Mid-Week Intermission Friend Edition: World Music Encounters with John Burnett

What does a globetrotting former radio journalist do with his spare time in Austin? Curate a music series, of course! We caught up with John Burnett, creator of World Music Encounters at St. David’s Episcopal Church in this Mid-Week Intermision. Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World, after all!

WME founder John Burnett interviews Mahmoud Chouki -- a celebrated oud player from Morocco, now based in New Orleans. Photo by Will Van Overbeek.
My name is John Burnett, and after spending 43 years as a daily journalist mainly describing how messed up things are in the world, I get to deliver joy.
I’m founder and curator of World Music Encounters at the historic, acoustically divine St. David’s Episcopal Church in the heart of downtown Austin.

I retired last year after 36 years as a roving national correspondent for National Public Radio. Yes, I’m that voice you used to hear on the radio usually talking about Tex-Mex border mayhem or hurricane damage or political polarization. If you catch me now as the emcee of our nine-concert world music series, I’m introducing and interviewing incredible musicians from West Africa, Ireland, Colombia, Morocco, Iran, Cuba, and Mexico. It’s good to wear a new hat!

Having traveled the globe a fair bit for NPR, I was always checking out the music scene in the far-flung places I was assigned, whether Kabul, Bogotá, Nairobi, or Tokyo. My wife, Margaret, and I are live music fanatics. (We also play and sing in two bands: WhoDo and the Panama Hats.) We kept discovering more and more fantastic foreign-born musicians, but they were sort of marginalized here in our Home With the Armadillo (sorry, Gary P. Nunn).

Ana Barajas and Cruz del Sur perform songs from their native South America at the October program of World Music Encounters. Photo by Will Van Overbeek.

I approached Father Chuck Treadwell, rector of St. David’s and damn good guitar picker himself, and asked, why do we keep renting out our gorgoeus, 170-year-old sanctuary to other concert producers when we can come up with our own awesome music series? That’s how World Music Encounters was born. The idea is to bring world music center-stage in the Live Music Capital, as well as educate and enlighten our audiences to the rich musical landscapes far from 512.

We call them Encounters because, as a journalist, I love to hear peoples’ stories. So I join the musicians onstage midway through the two-hour performance and ask them about their music, their muse, their instruments, and their journey to Austin. Most of our artists live right here in Austin, and the cool thing is that they moved here to the nation’s tenth largest city because we are a global musical mecca — with lots of venues, appreciative audiences, and a deep pool of talented musicians.

World Music Encounters at St. David’s has caught on. We had a sellout crowd of 300 at our inaugural concert in September. Our audiences have learned that once a month — Sundays 5-7pm — they will hear often unfamiliar music made by virtuosic artists, and the listeners will learn about the nature of this music. Last month, Ibrahim Aminou, a gifted kora player from Niger, showed us how the talking drum was used by his ancestors to mimic human speech and communicate messages between villages in West Africa. It was spellbinding.

Ibrahim Aminou, from Niger in West Africa, plays the talking drum at World Music Encounters in Janauary at St. David's Episcopal Church. Photo by Will Van Overbeek.

Our four remaining concerts:

Gabriel Santiago Project // FEB 11
An all-star Brazilian quartet. Gabriel holds a PhD in music composition from UT; JazzTimes described him as “a young master on both acoustic and electric guitars.”

Mariachi Las Alteñas // MAR 3
A 12-piece, all-female supergroup from San Antonio that wows audiences at mariachi festivals across the USA.

Sofrito y Su Melao // APR 14
A local Cuban ensemble that plays wide-ranging music from the Caribbean and interacts with the audience in innovative performances.

Oliver Rajamani // MAY 12
An Austin treasure who blends Indian, Flamenco, Romani, and Texas music.

Tickets are $35, $25, and $10 for students, available through Eventbrite.

All ages, family friendly, and free downtown parking!

John Burnett onstage at the inaugural September concert of the WME series that featured the world music supergroup, Atash, that is based in Austin. Photo by Tom Brand / St. David's Church


At the Long Center, we’ve always got a new partnership or something cool we know you’ll want to check out! Find and follow us @longcenter on your social media platform of choice, and we’ll see you real soon.

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