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Mario Casetta, was a personable radio host on radio KPFK-FM in Los Angeles, California, who shared his love of international music with audiences for more than 35 years.
Mario was exposed to music and dance with his first breath; his Italian immigrant father and Swedish-American mother ran an Italian classical ballet company that performed in vaudeville during its heyday, so Mario's early childhood was spent on the road, "living out of suitcases." His teenage years were spent in Los Angeles where he was a cheerleader at John Marshall High.
His first experience on radio was during World War II with the Armed Forces Radio Service. Based on Saipan Island in the Pacific, he did a bit of everything, from technical work, writing, and conducting interviews to spinning records. He soon discovered the varied music available on the island and set out to record traditional songs of Saipan's Pacific Islanders, Okinawans, and Koreans, and even Japanese prisoners of war incarcerated there. It was there that he met Pete Seeger with whom he collaborated after the war to organize People's Songs on the West Coast and to encourage the use of folk music, music of the people, for political action.
A graphic artist after the war, Mario continued to record native music during a lifetime of traveling through the United States, Europe, and Asia. He lived abroad for several years, studying painting and drawing in France and Switzerland. He was the guest of the Chinese government four times. He traveled with his tape recorder, interviewing musicians and recording live performances and local color for future airplay. His travels to Ireland, England, Finland, and Hungary led to special productions for his radio shows. His "Five Days in Shanghai" was the result of his being in Shanghai during the uprising at Tian An Men Square in Beijing. His last trip to the Republic of Tuva was the fulfillment of one of his fondest dreams.
When back in Los Angeles in 1959, Mario was introduced to folk dancing by his dear friends, Millie and Gary Alexander. He was hooked, and became involved in international music and dance in Los Angeles. Soon he, himself, was teaching, specializing in Greek and Balkan dances, frequently guest teaching for various groups around the area. He also taught at Cafe Danssa, a folk dance coffeehouse where he was a co-owner. In later years he became interested in Japanese dances.
Mario shared the knowledge he gained from his travel explorations and experiences with the folk dance community through his dance classes. He had his own unique style of teaching -- to learn a dance from Mario was like tasting the country -- its culture, history, essence. One listened and moved to the music; one danced.
He disliked contemporary rock 'n' roll but thoroughly enjoyed everything else and collected and played recordings of Australian aboriginal music, zydeco, flamenco, Irish folk, New Orleans jazz, country blues, and many other forms.
Before coming to Radio KPFK, Mario worked in film shorts and TV commercials as a producer-director and art director. He did the graphics on "The Legend of Jimmy Blue Eyes" which was nominated for an Academy Award as best film in live action shorts. He worked in advertising as an art director and as a freelance illustrator and designer.
In 1969, recognizing a definite void in international folk music on radio, Mario became involved with Radio KPFK, putting together two programs featuring international folk music. On Mondays from 10:00 a.m. to noon, he presented "Mario's Many Worlds of Music." On Wednesdays, he was host of "Independent Music," also an eclectic mix of folk and ethnic sounds from around the world but limited to material distributed by independent record labels. Like other Radio KPFK on-air hosts, Casetta was never paid for the programs he first proposed in 1969. He had many guests from the folk music and dance community: bands, soloists, teachers, ethnomusicologists, record producers, etc. Through these weekly radio programs and the many multicultural (ethnic) fairs and festivals he produced for KPFK, Mario helped to promote greater interest and understanding among the citizens of Los Angeles. He is considered a pioneer of the world music format for radio.
Mario, along with others, produced a Fiesta Mexicana, with Mariachis, Folklorico Ballet, regional dances, MexTex bands, arts and crafts, graphics and prints, traditional Mexican food and drink, gifts, clothing, records, and folk dancing for all.
Mario produced Peekskill Story in 1949 that was performed by The Weavers. He also produced an educational film in 1968 called Balkan Dancing that features the AMAN Folk Ensemble. Part 1 was filmed at UCLA and highlights LADARKE an ensemble piece from Croatia. Part 2 takes place at Zorba's Coffee House in the San Fernando Valley, with AMAN's Macedonian dance (clips filmed at UCLA).
The annual Balkan Festival was produced by Mario for several years, and included instruction by Mario and other instrictors, such as Louise Bilman, Dick Crum, Mihai David, Barry Glass, and Dick Oakes, and performers such as AMAN, NAMA, the Maimon Miller Orchestra, Koroyar, and The Summer Solstice Folk Music and Dance Festival.
On the occasion of his 75th birthday, Mario was congratulated by the city of Los Angeles for 35 years of promoting ethnic music and dance in southern California: for children through the Performing Tree, for adults through the Colburn School of Performing Arts, through countless classes in folk dance cafes and at festivals, through documentary films, and through his radio shows.
As the Director of Community Events, after coming back from a serious stroke in May of 1981, Mario bent his talent and efforts toward the production of "The Balkan Christmas Fair," in early December 1981 at the International Institute in Los Angeles. This dynamic event combined the fun and excitement of both the Balkan Festival and the old Christmas Fair in a single weekend and resulted in a highly successful fund raiser for the radio station.
Arthritis forced him to end his teaching of folk dance at the Colburn School of Performing Arts in Los Angeles in 1994. He had his first heart attack in May of 1995 and died on June 2, 1996, at a Culver City convalescent home, of his second heart attack. He was 75. Mario is survived by three children, Jack, Prima, and Carla.
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