Creak, creak, creak. tizzle, tizzle, pop!
The noisy roof of ‘the club’ is a corrugated-tin chorus of groans and feeble protests against the intense noon heat. Metallic pings punctuate the sleepy midday silence at Kakuma refugee camp in the northwest corner of Kenya. Most of the 60,000 refugees take siesta, under the UN-blue plastic canopy they are given for makeshift shelters. The heat swelters…
There, the music sounded different - special. Alive. The hot corrugated roof redirected sound waves in myriad ways. The noise from its relentless expansion and contraction added to the strange physics of the place. It was the music though, which had its own quantum. Music was everything. Political - it was oxygen in 4/4 time.
Some of the refugees at the camp were Ethiopian and had studied abroad in ‘friendly’ countries like Angola, Cuba, China and Russia. They knew the songs of Cuba’s Silvio Rodríguez, like his songs for the guerrilleros - resistance fighters - in El Salvador. Others hooped and hahed at the chutzpah of Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat. And they loved reggae. Its chaka-chaka sound picked up by Nairobi mavericks singing in sheng, the Kenyan rhyming slang. Artists like Alpha Blondy from Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa’s Lucky Dube were on heavy rotation. Here under the creaky roof of ‘the club’, right in the middle of one of East Africa’s largest refugee camps, where people found some respite. The music had everything to do with it. Combined with the harsh heat and light, like an impressionistic Ethiopian Haile Gerima film, the music and the lyrics shifted dimensions, slowed down time and cued the occasional cool breeze from distant mountains.
Radical politics don’t shift Nike sneakers as well as gold-jewellery-jangling bling-bling culture does
It was many years ago - and yet I can still hear those sounds. The creaks and pops of metal roofs expanding under the sun and contracting again in the cool desert night air, like the ebb and flow of tides, were part of the daily acoustics of life. But so too was the music and the animated talk in 50 tongues.
On any given evening, walking out into the various ‘neighbourhoods’, one could almost forget that this was a refugee camp. Years of war, uncertainty and diplomatic failures had kept tens of thousands of people from Ethiopia, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and Zaire living in limbo out in the Kenyan desert frontier. Unable to return home, the people had no choice but to build a life for themselves in their new barren surroundings. Thanks to a strong community-support structure, DIY resourcefulness and ingenuity, they built up their temporary shelters and converted them into viable longer-term housing and collective spaces.
One of the first communal places to be built was the Florida 2000, ‘the club’ humorously named after a famous Nairobi haunt. Much like its namesake, the local Florida 2000 was a vibrant place. People could have ‘WFP beer’ - a drink cheekily brewed from World Food Programme sorghum rations - and boogie down to the latest Lingala music from Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). A flexible barter system ensured that people with no money could still afford the occasional WFP beer in exchange for either some special labour or surplus rations. Sometimes they didn’t have to pay at all. It was like that. In a world straight out of a Mad Max set, the Florida 2000 was a life-raft in a sea of despair. And the soundtrack was there, energizing the place from a tinny box which filled the cavernous voids of despair with an enthusiasm for life.
Life wasn’t paradise in the camp by any stretch of the imagination. Unbearable heat, scorpions and deadly hand-sized camel spiders, regular visits from bazooka-toting militias from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, disease, boredom and sometimes violent rivalries within the camp were common. Nonetheless a small communal hut and a beat-up old Russian cassette player, churning out the latest Ethiopian pop hits or reggae classics, transformed people’s lives. I remember one friend - Walter from Kigale, a regular at the Florida 2000 - told me that the way he saw it, food and medicine enabled him to survive but it was music which made him feel truly alive. He’d swing to Milimani Park Orchestra and Kofi Olomide and you knew, for a brief moment, he wasn’t weighed down by stones of despair.
Something about the setting, the circumstance, the people and the sounds all combined to make an impression on my life that endures to this day. That these people whose families were murdered, homes destroyed, and lives ruined could come together and have a moment of happiness through song tells us something both about the strength of the human spirit and the transformative power of music.
Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists broadly agree that all cultures in the world have some form of music. Styles of singing and use of instruments vary enormously, but we are all essentially musical beings, despite protestations from the Wahabis and the Puritans. Whether we can sing four octaves or just butcher a Beatles tune, we all have some degree of sensitivity and receptivity to music. So why do we have music? Does it perform any particular evolutionary function? Do we have some biological need for it? Scientists aren’t sure.
Professor Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that it could just be a happy evolutionary accident. He makes an analogy with food. In the past, it may have been useful for ancient hominids to develop tastes and cravings for nutritious fruits and certain foods containing high levels of fats. Nowadays, says Pinker, many in affluent societies can accommodate these tastes and pursue even more sophisticated ones. But, he says, it’s difficult to argue that there are certain Darwinian advantages to enjoying strawberry cheesecake. Pinker suggests that our love of music may have developed out of a similar evolutionary need to distinguish different sounds. But ultimately, he argues, it’s no longer essential to our survival to be particularly sensitive to sound. In his book, How the Mind Works, he concludes: ‘I suspect that music is auditory cheesecake.’1
University of Cambridge lecturer in music, Ian Cross, disagrees. Cross argues that dismissing music as a useless fancy is incredibly ethnocentric. He suggests that Pinker’s confectionary view of music may reflect what music has become over the last hundred years within Western society - where a booming industry for recording and selling sounds has ‘turned music into a commodity to be consumed, dispensable on demand’. He goes on to argue that many people around the world use music for purposes other than entertainment. For example, they may use it for healing, education, cultural and religious ceremonies, communication and activism.2
The culture industry
Certainly the prevailing attitude in the West to music is probably more in keeping with Pinker’s cheesecake theory. Walk into any record store today and the world’s music is at your fingertips. Twenty dollars buys you The Sounds of Mali, the Ritual Drummers of Nepal, or the Traditional Chants of the Sufi Mystics. The fickle Western consumer can now sample the world’s music cultures and explore new tastes for exotic musical desserts.
In contrast, many cultures around the world do not have a general word for music, reflecting a more complex and interwoven cultural association with sound. Instead of calling it all ‘music’, many cultures have a sophisticated vocabulary for describing what purpose or function singing and playing instruments may have. In East Africa for example, many groups have the concept of ngoma which can be simultaneously translated as ‘drum’, ‘community gathering’ and ‘celebration’. The ngoma is where traditional music is played, but it’s no rock concert. Important dances and cultural rites are observed and the guardian spirits called through complex rhythmic patterns on sacred drums and other instruments. But the ngoma is equally used for popular uprisings and harambees - events where a wide group of people ‘pull together’ to benefit the community. Where social causes are taken up and political objectives agreed, the drums and songs elevate consciousness and celebrate unity.
The culture industry distorts this relationship. With the advent of recording technologies and Fordian manufacturing disciplines, for better or for worse, music has been rendered a mass product. Controlled by a mere handful of corporations, the global politics ‘entertainment industry’ has deployed an arsenal of satellite technologies, radio, television and print advertising - all in a sophisticated drive to sell more little round discs and tie-in products.
Media conglomerates make finely tuned decisions about which music to promote and which to sweep quietly under the carpet. The exercise of such kingly powers to make or break a band is ultimately a political act. Corporations will choose to promote vacuous materialist music as it is often in their interest to do so. While some black gangsta rappers are demonized for their sexist and violent lyrics, little is said about the largely white-owned major record labels promoting them. These companies actively cultivate misogynist, homophobic and violent music while shutting out radical voices who might question the system.
These mega-corporations’ crossmarketing strategies ensure that a promotional campaign will associate bands with the right brands. Radical politics don’t shift Nike sneakers as well as gold jewellery-jangling bling-bling culture does. Pass the cheesecake.
Meanwhile the culture industry lobbies for stricter intellectual property laws and tax write-offs, jails teenagers for downloading MP3s (MPEG Audio Layer 3 - the most popular compression format for online digital music distribution) of adored bands and keeps the majority of their signed artists powerless and often penniless. Radio companies and government agencies effectively ban radical music while saturating airwaves with the sounds of consent on heavy rotation. And it’s not just manufactured pop. Most music consumed is subject to similar market pressures. The increasingly popular ‘World Music’ genre, for example, is not immune.
As is customary in the industry, the ‘World Music’ category was invented by a group of record industry execs who wanted to carve out a unique market niche. Thus ‘World Music’ was born. Initially intended to be a short-term marketing campaign, the label stuck and the world’s music has never been the same since. But in some respects ‘World Music’, didn’t really mean world music. Its initial offerings of predominantly African and Latin music reinforced the notion in the white Western consuming world that ‘World Music’ was really just ‘other people’s music’.
Condemned to be forever a niche market in the West, talented musicians from the Majority World occasionally break through, such as Colombian superstar Shakira who recently took the Western pop charts by storm. But it rarely happens.
And while world music opens up possibilities for genuine cross-cultural exchange and internationalism, Western privileged power to consume the cultural products of the Majority World can often amount to a crude commodity fetish. The growing consumer demand for the ‘authentic’ musics of the South drives the industry to target certain arts to the exclusion of those which don’t fit into romanticized notions of ‘primitive’, ‘tribal’, and ‘ethnic’ music. Zairean-born Tanzanian political musician Remmy Ongala discovered this when the World of Music and Dance (WOMAD) festival and affiliated ‘Real World’ enterprise, decided that his music wasn’t an authentic ‘Zairean sound’, forcing him to change his style to the more mainstream Zairean music if he wanted to stay on the WOMAD circuit.3 That a British company could tell an African singer that his music is not ‘authentic’ is not only absurd, it’s dangerous. Imposing and reinforcing fixed notions of race, culture and identity are the hallmarks of the colonial project and have been at the root of many of the world’s problems today. Such market-oriented visions of hermetically sealed communities should be rejected outright. When large record companies call the shots, the effects on music are chilling - commercialize, homogenize and sanitize.
Yet, flying in the face of corporate conceit, radical musicians have planted their feet firmly in the real world. By singing or writing music which reflects the struggles and challenges of our times, music becomes ngoma - a creative social space for engaging with the community. The militant language of Nueva Canción - New Song - practitioners reflected a radical use of music for achieving progressive political goals. The movement mobilized a guitarra armada of radical musicians throughout Latin America and Spain to use the power of song to educate and organize. Consummate subversives, they played for the poor and dispossessed in factories, rural communities and the streets. Musicians from the Cuban offshoot, Nueva Trova, such as Pablo Milanés, crafted beautiful songs layered with a deep sophistication and subtlety. Trova singer, Carlos Varela’s ‘Circulo de Tiza’ - Circle of Chalk - is a good example:
'I don't believe in newspapers with the picture of Saddam Nor in ideologies, nor in what will come The world declares war against. My religion is not of the cross, nor the altar But I'm going to pray that one day The fog will lift.' - Carlos Varela.
Panamanian salsa king Ruben Blades gave the infectious Latin dance movement a healthy dose of reality: ‘I write songs about people not ideology. But in Latin America it’s impossible to live without being affected by politics, and so a song about people becomes political.’3 While fans sweat and gyrate on the dance floor, Blades sings songs about the haunting legacy of Latin America’s ‘disappeared’ (those killed or imprisoned by dictatorial regimes). The combination has proved hugely popular.
Aboriginal musicians in Australia have used music with great effect for popularizing the struggle for land rights and justice. Singers Ruby Hunter, Kev Carmody and Archie Roach, and bands like Yothu Yindi, have been instrumental. Their songs encourage open debate about a range of issues such as the forced assimilation policies of the Australian Government, land rights and reconciliation, AIDS, racism and sexism. They also work with the school system to educate Australian youth. Kev Carmody explains the significance: ‘The older generation are set in their ways, but it is great that schools can use the oral tradition, because the curriculum still tells lies about what happened.’3
In South Korea, the art movement minjung empowered a vibrant student movement in the 1980s with popular songs criticizing the Government, and called for reunification with North Korea. Shunning the bourgeois fine arts of high-society Korea, the students took inspiration from the shamanistic cultures of the rural dispossessed. The songs were written to be sung at protests, which involved co-ordinated singing by hundreds of demonstrators.
Political music is essentially a mode of activist communication
Punk developed in New York and later Britain and was popularized by legendary bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. It was the Do-It-Yourself three-chords-and-a-heartbeat music combined with refreshing in-your-face rebelliousness and anti-establishment lyrics which helped radicalize a whole generation. Punk music quickly became an ethic influencing the radical squatter and autonomous movements in Europe, the anti-communist and anti-authoritarian activists in Central and Eastern Europe, and anarchists worldwide. Next-generation indie-punk acts like Fugazi infused the music with an even more refined politics, combining hard-edged poetry and hardcore music to deal with issues of corporate power, democracy and corruption in the legal system. The Riot Grrl movement, meanwhile, adopted the DIY ethos of the music and used it as a radical feminist platform.
In the Western classical-music world, Argentinean-born Jewish composer Daniel Barenboim made many waves. First by breaking a long-held taboo in Israel, Barenboim played the music of the German composer and venomous anti-semite Richard Wagner. Barenboim’s controversial move was seen by some to be a profound effort to reclaim what was aesthetically beautiful music and subvert Wagner’s anti-semitism by sullying it with Jewish hands. Barenboim then raised even more hackles in Israel when he began organizing music workshops and concert recitals with Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians playing together. Paula Kimper and Wende Person’s recent opera Patience & Sarah was a major breakthrough for sexual minorities in the conservative world of classical music and opera. The opera - based on Alma Routsong’s book A Place for Us - recounts the true story of two women who fall in love and go off to live together in New England in the early 1800s, something virtually unheard of in their time.
Political music is essentially a mode of activist communication. By injecting radical consciousness raising discourse and subversive sound into the public arena, it provides the raw materials and inspiration needed to effect change and overcome tyranny. It is still incumbent upon all of us to take it further. But thanks to the world’s rebel musicians, our task is made easier… and funkier!
- Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, WW Norton, London, 1997
- As quoted by Susan Milius, ‘Face the Music: why are we such a musical species - and does it matter’, Natural History Magazine, Vol. 110, December 2001.
- Broughton, Ellingham, Muddyman and Trillo, World Music: The Rough Guide, London, 1994.
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