DJ and music producer Gilles Peterson
© Dave O’Donnell / Mistral Productions

“It’s never been better than now”

  • INTERVIEW SEBASTIAN HANDKE

His enthusiasm for new music is unmatched: Gilles Peterson, DJ, producer, BBC host and record collector, has been inspiring music lovers around the world for over 30 years. Lufthansa joins him as he explores the music scene in Cape Town for his online radio station Worldwide FM.

You have listened to a great deal of music in your life. What did you like most about Cape Town?

Cape Town is a complex city with regard to the different scenes and energies that exist there. But on the final day of our trip we managed to bring a lot of different communities under one roof for a couple of hours: new tendencies and old tendencies, electronic music, folk rock and spoken word, hipsters, hip-hop guys and people from the townships. That’s what I personally enjoyed most. The event did not make it into the audio documentary, but it was broadcast on Worldwide FM.

What makes the music of Cape Town stand out?

Musically speaking, Cape Town is very much like a younger sister to Johannesburg. The music industry resides in Johannesburg. So the musicians that gather in Cape Town are maybe a bit less ambitious, but more into their craft. That’s why there is a very good jazz scene. The other interesting thing about Cape Town is that it’s just across the road from Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated. So there was a closeness to the serious political situation there. Prophets of the City, a hip-hop group from Cape Town, were among the first to talk about the situation. The radio stations here were quite active in bringing the problems to the people through music.

How had music developed up to that point? South Africa was quite isolated at the time.

There was music coming in from the outside that became really big without the rest of the world knowing about it. The American singer Rodriguez is probably best known because of the recent Sugarman documentary: His records didn’t do anything in America, but in South Africa it became the sort of music that, in the Seventies, drew a lot of people together. South Africa also had its own music industry, of course, and people are discovering it as late as now. In the Eighties, for example, some copied that cheesy, early drum-machine kind of American soul music. It’s a familiar sound, but somehow different. Collectors and DJs are really searching for these songs now, there is massive demand. And the main reason is: No one knew it existed! They call it bubblegum music.

Gilles Peterson and DJ Esa Williams in Cape Town, South Africa

Gilles Peterson with producer and DJ Esa Williams, a native of Cape Town, who guides him through the city's music scene

© Dave O’Donnell / Mistral Productions
Cape Town is very much like a younger sister to Johannesburg, says Peterson

Cape Town is very much like a younger sister to Johannesburg, says Peterson

© Lufthansa
Peterson in "Mabu Vinyl", the record shop that became famous through the oscar-winning "Searching for Sugarman"

Peterson in "Mabu Vinyl", the record shop that became famous through the oscar-winning "Searching for Sugarman"

© Lufthansa
South African singer/songwriter Nonku Phiri with Gilles Peterson during the live broadcast from Cape Town

South African singer/songwriter Nonku Phiri with Gilles Peterson during the live broadcast from Cape Town

© Dave O’Donnell / Mistral Productions
Producer, artist and label founder Portable was joined by Card With Spokes, Rozzano Davids, and Gilles Peterson

Producer, artist and label founder Portable was joined by Card With Spokes, Rozzano Davids, and Gilles Peterson

© Dave O’Donnell / Mistral Productions

You are a well-known discoverer of rare or forgotten sounds yourself. I imagine this to be like the work of a detective …

Absolutely. If you like records and you have money to spend, it’s never been better than right now. You can find anything online at Discogs if you know what you’re looking for. But to me that’s a last resort. In London, I like to go to a shop called Cosmos. They started out in Canada and their headquarters in Toronto are the best shop in North America. Then I would go down to Love Vinyl, which is in Shoreditch, then to Sounds of the Universe in Soho. There are also some specialized shops now that are almost like a private service. You can’t just walk in, you have to call, book an appointment and then they’ll open the door. It’s a bit like going to the hairdresser. And if you want some whiskey, they will have some whiskey for you.

The bespoke record dealer…

Exactly! In Paris there is a guy called Victor Kiswell who has a lot of people like me, but also hip-hop guys from America who are looking for something a bit more different. We’ll go around his house, spend a few hours there and he will put out some stuff. You pay a little more than usual, of course, but then you not only get a record but also the story that goes with it. If you were looking for, say, a Ukrainian big-band version of an Afro Beat song, Kiswell would know where to find it. And not only would he tell you about it, he would also have the sleeve notes translated from Russian.

Do you have any idea how many records you own?

I don’t really know. I have two properties with eight rooms full of records, that’s the best way to count. I am hitting 50,000 for sure. But there is so much new music all the time, I hardly have a moment to listen back. It’s almost like I’m waiting for the day I retire… I used to think that by the age of 40 I would have given up deejaying, but I am enjoying it so much, I can’t imagine quitting.

I don’t really know how many records I own. I am hitting 50,000 for sure.

As a DJ and producer you travel a lot. Where did you find a particularly close relationship between the city and its sound?

In Berlin, in a weird way. With the rise of the club scene in the last 10 to 15 years that city has developed a techno sound that has certainly come into its own. And then you have that piano sound of people like Nils Frahm. His music for the film Victoria really emphasized a certain kind of aesthetic. Obviously, Brazil is another example with very evident sounds. But then again, São Paulo and Rio are very different…

Why is it that certain cities develop a vibrant music scene while others do not?

I don’t know. Barcelona is interesting. There are so many people going through that city. It has a strong nightlife. You would think there would be a really attractive, contemporary music scene. But there isn’t. Why? I am quite fascinated by that. Sometimes it has to do with the governmental side of things. A place like Melbourne in Australia, for example, is very active, very fertile. Sidney, on the other hand, is dead. The drinking laws are messing up Sidney. Little things like that can have a huge effect.

Then why is London always so exciting?

London is always at war with itself. The city has this crazy mixture and is constantly reinventing itself. It is also extremely competitive. When you’re in the music industry here you can never feel comfortable because there is always someone new coming along. I am half French, half Swiss, but working in music, I can’t image living anywhere else.

Music nerd and cosmopolitan: Gilles Peterson has an unceasing passion for new sounds

Music nerd and cosmopolitan: Gilles Peterson has an unceasing passion for new sounds

© Theo Cottle

Is there any other city you’re excited about right now?

In Lisbon there is some really interesting music, it’s exploding. There have been a lot of people coming in from Angola, and their influence has led to a sort of high energy House Music with its very own kind of percussive backing tracks. The DJs and producers are all kids from the Angolan housing estates on the outskirts of Lisbon.

In this case, globalization is a blessing. But local music scenes like that, don’t they also need protection from outside influences so they can develop properly?

Globalization is a good thing in a way. But you need a strong local community in order to develop something to a point where it doesn’t sound like everything else. These days, when something semi-interesting happens, the world suddenly jumps on it. But nothing can develop properly if it doesn’t have time to grow. Fortunately, in Lisbon, the scene is carefully managed and produced. Check out the record label Principe: the people there give those kids the time and environment they need for their music and their events. That’s how something can grow. At the same time they are very savvy to the marketing. You have to be, that’s the reality these days.

What’s the role of radio in all this?

The old institutions like Radio 1 at the BBC used to have so much more sway. It’s not like that anymore. But for a lot of people they are still important as an entry point into music. The good thing is: Once people are in, they can go anywhere they want. There are many specialized digital radio stations today where you can dive deeper into certain subjects. At the BBC I may produce a 20-minute feature on an artist, on Worldwide FM I can do it for 24 hours. So it’s really the director’s cut. And people want more of that these days. They are searching for expertise, searching for the authentic word on stuff.


Sebastian Handke was born at a very early age. He spent his childhood in San Francisco and the heartland of Swabia. Once it was over, he earned his living as a director’s assistant, a Flash developer, a musician and a journalist. These days, Sebastian is the editor responsible for Lufthansa Magazin Online.