, there is somebody who reminds Korean saying ‘the world is wide and has a lot to do’. He is Mr. Robert Browning, music curator who is a pioneer of world music curation all over the countries with a full fiery passion and calm intellect for more than 40 years, and still full of curiosity of the world as early child eyes.

Since I started the music and started to be interested in the music programs of Carnegie Hall, I was often wondered about their world music programs. The Carnegie Hall, the mecca of European classical music. How these programs could be made in America? Who was designing the programs? The high standard objectives couldn’t be programmed if it were not been based on the deep understanding of music professions,  insight, and love of music. 

Fortunately, one day, one of my friends invited me to an Indian genius musician, two neck violin creator, Lakshminarayana Shankar’s concert, unexpectedly, me, I, TeRra encountered Mr. Browoning at The Schimmel Center, Pace University Oct. 2018.

TeRra Han & two neck violin creator Lakshminarayana Shankar, Schimmerl Center at the Pace University. 2018

He chose the way of music presenter instead of his own artistic way or engineering he majored at the college. And he loved all music, but he chose the world ‘traditional’ music presenting focused. Why? He simply answers, because it has SOUL, and not banal.

During the communication with him for the interview, it was so impressive of that his deeply built-in musical knowledge covering from eclectic British, American pop, rock, jazz, European classical, beyond all them, even to the all-world around music based on his idealistically pioneered philosophy and the high spirit as a human being.

Moreover, the true heart of his devotion to arts  and open-minded view to the world and loving people could be enough to yell by myselfKing of Music in the World!!!’

e-Conversation with Robert Browning

Ecletic Music lover,  but entusiastic for Traditional because of the SOUL

1.Do you like music, if so, is there any specific genre,?

I am passionate about music and my taste is eclectic – ranging from classical to rock, folk and non-Western music. I grew up listening to classical Western music – in particular Beethoven and Bach, later Stravinsky and Schoenberg. (I learned to play violin at school) but I also had a particular interest in traditional folk music, especially the blues, and old-time New Orleans style jazz. For me, growing up in England, American music (blues, jazz, old-time, bluegrass) was exotic! I gave up the violin in my mid-teens and took up the guitar more suitable to play folk music! Occasionally I would get to see live performances of American musicians such as Kid Ory, the legendary trombone player who used to play with Louis Armstrong, and the great Muddy Waters.

In my late teens and early 20s I also began to take a serious interest in flamenco (I would visit a Spanish restaurant in London where some of the finest Spanish Gypsy artists would perform). And in my mid-20s, I became passionate about Indian music – going to see some of India’s greatest artists in concert and listening to a lot of records. In addition to all this, I was listening to the top pop music of the time from the Beatles to the Stones (I was at the free concert in Hyde Park that the Stones organized to memorialize Brian Jones).
My interest in Indian music led to a widening of interest in Middle Eastern and other Asian and African genres, especially in the 1970s as more of these genres became available on records. I also developed an interest in contemporary American and European music, both classical (new music) and jazz.

Because, as I think I have made clear, traditional music, or music that derives from a specific tradition, has soul –

2. Why do you like traditional music, it was extraordinary you liked ‘traditional’ genres, when you were young age already in nature?

something that is often lost in contemporary popular music. Of course there is also a lot of traditional music that is performed today that does not have “soul”. In both Western and Eastern classical music there are many virtuosos but this does not mean that that the music has depth.

I don’t think it was so extraordinary – I was always looking for something different. Pop music in England and America was really not very interesting until the “British Invasion” when groups like the Beatles and Stones, The Animals (Eric Burdon) and The Kinks burst on the scene. All were heavily influenced by American blues and R & B – their heroes were Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker and Chuck Berry. Pop music in the 1960s and 70s was far more varied than it is today – ranging as it did from the folk-Rock of Joni Mitchell and Donavon to hard rock groups like Cream (Eric Clapton) and the Rolling Stones.

Pop, Entertainment Music

3. How do you think of pop or entertainment music, do you like it, and the music scene of London when he was young ages around 1960.

What I don’t like is banal pop tunes and Broadway musicals. And I don’t care much for rap, except where it relates to the blues.

I think Americans are well aware of music in London of the 60s (Mr. Browning rasied in UK). It was not called “swinging London” without reason . London ( and later the restof Britain  from around 1962 changed radically from a dull, musty placethat had stodgy food (overcooked vegetables etc.), drab clothing and mediocrepop music, to a vibrant scene with high fashion and brilliant colored clothes,an exciting and varied music scene, and far more interesting food that owed alot to to the new immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia. The new popularmusic was not coming from America but was homegrown – it included not only rock& roll, (some of which included sitars and other Asian and Africaninstruments and drew much inspiration from African-American music)  butcalypso, ska, and finally reggae which became the new dance rage of the late1960s and early 70s. New art galleries were continually opening, there was amuch closer connection between the visual arts and music – and between theavant garde and traditional art. London had been rebuilt and Britain hadfinally recovered from the deprivations of the war years. (2nd world war).

4. How about your experience and taste of western classical music?

I grew up listening and playing classical Western music. In my late teens I could hum the tunes of most of Beethoven’s Symphonies, I sang in a Choral Society the masses of Bach and Mozart and my favorite classical composers in my 20s – 30s were Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern.In London I saw the whole of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at Coven Garden, I saw Nureyev and Fonteyn in Romeo & Juliet and other ballet. I saw the great German conductor Otto Klemperer with the London Philharmonia performing most of the Beethoven symphonies, I saw Stravinsky himself conducting the London Symphony in a premiere performance of a new work. And I went to concerts of music by many of the modern composers of European music of the time – Xenakis, Cornelius Cardew, Karlheinz Stockhausen etc. When I came to America I continued my interest in classical music by going to performances of Philip Glass, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Indeed Terry Riley and Philip Glass performed concerts for us, along with countless young American composers.

Portuguese Fado singer ANA MOURA taking a bow with ROBERT BROWNING, Artistic and Executive Director of World Music Institute, at a World Music Institute “Fado of Portugal” concert at Symphony Space, New York City, Sunday, 18 April 2010. CREDIT: Photograph © 2010 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

More than 2,200 concerts Present for 43 years

5. How many events which you made in the meantime, and how many you made annually?

Over the past 43 years we (Helene and I) have presented more than 2,200 concerts in New York at venues ranging from art galleries and churches to concert venues like Symphony Space, Town Hall, Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and New York City Center. At the height of World Music Institute concert presenting (mid-1990s – 2007), we were presenting an average of 60 concerts each year in addition to organizing tours by major artists, including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (Pakistan) and Mohammad Reza Shajarian (Iran).

6. What was the most impressive moment or event which you made,?

It’s difficult to choose just one moment but here are 3 that I think we’re special events for us:
The Gypsy Caravan: This was a tour we organized in 1999 and again in 2001 featuring Gypsy musicians from Rajasthan (India), Hungary, Russia, Macedonia, Romania and Spain. The project toured to 16 cities in the US and Canada playing to audiences of 1,000 to 4,000.
The concert of classical Indian music with Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar) and Ustad Bismillah Khan (shenhai). One of my favorite records was of a duet by these two masters which they made in the early 1960s. It was my great pleasure to bring them back together again in 1996 at Town Hall – they had not seen each other for 20 years.
The Musical World of Islam: This was a series of 12 concerts that took place in 1993-94 featuring musicians from Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Egypt, Iran, Mauritania, Morocco, Palestine, Pakistan, Syria, and Turkey. Some artists had built a reputation, most were not well known. This was an important series politically, coming at a time when anti-Muslim sentiment was on the rise in this country.

Chicago-born and based blues man Lurrie Bell (right, born Lurrie C. Bell) performs on guitar and vocals with electric bass guitarist Melvin Smith and Bell’s Chicago Blues Band at a concert presented by Robert Browning Associates at Roulette, Brooklyn, New York, Saturday, March 25, 2017. Bell’s father was blues harmonica player Carey Bell (1936-2007).CREDIT: Photograph © 2017 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

7. What was the most difficult moment or event which you made?

There were many! We were always struggling to make ends meet. We had to take risks often counting on getting much larger audiences than we should have. It was always a struggle to find sufficient funds and we relied too much on ticket sales. Then there was always the uncertainty of getting visas to bring in artists from abroad and the costs involved. We often waited in trepidation that visas would not be issued in time for artists to perform on schedule.
But all of this pales compared to what happened on the morning of September 11, 2001. We remember hearing the shrieks and cries of the crowd that had gathered on the Brooklyn Heights Promenade (near our apartment) as people witnessed the fall of the Twin Towers. Our young staff members were traumatized and it took many months for us to regain a semblance of normalcy. For months afterwards the stench of burned steel and concrete and human remains filled the air in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn. We heard the cranes and helicopters all night long as they labored to clear the site. Concerts had to be canceled or moved to different locations; musicians refused to travel to the US; new sources of income had to be found to offset the losses due to cancellations. Concerts that took place right after the attack drew thankful audiences that saw them as quiet remembrances for the dead or assertions of the sacredness of life. One month after the attack – October 12 and 13 – more than 3,000 people came to City Center to see and hear the Gypsy Caravan musicians celebrate life. Everything changed after 2001 – visas became more difficult to obtain, there was a recurrence of anti-Muslim sentiment and racism asserted itself once again. But we endured. Months afterwards, audiences gradually started to fill theaters, grants from major foundations were made available to offset losses incurred by the attack, and international artists began to travel to America again.

8. What kind of engineering majored and also visual arts type in England,?

I studied electrical engineering and served an engineering apprenticeship at a major aeronautics company, but did not complete my degree. I left to study art (painting and sculpture). I graduated in Fine Arts and did a post-graduate year in which I produced kinetic art sculptures.

What was motivation to become a music curator, arts event organizer,? What was the motivation to change your main job (engineer or artist to curator)

I have spent many years enjoying the presenting of music from around the world, discovering new sounds and being deeply moved by what I hear.

I switched from engineering to the arts when I realized that I had no real interest in sitting at a drawing board designing some little aspect of an airplane. I had always painted as a child so, after my father died I got a small grant to go to art school.
There is no way that I had the ability to become a practicing musician and somehow my work as a visual artist seemed to become irrelevant by the mid 1970s so I turned to presenting other people’s work – first visual arts and then music and dance. Yes ,I have spent many years enjoying the presenting of music from around the world, discovering new sounds and being deeply moved by what I hear.

9. What was the motivation to come to New York?

I met my wife Helene, who is from New York, on a beach in Crete. We have lived and worked together for 44 years. When I first came here I did carpentry work in Brooklyn to supplement my wife’s salary – she was a social worker. I then started working with a friend, Geno Rodriguez who had attended the same art college I went to in England. We started a non-profit art gallery in 1975 called the Alternative Center for International Arts on the Lower East Side (Manhattan). Our mission was to present artists, often of minority or ethnic origin who were not given enough opportunities to exhibit their art.

Pakistani Qawwali singer Farid Ayaz leads his ensemble Farid Ayaz Qawwal and Brothers with his brother Abu Mohammad at his right at a World Music Institute ‘Qawwali Music of Pakistan’ concert at Symphony Space, New York, New York, Sunday, April 18, 2004. Qawwali is a form of South Asian Islamic Sufi devotional music.CREDIT: Photograph © 2004 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Establishment of World Music Institute in New York City

10. Please let us know how was the world music scene around when you establish WMI.(around 1985)?

We started presenting music at the Alternative Center in 1976 – early concerts included music from the Andes, Indian classical music, jazz, blues, music from Ireland, the Appalachians, Japan, and the Middle East, as well as new music by American composers. By 1985, the term “world music” was becoming firmly established but we were one of only a few organizations presenting “traditional” music. The audience for most world music genres depended considerably on the size of the culturally specific community. For instance, when we started in the mid-1970s the South Asian community in New York was quite small , numbering only a few thousand. By the late 1980s, it had swelled considerably ensuring a considerably higher percentage of our audience. The same was true for many other communities – as their numbers increased, so did our audiences.

11. What means or what is the standard of ‘finest arts in traditional and contemporary arts’ which you mentioned about the mission of WMI,?

We always tried to find musicians and dancers who represented excellence in their tradition. We relied on a team of experts and advisors which included ethnomusicologists, cultural anthropologists and highly respected musicians. We also listened to many recordings especially those of the Ocora (French), Bahrenreiter (UNESCO), Nonesuch and lesser known labels.

12. The arts or music events presented by WMI seems to be usually from South Asians to America geographically, or Islamic. Is there any reason?

Part is my personal interest in South Asian and Middle Eastern music, blues and jazz But also there is a far bigger audience for Indian music than for other Asian genres. Many Indian musicians tour the US and we take advantage of this. But we have always presented African and South American music and some East & Southeast Asian music. Roughly the breakdown of musicians we have presented is 30% American, 20% European, 12% South Asian, 9% Islamic & Middle Eastern, 9% Latin American & Caribbean, 8% African, 7% East & Southeast Asian, 5% other. The large number for Europe includes considerable representation from Mediterranean countries – especially Spain (flamenco) and Greece.

terra-magazine-RobertBrowning-worldmusicinstitute-wmi-QI SHU FANG-Mu Guiying
QI SHU FANG as “Mu Guiying” in “The Battle at Calabash Bridge,” an excerpt of “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” performed by the Qi Shu Fang Peking Opera Company at a World Music Institute concert at the Skirball Center, NYU, New York City, Saturday, 02-26-2005. CREDIT: Photograph © 2005 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

13. How about East Asia’s,?

East Asian music has always been more difficult to get an audience for. Other than for taiko drumming and Tsugaru shamisen audiences tend to be much smaller (50 -150) and therefore not financially viable without considerable funding. For a short period in the 1990s it was possible to draw a fairly large audience (500+) for Peking Opera because of the first visits by companies from China and the publicity they got in the New York Times. We did present a number of Korean concerts (shaman dances etc.) and we did a series entitled “The New Americans” which featured recent immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. This was made possible by a special grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. We regularly presented concerts of Japanese music including koto ensembles, and shakuhachi. We also presented gamelan from Java and Bali with dancers, puppeteers, etc. These were always popular among the many young Americans who at one time or another studied and performed gamelan.

14. Why difficult to gather audiences for East Asian music? -well I know well, indian cultures already spread a lot in USA, though.

When George Harrison met Ravi Shankar and started to introduce the sitar into the Beatles sound of the late 60s it led to a huge surge of interest in non- Western music – particularly that of India. Indian music had already found a champion in Yehudi Menuhin, the classical violinist who initiated the bringing of such masters as Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan and Bismillah Khan to Britain to perform at the Edinburgh Festival from the mid 1950s to 60s. Thus Indian music had an early hold for listeners in the West. There are a number of reasons why East Asian genres did not get a foothold in America and Europe but probably the primary reason was that many of these genres had been so influenced or overpowered by the Euro-American music industry that they had lost much of their uniqueness. Chinese (Han) music became heavily influenced by European music (and by Hollywood) in the mid-20th Century so that much of the music became just a shell of its origin. Most young people in Korea learn to play the violin and are steeped in Western classical music early on. Koreans have only recently been reawakened to the richness of their traditional heritage through a renewed interest in shamanism and ritualistic music. Japanese music has maintained an active presence worldwide but is mostly allied to such pursuits as Zen meditation. The shakuhachi, with its breathy tone has always had a fascination for Westerners, particularly for reed players (Clarinetists, flautists. Saxophonists)

Carnegie Hall, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts

15. How have the Carnegie Hall event going on, i.e., World Music concert ticket selling status or seat shares or popularity et.c., WMI seems to be the only presenter (or partnership) of World music scene,?

“World Views”, the series at Zankel that we partner with Carnegie Hall, began in 2003 while I was still at the World Music Institute. There are between 3 and 5 concerts each year, though next year there will be only 2. Audience figures have been fairly consistent – 50-100%. A recent concert of music from Crete drew an audience of 550 (92%). We also help to present occasional world music artists in the big hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium.

16. What is main role as the panel of the the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, et.c.,?

The NEA and NYSCA were important in providing funding for our early concerts at the Alternative Center and the World Music Institute. However, as our budget increased they provided a smaller percentage of our budget. We (Robert Browning Associates occasionally get small grants from the NEA and NYSCA.

17. If the funding resources mentioned $2,700,000., it is quite large amount of. Could you tell us that how was the resources from or composed of? i.e) government, sponsored corporations, or by yourself etc)

The World Music Institute budget reached $2,500,000 in the mid 2000s – ranging from $2,550,000 to $2,935,000 depending on the number of US tours that we organized. These were always very expensive because of travel and accommodation. The breakdown was 45% ticket sales, 20% touring income, 19% foundations, 7% individual contributions, 4% government (NEA, NYSCA, NYCDCA), 1% corporations, 4% other (record sales etc.) Thus ticket sales and touring income amounted to 65% of our income.

18. What is the different your role of Robert Browning Associates from WMI’s,?

WMI was a non-profit organization with a staff that expanded to 10 by the mid 2000s I was the Executive and Artistic Director. Robert Browning Associates is very small – basically myself and Helene with one or two friends helping out. It is not a non-profit organization and therefore we have to apply for grants through a non-profit partner.

19. There are issues or arguments among scholars about the terms of ‘World Music’ is not very proper to mean the music related to Western Classical music. Do you have also any ideas with it?

There have always been arguments about the term ‘World Music.’ The term was first used by Dr. Robert Brown, an ethnomusicologist, who was running a course on non-Western music at Wesleyan University in the 1970s. He wanted a non-academic name for his course. I asked him if he didn’t mind me using the term when we started the World Music Institute. He was happy to share it. While in Europe the term began to connote music that brought together different genres, my definition was traditional or roots-based music from all traditions. I excluded classical Western music and jazz since these genres already had many outlets.


We can live TOGETHER!W

20. What is your life mission and goal from now,

To continue to help traditional and roots based musicians to find venues to perform in the US. To encourage major US venues and concert organizers to be adventurous in promoting and presenting classical non-Western music in their general programming. To continue to break down the barriers between genres and bring people together and, wherever possible, to promote peace and understanding in the world.

I guess I am still an idealist. I’m still hopeful for a world where racism and misogyny become things of the past. But I am a realist, there are many more battles to fight before utopia! I just hope that we humans will come to our senses and realize that, if we want to survive, we have to change many things. There is no reason for starvation in the world today, there is no reason for the appalling situations in Yemen or South Sudan. And there is no reason for US hegemony (or Chinese) in the world – we need to share our resources. We CAN live together.

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Wishing you much success!

About the Robert H. Browning

ROBERT and HELENE BROWNING of World Music Institute at the World Music Institute & Center for Traditional Music & Dance “JP Morgan Chase New York World Festival” at Central Park SummerStage, New York City, Sunday, 12 September 2004. CREDIT: Photograph © 2004 Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Born in Singapore, Robert Browning received his formal education in England where he majored both in engineering and the visual arts. After lecturing in Art Colleges for more than six years and exhibiting as a painter, sculptor and kinetic artist throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, he came to New York in 1974 where he co-founded the Alternative Center for International Arts, a non-profit exhibition center and performance space which later became known as the Alternative Museum. He established the Museum’s World Music Program and developed it into the most important program of its kind in the United States.

In 1985, he founded the World Music Institute, an organization dedicated to presenting the finest in traditional and contemporary music and dance from around the world. As Executive and Artistic Director until his retirement in 2011 he presented and/or produced more than 1,500 concerts and festivals. With the help of a dedicated staff of nine he built the World Music Institute into a flourishing organization with an annual budget of more than $2,700,000. In addition to presenting concerts he organized U.S. tours by both local and international ensembles and co-produced audio recordings and radio series of world music. Since retiring from the World Music Institute he has continued to present concerts at various locations with his wife, Helene, through Robert Browning Associates. He is a world music consultant for Carnegie Hall and presents an annual series at Zankel Hall in partnership with Carnegie Hall.

Robert Browning has served on panels for the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council on the Arts, New Jersey Arts Council, Massachusetts Cultural Council, New England Foundation for the Arts, Mid Atlantic Foundation for the Arts, Maryland State Arts Council, Arts International, ASCAP International Awards panel and the Jerome Foundation. He has also served as a consultant for various festivals including the 1990 Los Angeles Festival and, in 2003, organized the Cultural Olympiad in Greece featuring music and dance ensembles from 16 countries.


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