Sunday, September 16, 2007

freemuse report 'music will not be silenced'

At a concert given by the US rock band Pearl Jam in August, lead singer Eddie Vedder included some lyrics critical of George W Bush in his performance of the song “Daughter”. The telecommunications group AT&T was subsequently accused of censoring the song, when it was found that the lines criticising Bush had been cut from the webcast of the concert.

When Vedder sang the line “George Bush leave this world alone”, to audience cheers, the broadcast was interrupted, and it remained silent while Vedder repeated the line and then sang “George Bush, find yourself another home.”

On its website, Pearl Jam says: “This, of course, troubles us as artists but also as citizens concerned with the issues of censorship and the increasingly consolidated control of the media.” AT&T claimed that the incident was due not to censorship, but to an “unintended error” made by a subcontracted webcast vendor. But this did not explain why the “error” had been made only during the anti-Bush part of the song.

A report on the Pearl Jam controversy is one of the news stories from around the world currently featured on the website of Freemuse. This international organization was formed in 1998 to promote music freedom and fight music censorship. As the case of Pearl Jam shows, music censorship is by no means confined to non-Western countries. It is an international phenomenon.

The news page carries reports on music censorship and other issues of music freedom from countries including the UK and Sweden, as well as Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Malaysia, Iran, Turkey, the Ivory Coast and Mexico. The organization’s archive has references to reports from many countries, including a number of countries in the Middle East.

The Freemuse report “Music Will not be Silenced”, which has just been published as a book and also in digital form on the Freemuse website, covers issues of music censorship from various countries. The report is based on the 3rd Freemuse World Conference on Music and Censorship held in Istanbul last November, which was attended by more than 200 musicians, journalists, scholars and activists. The book includes a CD of video interviews with some of the conference speakers.

In one of the interviews, Mirwaiss Sidiqi, the programme manager in Afghanistan of the Aga Khan Music Initiative for Central Asia, speaks of the continuing attacks by the Taleban on Afghan music, culture and development. His programme’s response is to organize concerts, and raise awareness of Afghan music, particularly the rich traditional music. Sidiqi says: “We are engaged in a process of protecting our culture, developing our culture, and explaining our culture; the trouble between the civilizations is because we don’t know each other.” He adds: “Music and having having a high culture is nothing new in Afghanistan. We’ve been familiar with it for thousands of years, and we do know things other than fighting. That’s a message which I want absolutely to pass on.”

Another videoed interview is with the highly-gifted British guitarist and music producer Jason Carter, who speaks with warmth of several visits he has made to Saudi Arabia. His visits have typically been at the invitation of the British government, through the British Council, and he has played at concerts in venues such as schools and private compounds. Carter says: “I find Saudi very hard to leave because I have great connections with people and almost every month I get text messages from my friends in Saudi Arabia saying ‘when are you coming back?’”

Carter thinks it is frustrating and sad for many young people in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Brunei where “music is not really seen as a way of earning a living and expressing yourself.” He has quite a few Saudi friends who “love to jam” and are “fine, creative guitar players who would love to pursue music as a career, and they have the talent to do it, but they’re so restricted in that. So they might fly to Bahrain or Dubai to find some people to collaborate with and bands to listen to.” The musicians he has been impressed by include a young Syrian computer operator working in Jeddah, who is a wonderful oud player.

Carter’s latest album “Jason Carter: The Helsinki project”, recently released on the Naim label, was partly inspired by the Saudi desert. He finds “a stunning and peculiar familiarity between the desert of Arabia and Finnish landscapes. Both can be magical, hostile, empty, silent and awesome. It makes sense to try and bring these two worlds together, not only in musical style but also with the talents of the artists in both geographical areas”.

Since 1993 Carter has performed in more than 70 countries. “The Helsinki Project”, which features musicians of various nationalities, is an attempt to bring together the worlds he has experienced through music. Carter writes on his website: “And thanks to Farid Bukhari, for calling Paul Stephenson at Naim Audio as we were driving across the desert in Saudi and suggesting this project to him.....”

Among the countries covered in the Istanbul conference were Afghanistan, Indonesia, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Belarus, China, South Africa and Ivory Coast. The session on China was in memory of Kurash Sultan, the exiled Uighar musician from East Turkestan, who suddenly died not long before the conference.

A major highlight of the conference was a session on the censorship and repression of music in Turkey over many decades. More than 15 Turkish singers, musicians, composers, producers and broadcasters took to the podium one by one to give harrowing personal testimonies of censorship, imprisonment, silencing and exile. Among them was the Kurdish singer Selda Bagcan, dubbed ‘the Turkish Joan Baez’ in the 1970s.

The Middle East and North Africa session at the conference was entitled “All that is banned is desired”. The speakers included Thomas Burkhalter, an ethnomusicologist from Switzerland, and Algerian rapper Ourrad Rabah, also known as Rabah Donquishoot, who lived for seven years in France before moving to Barcelona. Burkhalter introduced sounds and opinions from “alternative” music groups in Lebanon such as The New Government, The Arcane and The Kordz, and described the pressures on certain music.

Rabah recalled how he had founded the rap group MBS in 1994, at a time when Algerian society was being torn apart by a savage internal war. The group’s name stands for “Le Micro Brise Le Silence”, or “The Microphone Breaks the Silence”. Rabah gave examples of the censorship of musicians in Algeria including the harsh measures taken against those singing in Berber. The Berber singer Matoub Lounes was assassinated in Algeria in 1998.
Following up a suggestion made at the conference by Ann MacKeigan of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Freemuse designated March 3 this year as the first Music Freedom Day. Radio and TV broadcasters around the world were encouraged to devote time to coverage of music censorship. To mark the day, Jason Carter recorded a new song, “Navai”, with the Iranian singer Marjan Vahdat. The two musicians met and performed together for the first time at the Freemuse conference, and their song can be downloaded from the Freemuse website. Plans for the second Music Freedom Day, on March 3 2008, are already being laid and on the Freemuse website there is a song to mark the day, “Can You Censor This!” recorded by Rabah Donquishoot, MBS and friends in a mixture of languages including Algerian Arabic, Spanish and English.
Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette September 10 2007

No comments: