A World in Trance: Interview with Robert Browning

As much as New York City has changed in the last 40 years, one thing has remained constant: Robert Browning putting on world music concerts. In 1975, Browning co-founded the Alternative Center for International Arts on the Lower East Side, and in 1985 he and his wife founded the World Music Institute. Browning retired from the Institute in 2011 but has continued to periodically curate performances. His latest is a four-day festival at Brooklyn’s Roulette called “A World In Trance,” featuring musicians from Guinea, Mauritania, Morocco, Pakistan, Tuva and the U.S. in styles that range from African blues to throat singing. amNewYork spoke with Browning.


What was the impetus for “A World in Trance”?

Basically, a lot of music we present is kind of trance inducing or has a ritualistic aspect that is beyond just sitting in a concert hall. All these groups, I felt had something in common. Their music is transcendent. It embraces a different form of listening a lot of the time.


You retired from the World Music Institute in 2011 saying you were tired. What made you want to jump back into putting on concerts?

Things were getting too big. It was getting more and more difficult. We had just gone through a major financial crisis and there was no more money available. I was tired of doing all the fundraising. Then when I retired, I still had all these artists calling me, saying “Hey, I’m coming over from India or I’m coming over from Mali, and I want to do a concert.” … [Putting on concerts at Roulette] is like going back to what I was doing 25-30 years ago, that is, doing smaller concerts.


Are there a lot of differences putting on a festival like this today versus when you started?

The audience has aged. When I started off the average age of audience would have been somewhere around 28. … Just recently I noticed there are younger people coming back. Most young people do not want to sit down at a concert. That is something that has changed dramatically. Our early concerts were much more informal. Maybe places like Roulette and other smaller clubs on the Lower East Side and Brooklyn are doing better because they’re not trying to get everyone sitting in rows and quiet. We want to get them to participate.


If You Go: A World in Trance, April 30–May 3 at Roulette, 509 Atlantic Ave., Brooklyn, $25-$35 per night/$95 for festival pass, aworldintrance.com