Trapped Notes

What do Iran, the U.S. and Cuba have in common? These nations, and others, are censoring music. The power of music was the focus of the annual Freemuse conference in Istanbul last month.

ISTANBUL - A Cuban ensemble whose members wear masks for fear of the regime and perform in shorts so friends and relatives can identify their legs; the Zimbabwean communications minister who broadcasts only his songs and jingles on the radio and television; Turkish and Afghani musicians who were persecuted, imprisoned and tortured; religious fundamentalists from Hezbollah who use music to attract supporters and diminish fears of a theocracy, and many other subjects were discussed at the third annual Freemuse world conference in Istanbul last month.

Freemuse is the only organization focused on the fight against censorship of music all over the world. It seeks to defend musicians' right to freedom of speech and gives them an opportunity to air their voices.

Some 2,400 years ago, Plato wrote the following in "The Republic": "Let our artists, rather, be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason." Plato wrote this as part of a discussion on good and bad musical tempi, musical intervals that destroy children's souls, appropriate and inappropriate scales from an ethical perspective, as well as forbidden musical instruments.

It seems that the discussion and its conclusion, that it is necessary to supervise the music in the republic, reflect a universal picture of a balance of power between a regime and the musicians in a society, a picture which the Freemuse conference revealed has changed little since the days of antiquity. Musicians still represent the essence of the threat to every regime wherever it may be, and the regime is willing to allow them to create only according to designated criteria.

It was only natural for the conference organizers to kick off the events with a session on Afghanistan, the topic that closed the previous conference four years ago in Copenhagen. At the time, Afghani musicians who had survived the reign of the Taliban testified about what happened in their country only a year earlier: antique instruments were destroyed and because of the total ban on hearing or engaging in music, people would meet in unpopulated areas and exchange tapes, as if they were dealing drugs. Mangled tapes with their reels hanging from treetops in prominent locations were a common site - a warning of what would happen to those who listened to them. A rich and ancient musical tradition faced the danger of extinction.

Exiled DJ Shakeb Isaar, 23, and Prof. Mirwaiss Sidiqi, the head of the new Aga Khan Academy of Music in Kabul, attest today that the situation has improved slightly. But the ugly scars on Isaar's legs, arms and back prove that the violence continues. He fled his country and today appears on a television show in Sweden, where he received political asylum. "Millions of my countrymen aged 14 to 30 are my audience, they support me and for them I perform."

Scenes from Tiananmen

During the Freemuse conference, music was revealed as having many faces: It is, on the one hand, a means of self-definition and a tool for searching for freedom and identity; on the other hand, it is a tool of control and power. This is evident first and foremost in Turkey, the host country, where the Kurdish minority and its culture are oppressed and where a human rights conference is a rare sight indeed.

Courageous Turkish and Kurdish musicians got up at the conference, one after another, and told their stories. Among them was a representative of the Culture Center of Mesopotamia, and others who told of the state-sponsored violence against them; Gilten Kaya, popular Turkish singer Ahmat Kaya's widow, relayed how he was tried before a military court and exiled after announcing he would only sing songs in Kurdish, and of his death in exile; the singer Salda Bagcan told of the endless persecution, arrests and trials she endured and the boycotts that brought her to the brink of poverty; singers and composers told of the years of torture suffered in jail after the military revolution in 1980.

The conference revealed that the ban on local languages in lyrics is a recurring theme in repressive regimes around the world. In Belarus, the only way to air songs in Byelorussia is via concerts of minors under the age of 18, who cannot be punished by law. Therefore, whoever chooses to sing in Russian aligns himself with the dictatorial regime. Algerian rapper Ourrad Rabah said that whoever sings in the Berber language in Algeria is sentenced to persecution and humiliation; he cited the case of Lounes Matoub, the popular singer, who was killed. And in east Turkistan, a huge swathe of land that borders on Pakistan, Mongolia, Tibet and India and is controlled by China, an oppressed minority of 20 million people is prohibited from speaking and singing in its native tongue, which is almost identical to Turkish. The overview of China presented by Turkistani musician Kaiser Abdurusul, presented a particular painful aspect of oppressive Third World regimes: the cooperation of the West.

One example mentioned is the Google search engine: Typing the search words "Tiananmen Square" produces pages and pictures of the Chinese Army's 1989 massacre of demonstrators in that square in Beijing. In China, on the other hand, and a picture to illustrate this was shown on a large screen at the conference, such a search yields entirely different results: a historical survey of the lovely square's past and its pastoral scenes, young mothers pushing baby strollers along the length of the square and lovers strolling through it - not a word mentioned about the massacre.

Black lists distributed

A study by the Freemuse group revealed that after the attacks on September 11, 2001, the West was able to use the argument of security concerns to censor and silence musicians. Among other things, the Boston Symphony Orchestra decided to remove choral pieces from the opera, John Adams' "Klinghoffer's Death," which deal with the Palestinian attack on the Achille Lauro cruise ship off the coast of Cyprus. Apparently black lists of hundreds of forbidden performers and songs have been distributed to over 1,000 American radio and television stations that broadcast to millions of people every day. Among the songs on the list are Elvis Presley's "Devil in a Disguise"; Steven Miller's 1970s hit, "Jet Plane"; the 1964 hit, "Dancing in the Streets" which was a sort of anthem of African-American rallies in the U.S.; "Peace Train" by Cat Stevens, now known as Yousuf Islam, a persona non grata in the U.S., John Lennon's "Imagine" and Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge over Troubled Waters."

"Restrictions on the movement of musicians to and from Western countries, by making visa requirements stricter, is also censorship," added the chairman of Freemuse, Swede Marie Korpe. Korpe said several conference participants had spent weeks in transit until they managed to obtain visas to enter Turkey. The U.S. also closed its borders after September 11 to musicians from Iran, Syria, North Korea and Iraq, even if they were exiles and opponents of the regimes there.

Another victim of this policy is the important research of American musician Ry Cooder, who revived Cuban music and its performers. Cooder brought great commercial success to Cuban music through the sound track and movie, "The Buena Vista Social Club," which sold over a million discs in the U.S. and won a Grammy Award. The closure of Cuba's borders by an "order banning commerce with the enemy" (1917) sentenced its cultural-musical treasures to oblivion.

In Cuba, as reported by Mario Masvidal Saavedra, a professor of linguistics and communication at the Havana Academy of the Arts, there is no expression of Cuban culture in the media: They are only open to rhumba, salsa and mambo, music which has become a hated symbol of conformism and collaboration with the regime. Rock, heavy metal and rap are heard only in a negative context: anti-drug public service announcements.

DJ Hezbollah

The conference also included performances featuring musicians, among them the Iranian sisters Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, and Fadal Dey of the Ivory Coast, who excited the audience with his songs of protest. At the conclusion of discussions every day at 6 P.M., participants from dozens of countries around the world got to know one another and went out on the town. They were able to get a bit of a break from the gloomy reality the long day of discussions presented.

And so we were: two Israelis, at a restaurant in the bustling Istiqlal neighborhood with three Iranians - sisters Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, two delightful singers, and a composer. It seems the restaurant had never seen such excitement emanating from five respectable people, chattering in two foreign languages, who were ostensibly enemies, located on two sides of a wall built by their governments against their will. Mahsa Vahdat, like many other musicians in her country, finds ways to have her music heard. And in an e-mail from Tehran after the conference ended, she said she had no objection to her and her sister's names being mentioned in an article in an Israeli newspaper: "Politicians in your country and ours should learn that they can't limit beautiful relations between human beings," she wrote.

Back at the hotel, we met with a German researcher who is now working in Beirut. At the conference, during a session on the Middle East, she told of the changes in Hezbollah's attitude toward music: from a complete ban, as is the way of fundamentalists of all religions, to acknowledging that music can help the party enlist public support for its cause.

"This war taught them what the power of music is," she says. "Throughout the war, they started broadcasting on their station, Al-Manar, Arab music and songs from the 1950s and 1960s which preceded pan-Arabism, and thanks to this, people from all over the Arab world called in and asked to join them. I saw in the middle of the war, Hezbollah cars equipped with loudspeakers and broadcasting very loud music, something that would not have been seen previously. Music is also part of their attempt to reach out to the community and alleviate people's fears of their plans to establish a state run according to religious law."

And what is Beirut's music scene like today?

She shows pictures of alternative hip-hop concerts in the heart of Beirut as evidence of the vast diversity in the city: "The situation now would be worth an anthropological study of music. On the street, you can hear the followers of Bashir Gemayel with their music; in the Martyr Square, 100 meters away, Hezbollah sounds their military marches; under my apartment, the rich and beautiful learn karaoke and dance on the tables of a cafe; the shops on the street play 'Jingle Bells' in an Arabic hip-hop version; a gallery owner next to me has hardly any customers these days and therefore plays saxophone all day long; and on the balconies, Sri Lankan servants shout at each other to communicate because their masters don't allow them to go out. All of this is drowned out by the construction workers everywhere who quickly build up Beirut again ... and tonight there will be also UN soldiers on the streets singing drunken songs and thanking God they were sent to serve in the Middle Eastern city of sin - not to Afghanistan."