What does a contemporary Brazilian folk guitarist have in common with Martha Reeves and the Motown Vandellas?
From Alan Smith of Montclair: New Jersey.
Smith’s show, “Six Degrees with Alan,” whose slogan is “All roads lead to New Jersey at six degrees or less,” is among the latest additions to WFMU, a nonprofit radio station that airs at from Jersey City with an international audience.
As WFMU entered a new summer program earlier this year, Smith, already a volunteer and station board operator, suggested a program that would not just play local bands, but instead examine how music from all over the world may hold the most indirect links with the Garden State.
Station manager Ken Freedman estimates he heard around 10,000 pitches in his three decades as a program director, “but,” he said, “I had never heard of it. an idea like Alan’s “.
Freedman offered Smith a slot for the night, taking the decks from 3 to 6 a.m. on Monday morning.
“While I didn’t think the original idea would work, it caught my eye,” Freedman said. “And the fact that he wants the series to be Jersey-centric has been a really big plus for me.”
The concept would require hours of research, a daunting task for someone who has to fill up three hours of airtime each week.
But for the first few episodes of his show, Smith has managed to maintain the courage of his conviction, finding unlikely and even tragic connections between the state he calls home and the music he loves.
Examples include Japanese pop-punk band Shonen Knife, whose backup drummer died in a car crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2005, and Pennsylvania rockers Ween, who recorded their groundbreaking album “The Mollusk” in a home studio on the Jersey Shore.
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By Smith’s own estimate, around 95% of the music he plays is taken from WFMU’s huge record library. Programming begins Wednesday night when he chooses about 300 songs from the station’s collection and sets aside time in the studio to listen through the stack.
Starting at 300, it will narrow the list down to around 30, then search for 10 more songs in the new library music bin.
Often, relations with Jersey are sought after.
“I was hoping I could get the listeners more involved,” Smith said, “but it’s a 3am show, so the people listening are probably [working] overnight and they’re not looking for anything, and the rest of them are in Europe. But they feel the Jersey connection and they love it.
After a few weeks, Smith started hitting a wall, but realized he could focus his research by wrapping shows around a singular theme, like an episode based solely on New Jersey’s Pine Barrens which featured bands from the region, as well as field recordings from the Pinelands themselves.
So far, a highlight of this tactic, and its show in general, has been a July 12 episode of the Newark Uprising on its 54th birthday.
This event held an important place in the life of Smith, who grew up in the Vailsburg section of Newark and whose father was a firefighter at the time.
His father’s fire captain and a family friend who served in the police were among the 26 victims that week.
“I was 1 year old, I can’t remember, but these stories circulated around my upbringing,” Smith said. “I always knew I was going to do this show.”
With the help of Newark jazz historian and author Barbara Kukla and reels of microfilm at the Newark Public Library, Smith set to work combing through the pages of events from missing newspapers, such as as “The Afterhour News” and “The Afro-American News,” and formed a three-hour playlist of music from artists who performed in the city that summer.
What he found spanned the musical spectrum from gospel choirs to Jean Wells, the Supremes, jazz drummer Max Roach, as well as a spoken word piece by poet Amiri Baraka. He closed the show with a play by Baraka’s son, the current mayor of Newark, Ras Baraka.
“It was a gold mine,” he says. “I couldn’t believe what was going on [musically] during the weeks and months around the Newark Rebellion.
This episode immediately set “Six Degrees” apart.
“Alan takes a more historical perspective,” said Freedman, the station manager. “It doesn’t just play with bands from Jersey, it also highlights specific historical moments or cultural movements that were important in the state.”
Smith also took WFMU’s freeform mark and applied it to his mic breaks, when DJs typically “announce” the set of songs they just played.
For Smith, this is where his character shines and you can feel him connecting with an unseen audience of insomniacs and listeners an ocean away.
In the first few weeks he took to playing a tabletop pinball machine, bells and ringing are clearly audible in the air as he reads the songs he had just played, interrupted by the occasional ” Oh, shoot! When the ball rolled easily between the paddles in the game.
In addition to occupying one of WFMU’s grueling night time slots, Smith proved to be a much-needed addition to the staff, among other duties he built an annex to the record library in the station’s basement.
And, for now, Smith’s band, The Porchistas, have the lamentable honor of being the last group to perform in WFMU’s venue, Monty Hall, before the performance space closed in the middle of the growing COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
But for all of his notoriety in Montclair, from hosting concerts at his home to hosting music festivals for the township and Tierney’s Tavern, Smith says his latest endeavor hasn’t produced a wave of kudos.
“A few people in town knew what it meant to me to be an FMU DJ,” he said, before summing up the station’s niche attraction: “People who know, know.”
Nicholas Katzban is a last minute reporter for NorthJersey.com. To receive the latest news straight to your inbox, sign up for our newsletter.
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