New Internationalist

Excitement, exhilaration, emotion: music’s power to move its listeners.

It’s now two – two! – years since The No-Nonsense Guide to World Music World Music Coverwas published and somewhere I have a file stuffed with people that I should have mentioned, things I should have followed up. But I comfort myself with this thought; that my too-small book was never intentioned as an encyclopedic guide to world music, but as something that hadn’t been done before: an interrogation into the phenomenon of world music. It was – and I think it’s had some success in this – designed to provoke people to think about how they consume music, world or otherwise; what music (especially foreign-language music) means to them; and how it operates. The point was that the book was a tool with which to open up a world of sound.

In writing my No-Nonsense Guide, one of the most interesting sections for me had to do with music’s role in creating and binding communities together. I gave several illustrations of these. The benign examples feature choirs, sports fans and similar groups – people singing, literally and metaphorically, in concert. Anyone who has sang with other people can testify to the excitement, the emotion, of the exhilarating pleasure of being bound, for a finite period, into a mass that is larger than oneself alone. Performing music exposes people to the harmony of a community and provides literally and metaphorically a voice. The success of the BBC’s current TV programme, The Choir, is based on exactly this idea. Not that one needs to be a performer: sometimes just hearing the music is enough. When I heard the 400-voice choir singing the Verdi Requiem on television as part of the 2011 BBC Proms season, I felt like racing at lightening speed to the Royal Albert Hall and demanding entrance – just to be immersed in it.

Excitement, exhilaration, emotion: three reasons why one should distrust music’s power to move its listeners. We generally assume music is used for the good – but this is not always so. The main malign example of music I gave in my No-Nonsense Guide was of Rwanda’s Simon Bikindi, a talented and charismatic musician who allowed himself – and his music – to be employed by the Rwandan Hutu militias and media in during the course of the 1994 genocide against the minority Tutsis. When I began writing, Bikindi was on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, on a six-count indictment that included complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity. At the end of 2008, he was found guilty of ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide’ and sentenced to 15 years in prison. In March 2010, his sentence was upheld. In the aftermath of the genocide his music has been banned in Rwanda.

I write of Bikindi that he ‘allowed himself’. There was no evidence in Arusha that he personally killed anyone, yet it seems that he had made no attempt to stop his incendiary songs – and their skewed take on Rwandan tribal history – being broadcast by the perpetrators of the genocide and this was immensely dangerous. It was accepted in court that he associated with the Hutu extremists and publicly urged Hutus on in their eradication of the ‘cockroach’ Tutsis.

The Bikindi case was watched with an uneasy interest by many, not least Free Muse, an organisation that monitors music censorship across the world. (Its CD, made with Norwegian artist Deeyah, Listen to the Banned and released by Grappa Records in 2010, is recommended listening.) The Bikindi case is complicated: it wasn’t just about music, for Bikindi, to some extent, had participated in training Hutu militias and encouraging their ghastly work.

But his case raises an interesting point: is music apolitical? No, is the emphatic answer given in the case of the Shoot the Boer song in South Africa. The song that contains these words is Ayesaba Amagwala (‘The Cowards Are Scared’) a Zulu-language song dating from the Apartheid era. (‘Boer’, the Afrikaans word for farmer means, by extension, any white person.) It was always an inflammatory song, with a chanted chorus of 'Shoot! Shoot!', and, in South Africa’s civil rights era, intended to be so. But what of its meaning post-apartheid? And what happens when a politician re-employs it for his own uses? This is the situation that South Africa faced when Julius Malema, the ANC’s (former) youth leader, began singing ‘Shoot the Boer’ and various high-profile public occasions, including a rally in 2010. He whipped up crowds with it, and in so doing, helped reinforce his own power base among the many black South Africans who have seen little gain since the advent of the Rainbow Nation.

If Malema’s ascension was worrying to the ANC leadership, his espousal of pre-apartheid pugilism was of huge concern in a country where violent crime is an acknowledged problem. Since 1994, 3,000 farmers, most of them white, have been murdered, the most high-profile victim being white supremacist leader Eugene Terreblanche in 2010. In subsequent court cases against Malema and the use of the song, the ANC were in the invidious position of supporting Shoot the Boer as a song reflecting its historic legacy. Even Bono, the Irish rock star and ambassador without portfolio, weighed in to a dangerous situation by more or less agreeing: Shoot the Boer, he suggested in 2011, was much the same as Irish rebel songs supporting the IRA. Bono was widely criticised for this.

For the moment, Malema’s fortune are in decline. He has been sacked as ANC youth leader, suspended from the party and convicted of hate speech by a South African judge.

Shoot the Boer won’t be sung in public any time soon – and if it is, it will be an  indication that things are going badly wrong.

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