Why Angelique Kidjo can't abide world music

Angelique Kidjo

© Bex Singleton

You left Benin in 1983 to study jazz in Paris, and ended up finding Africa elsewhere: in jazz music in France, then the blues of the US, the carnival and candomblé of Brazil, the salsa of Cuba. Is this testament to the resilience of African music?

Exactly! And it is also a testament to the resilience of the human soul. Slavery had deprived African people of their rights and dignity, but they found a way to resist and keep their identity and pride alive through music. In a way it is the dialectic of the master and the slave: today the whole world has embraced the rhythms and the melodies of the slave to whom humanity was denied. In every country I visited in the Americas I felt at home, musically. I was able to start a dialogue through songs, even when I was not speaking the language.

You don’t like the term ‘world music’. Can you explain why?

It comes from a discussion I had with the [South African singer and civil rights activist] Miriam Makeba. In a hotel room in Switzerland before a show, she said to me: ‘Who invented this expression “world music”? Someone must have first called it “Third World music” and removed the word “third” to be politically correct!’ I think she was right. People like labels, but I don’t think any music should be put in a box. Anyway, you understand that it won’t be easy to put me in a little box.

What comes first: the dance or the beat?

In Africa singing, dancing, playing an instrument, wearing a costume: none of these can be separated. They’re all part of a unique form of expression: you could joke it is like a Broadway show. When we’re doing field recording in Benin, the sound engineer always says to the traditional singers: ‘You don’t have to dress up!’ But they can’t help it; they always show up with the most beautiful costumes.

Your work places great emphasis on respect for women and their integrity: their works, their creativity, their freedom, their bodies. What do you see as the greatest threats to them in Africa right now?

There are many: for instance, the most likely person to be infected with HIV is a married African woman. But I don’t want to speak just about the threats and pain they suffer: I want to showcase their amazing beauty and strength. This is what my new album Eve is about. I hope that when you listen to the beautiful African women’s choir, you’ll feel inspired by their energy.

In your book Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music you write movingly of your father and his vision of equality in education for boys and girls. Was he an unusual man in this respect?

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my father was a visionary. He fought against social pressure and put his three girls through school. He also let my mother run her theatre troupe. Everyone was saying to him: ‘Franck, how come you let your wife be so independent and involve herself in the arts?’ He told them: ‘A happy wife will make a happy husband!’

The work of your foundation, Batonga, is now seven years old. Which of its successes are you most proud of?

Batonga is a modest foundation but it allows me to support girls from different countries in Africa and every time I meet with them, I feel so uplifted by their accomplishments and their passion. I know they will be the next leaders of the continent.

You have written of the terrible experiences of the women and children you have met in the refugee camps of Chad, Sudan and Uganda. Do you get angry?

I don’t get angry – I get sad and depressed. Poverty and war and insensitive business practices create so much despair and atrocity. But I do believe that, one day, good governance and good education will improve on the continent and create better conditions for the people.

You include a few West African recipes at the end of Spirit Rising. Can we expect Kidjo’s Beninese cookery book any time soon?

You know what? The first idea was to make a cookbook that would also have spoken about my life, but we got carried away! Cooking for my family and friends is the other passion in my life, so one day a full cookbook will come out, for sure.

Louise Gray is author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Music and music reviewer for New Internationalist magazine's Mixed Media pages.

Angelique Kidjo’s latest album, Eve, is available on 429 Records. Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music is published by Harper Collins. kidjo.com; batongafoundation.org

A word with musical archivists Public Service Broadcasting

Your stated aim is to ‘teach the lessons of the past through the music of the future’. Is music a good medium through which to educate?

I have to confess to a fairly strong element of tongue-in-cheek in that statement – it’s something I wrote a few years ago because I thought it was funny, rather than that it was something I genuinely believed. Having said that, though, we have had quite a few people coming up to us after shows telling us that they’ve used our videos in primary schools. I think the way we edit the videos (ie slightly more in keeping with today’s attention spans) and the fact that there’s ‘interesting’ music alongside them might mean kids in particular are more engaged than they might otherwise be.

Were you model students at school?

Wrigglesworth wasn’t – he was very much a degenerate and a layabout. I made up for that by being one of the geekiest kids around. Together our powers combine (or cancel each other out) and make us into the considerable musical force that we clearly are. No, seriously, I really was quite a geek at school, but for good reasons – I used to do all my homework at lunchtime to get it out of the way and keep the evenings free for music and computer nonsense. It made me the man I am today.

What are you politically passionate about?

I’d describe myself very much as left of centre, or at the very least liberal. Either way, I seem to disagree with almost everything the [British Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition] government is doing. The fact that they seem determined to undermine public-service broadcasting as an institution in this country, despite the fall-out from the despicable way News International has been run, certainly doesn’t bring them up in my estimation. And at a more basic level, they just don’t seem particularly competent or good at their jobs. I don’t believe the Prime Minister is a particularly capable individual – or that he has any real experience of the way most people in this country live. Worse, he has no desire to understand the way they live.

What is the most important lesson you’d like to teach your audience?

I was really pleased recently by a live review which picked up on the underlying positivity in our music and our songs. I like to think that even our songs about the Second World War, for example, celebrate resilience and hardiness in the face of extraordinary pressure – certainly that, rather than glorifying war or nationalism in any way. So I suppose I’d just like to try and spread some warmth and positivity – belief in the ultimate dignity of the human race, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary sometimes.

What is your biggest fear?

I can’t stand flying. I’m absolutely terrified by it. Or heights, generally. So it’s fairly ironic that our two best-known songs are about Spitfires and Everest. Oh well. Write about what you know (or fear), I suppose!

Who or what inspires you?

If you’re attempting to write good music that speaks to people, you need to take inspiration from all over the shop. Books, films, music, people, travel – all of it, really. I realize that might seem like a cop-out, but if I were to list all of the people in each of those categories I’d be here all year. All right, here are a few: Johnny Cash, Stanley Kubrick, George Orwell, Humphrey Jennings. That’s barely the start of it, though.

Acting in Concert

Recommended reading:

Critique of Exotica: Music, Politics and the Culture Industry, by John Hutnyk, Pluto Press, 2001.

The Rough Guide to World Music Vol 1 & 2, edited by Simon Broughton, Mark Ellingham, David Muddyman, and Richard Trillo, Rough Guide Reference Books, 1999.

The Rough Guide to Internet Radio, LA Heberlein, Rough Guide Reference Books, 2002.

Index on Censorship: Smashed Hits, Volume 6, 1998.

Acting in Concert: Music, Community, and Political Action by Mark Mattern, Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Rhythm and Resistance: Explorations in the Political Uses of Popular Music, by Ray Pratt, Praeger, 1990.

Policing Pop, edited by Martin Cloonan and Reebee Garofalo, Temple University Press, 2003.

Recommended viewing:

This award-winning film documents the rich tradition of South African resistance music and freedom song. A soundtrack is also available.

Amandla!: A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, directed by Lee Hirsch, 2002.

Recommended listening:

To complement a magazine on music, we've included a free CD sampler of anti-war songs by both established artists and exciting new unsigned bands, produced for us by the Peace Not War collective. We hope you enjoy it!

Let me know what you think! [email protected]

Songwriter musicmaker storyteller freak

Whether it's about the boardroom or the bedroom, US folksinger Ani DiFranco has inspired millions for over a decade with her politically charged music and her intensely personal reflections on a range of issues. At just 19 years of age, this folk singer and songwriter from Buffalo, New York did the unthinkable in the music business- she started her own record label. Righteous Babe Records, established in dilapidated downtown Buffalo, soon churned out highly sought after DiFranco albums and warded off numerous overtures from eager profithungry record companies. With her independence and artistic freedom intact from corporate predators, DiFranco toured incessantly and built up a grassroots word-of-mouth following that has mushroomed over the years. The following letter to Ms. magazine perhaps best articulates her vision of the potency of music and the importance of challenging corporate power.

'If you put your personal ambition before your political commitment, your work becomes commercialized: they end up turning your culture into a clothing line. If you really want to challenge the system, don't get into bed with it.' Ani DiFranco and Maceo Parker (former saxophonist for James Brown).

Photo: Petra Arnold

So I'm poring through the 25th anniversary issue of Ms. - on some airplane going somewhere in the amorphous blur that amounts to my life - and I'm finding it endlessly enlightening and stimulating as always, when, whaddaya know, I come across a little picture of little me. I was flattered to be included in that issue's '21 feminists for the 21st century' thingybob. I think ya'll are runnin' the most bold and babeolishious magazine around, after all.

Problem is, I couldn't help but be a little weirded-out by the paragraph next to my head that summed up her me-ness and my relationship to the feminist continuum. What got me was that it largely detailed my financial successes and sales statistics. My achievements were represented by the fact that I 'make more money per album sold than Hootie and the Blowfish,' and that my catalogue sales exceed threequarters of a million. It was specified that I don't just have my own record company but my own 'profitable' record company. Still, the ironic conclusion of the aforementioned blurb is a quote from me insisting 'it's not about the money'. Why then, I ask myself, must 'the money' be the focus of so much of the media that surrounds me? Why can't I escape it, even in the hallowed pages of Ms.?

Firstly, this 'Hootie and the Blowfish' business was not my doing. The LA Times financial section wrote an article about my record label, Righteous Babe Records, in which they raved about the business savvy of a singer (me) who thwarted the corporate overhead by choosing to remain independent, thereby pocketing $4.25 per unit, as opposed to the $1.25 made by Hootie or the $2.00 made by Michael Jackson. This story was then picked up and reprinted by The New York Times, Forbes magazine, the Financial News Network, and (lo and behold) Ms.

So here I am, publicly morphing into some kinda Fortune 500-youngentrepreneur-from-hell, and all along I thought I was just a folksinger!

Ok, it's true. I do make a much larger profit (percentage-wise) than the Hootster. What's even more astounding is that there are thousands of musicians out there who make an even higher profit percentage than me! How many local musicians are there in your community who play gigs in bars and coffee shops about town? I bet lots of them have made cassettes or CDs which they'll happily sell to you with a personal smile from the edge of the stage or back at the bar after their set. Would you believe these shrewd, profitminded wheeler-dealers are pocketing a whopping 100 per cent of the profits on the sales of those puppies?! Wait till the Financial News Network gets a whiff of them!

I sell approximately 2.5 per cent of the albums that a Joan Jewelanis Morrisette sells and get about 0.05 per cent of the airplay royalties. So obviously if it all comes down to dollars and cents, I've led a wholly unremarkable life. Yet I choose relative statistical mediocrity over fame and fortune because I have a bigger purpose in mind. Imagine how strange it must be for a girl who has spent 10 years fighting as hard as she could against the lure of the corporate carrot and the almighty forces of capital, only to be eventually recognized by the power structure as a business pioneer.

I have indeed sold enough records to open a small office on the half-abandoned main street in the dilapidated urban center of my hometown, Buffalo, New York. I am able to hire 15 or so folks to run and constantly reinvent the place while I drive around and play music for people. I am able to give stimulating business to local printers and manufacturers and to employ the services of independent distributors, promoters, booking agents and publicists. I was able to quit my day job and devote myself to what I love.

And yes, we are enjoying modest profits these days, affording us the opportunity to reinvest in innumerable political and artistic endeavors. Righteous Babe Records is no Warner Brothers, but it is a going concern, and for me, it is a vehicle for redefining the relationship between art and commerce in my own life. It is a record company which is the product not just of my own imagination, but that of my friend and manager Scot Fisher and of all the people who work there. People who incorporate and co-ordinate politics, art and media every day into a people-friendly, subcorporate, woman-informed, queer-happy small business that puts music before rock stardom and ideology before profit.

And me. I'm just a folksinger, not an entrepreneur. My hope is that my music and poetry will be enjoyable and/or meaningful to someone, somewhere, not that I maximize my profit margins. It took 15 years and 11 albums getting to this place of notoriety and, if anything, I think I was happier way back when. Not that I regret any of my decisions, mind you. I'm glad I didn't sign on to the corporate army. I mourn the commodification and homogenization of music by the music industry, and I fear the manufacture of consent by the corporately controlled media. Last thing I want to do is feed the machine.

I was recently mortified while waiting in the dressing room before one of my own shows. Some putz suddenly takes the stage to announce me and exclaim excitedly that this was my 'largest sold-out crowd to date!'.

'Oh, really?', I'm thinking to myself, 'that's interesting... too bad it's not the point.' All of my achievements are artistic, as are all of my failures.

That's just the way I see it. Statistical plateau or no, I'll bust ass for 60 people, or 6,000, watch me.

So here I am, publicly morphing into some kinda Fortune 500-youngentrepreneur- from-hell, and all along I thought I was just a folksinger!

I have so much respect for Ms. magazine. If I couldn't pick it up at newsstands my brain probably would've atrophied by now on some trans-Atlantic flight and I would be lying limp and twitchy in a bed of constant travel, staring blankly into the abyss of the gossip magazines. Ms. is a structure of media wherein women are able to define themselves, and articulate for themselves those definitions. We wouldn't point to 21 of the feminists moving into the 21st century and define them in terms of 'Here's Becky Ballbuster from Iowa City, she's got a great ass and a cute little button nose...' No ma'am. We've gone beyond the limited perceptions of sexism and so we should move beyond the language and perspective of the corporate patriarchy. The Financial News Network may be ultimately impressed with me now that I've proven to them that there's a life beyond the auspices of papa Sony, but do I really have to prove this to you?

We have the ability and the opportunity to recognize women not just for the financial successes of their work but for the work itself. We have the facility to judge each other by entirely different criteria than those imposed upon us by the superstructure of society. We have a view which reaches beyond profit margins into poetry, and a vocabulary to articulate the difference.

Thanks for including me, Ms., really. But just promise me one thing - if I drop dead tomorrow, tell me my grave stone won't read:

ani d.

Please let it read:


Ani DiFranco
Listen to Ani’s anti-war poem ‘Self-Evident’ on the peace not war website.

Culture bandit

If Swedish furniture-chain IKEA made a city, it would probably look something like Milton Keynes. This bizarre British 'garden city', conjured up by warped government officials and overpaid urban-planning hacks in the early 1970s, is a surreal setting for a performance by Zimbabwe's most popular political musician. Yet it is here in Britain's consumer capital - Milton Keynes is infamous for its gargantuan US-style shopping malls - where I meet up with Thomas Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited. For one night this cultural desert blooms as hundreds of Zimbabweans come from all over Britain to see one of their most adored music legends.

Thomas Mapfumo, according to many who have turned up here tonight, is a cultural ambassador of Zimbabwe. 'He is Zimbabwe,' says Joyce, an IT student from Harare, currently studying in London. 'I've listened to his music since I was a child, and now here I am still listening to it all the time. He is one of a kind.' Affectionately called the 'Lion of Zimbabwe' by fans, it is not just his music, but the politics of his music which makes him truly unique.

It was in 1970s Rhodesia, after years of playing covers of Elvis and Beatles songs, that he began to search for an indigenous musical identity. In a country where local culture was viewed as primitive and worthless by the white minority and often violently repressed, Mapfumo found strength and inspiration from the folk music of his youth. The traditional mbira - or thumb piano - became the primary weapon in a culture war against the white colonial Government of Rhodesia. The majority Shona people began to take a renewed pride in their culture and traditions. Influenced by the Afrobeat sounds of Fela Kuti, Franco's fast-paced guitar rhythms, Miriam Makeba's freedom songs, and Bob Marley and the Wailers' 'rebel music', Mapfumo plugged the mbira into a guitar amp and let rip. He added a full horn section, guitars, bass, drums and backing vocals, and set songs ablaze with a music all his own. Most important of all, he sang in the Shona language rather than English.

This marked the birth of the unique musical style and ethos which Mapfumo dubbed chimurenga after the Shona and Ndebele uprisings of 1893 and 1896-97. His music was often played at pungwes - all-night meetings of villagers with liberation fighters. The trance-like repetition of Mapfumo's mbira rhythms provided an opportunity for community dance and celebration, bringing people together in a society wounded by decades of repression, violence and ridicule. Chimurenga music was an oral newspaper, passing on subversive information coded in the deep metaphor of Shona proverbs.

‘Oh grandmothers,
Oh mothers, oh boys,
There’s a snake in the forest,
Mothers take hoes,
Grandmothers take hoes,
Boys take axes.’

The early chimurenga music was a spark in dry brush. 'Mapfumo's music provided the fuel and yearning for liberation,' says Tafazuwa, a student who fled Zimbabwe four years ago and now lives in Britain. 'He is a true culture bandit.' The Rhodesian Government thought so too, and duly imprisoned him. Recognizing the influence he had on people, the white Government tried to manipulate Mapfumo into speaking in their favour. He resisted and white rule was eventually overthrown in 1980. Mapfumo was honoured by the newly elected president Robert Mugabe on stage with Bob Marley, who made a special visit to perform his song 'Zimbabwe' for the occasion. Mapfumo and his band The Blacks Unlimited headlined the show. Mapfumo recalls: 'Well, we all felt great. because everyone was celebrating a new era. Everyone was very happy. It was a day to remember.'

Déjà vu

His next few albums would reflect the early optimism of black Zimbabweans jubilant in their newfound freedom. 'He used to sing praises to Mugabe,' says Brian, an exchange student studying in Britain and attending all of Mapfumo's British shows on this tour. ' It was that sort of time. We all felt that way. Hope. Why wouldn't he be singing about those things then? None of us could have imagined what would befall us.' It was not long before Mugabe would don his despot cap, preside over a government riddled with corruption and pursue his political opponents with ruthless zeal.

And so there was a new struggle to sing about. 'When we heard Mukanya [Mapfumo] sing songs against Mugabe, we knew things were getting really bad,' says Brian. 'It wasn't just Mugabe. It was ZANU-PF [Mugabe's party], AIDS, poverty, corruption. Within a few years we had to wipe the smiles off our faces. Mukanya kept singing. We love him for that.' Mugabe's megalomania worsened and Mapfumo soon found his songs banned from the airwaves of the government-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. After a brutal few years and under increasing pressure to tone down his anti- Mugabe musical tirades, Mapfumo went into self-imposed exile for the safety of his family. Though he has lived in the US for the last three years, Mapfumo has not strayed from the chimurenga movement. He was recently awarded the 'most banned artist' distinction at the anti-grammy awards. His latest album Toi Toiis a message to the people of Zimbabwe to rise up once again. 'We are not in a good situation now,' says Mapfumo. ' Our people are suffering. There are many messages in the album. "Toi Toi" means "protest". For example we have this song "Vechidiki" (Youngsters) where we are singing about the youth of today, who are being used by those at the top to go out there, to beat up people, kill people, and do all the dirty work of those at the top. So we are saying to them: "Stop what you are doing!"'

But Mapfumo is not a party political man. He maintains his independence and wariness in view of the potential for abuse and corruption that always accompanies power. Asked what he thinks of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), he replies with characteristic langour: 'Well, you never know with these politicians. One day they say something, and then the next day they say something else. You can't trust them. We don't know what will happen if ever he comes into power. Maybe he's going to change like Mr Mugabe. You never know with these politicians. They do funny things sometimes.'

He's not likely to abandon hope or give up the liberation struggle, though. 'I can never see myself stopping doing that. I don't support anyone in particular. I am on my own. I'm concerned about things like making sure that the people are being treated fairly. That they are being fed. That the people have got jobs. That the people are enjoying their independence. That's what I sing about. That's what I've always sung about. We need to free ourselves from bondage, so we cannot stop fighting. We need to fight. We are not fighting for our own future, but for those who are coming after us. We are just passing through.'

After our brief conversation Mapfumo, with his stetson perched atop his long mane of dreadlocks, climbs onstage, grabs the mic and offers a curt ' Zimbabwe' to the audience, who roar in reply. The amplified mbira kicks in first, laying down a foundation of rhythm which the other instruments build upon in terraces of sound weaving ever more intricate patterns. Finally Mapfumo's feathery vocals and easy-going stage manner complete the spell and keep us all dancing, singing, laughing and dreaming well into the morning. And all the while Milton Keynes sleeps, unaware of the conspiracy of sound inside.

Lion of Zimbabwe

The Shona people believe that the spirits of their great ancestors are supernatural protectors. Among the spirits that protect society today are those called mhondoro or lions. The title he has been affectionately given - 'Lion of Zimbabwe' - reflects a belief by some that Mapfumo is a great spirit or mhondoro. Mapfumo's Shona name, Tafirenyika, means 'die for freedom' and was given to him by members of his community. Mukanya is his totem, which is of an ape family.

‘My bones shall rise again’

According to oral tradition, the first chimurenga was inspired by a great Shona warrior named Mbuya Nehanda (Grandmother Nehanda). She is credited for having inspired people to fight against the white settlers during the 1893 and 1896-97 uprisings. Her influence was so great that she inspired the Shona and the Ndebele, the largest tribes of Zimbabwe, to unite against their common foe. She is famed for saying 'my bones shall rise again' prior to her execution by the white colonizers. This prophecy has lived on in the hearts and minds of the people, spawning mediums for Mbuya Nehanda's spirit. Her spirit is said only to possess those who are respected in society, have leadership skills and are women. Communication with the spirits is often aided by the mbira with which a medium uses to enter a state of trance.


Among those Nehanda inspired to take up arms was the legendary Shona warrior Sororenzou Murenga, renowned for his fighting prowess and bravery during the first uprisings. Great fighters after him were believed to be possessed by his spirit. Thus they were said to be fighting chimurenga, which when literally translated means 'fighting the Murenga style' and has since come to mean ' war for liberation' or 'struggle'.

Thomas Mapfumo spoke to Adam Ma’anit.

Music Rebels

Víctor Jara

Bullets of song

Drawing on the long tradition of the guitarwielding troubadour, Chilean folksinger Víctor Jara saw the 'guitar as gun', firing-off 'bullets of song' at oppressive military regimes and in support of popular struggles. Jara would play his songs about the plight of landless peasants and factory workers in shanty towns, community centres and street demonstrations.

When Salvador Allende was elected in 1970, Jara and others joined him on stage under a banner which read: 'There can be no revolution without song.' After the military coup led by Augustus Pinochet on 11 September 1973, all music by these artists was declared subversive and possession of such recordings led to arrest.

Jara was carried off to Santiago's stadium where he was held with 5,000 other 'subversives'. Recognized by military officers, he was tortured, beaten, electrocuted and his hands broken before he was machinegunned to death. He was 38. His song 'Manifiesto' written in 1972 was prophetic: 'I don't sing just for love of singing, but for the statements made by my guitar, honest, its heart of earth, like the dove it goes flying. Song sung by a man who will die singing, truthfully singing his song.'

Cui Jian

China’s rebel maestro


Trained as a classical musician - and former member of the Beijing Philharmonic Orchestra - Cui Jian is best known however for his courageous, openly political music. While playing trumpet in the Orchestra in the early 1980s, he was smitten by Western rock-androll music smuggled into the country. Rejecting the syrupy ballads of mainstream Chinese pop, he became notorious for writing songs which dealt with controversial issues such as individualism and sexuality. In May 1986, during a Beijing concert, Jian climbed on to the stage in peasant clothing and sang 'Nothing to My Name' - which defined him as China's rebel maestro. The song became a democracymovement anthem, sung by students during the Tiananmen Square uprising.

After he performed on stage wearing a highly symbolic red blindfold, he had his tour cancelled by the Communist Government. In recent years Jian has incorporated rap styles into his music and started singing about moneyculture and corruption. But his album The Power of the Powerless also reflects hope for change. According to media activist Danny Shechter: 'Cui Jian's music gives you a taste of the struggle that is yet to come in China.'

Dmitri Shostakovich

Coded subversion

The prolific Soviet composer suffered the misfortune of spending his most creative years under the thumb of Joseph Stalin. But he also had a knack for navigating the murky waters of the Soviet state's brutal attempts to censor, destroy and homogenize creative life.

Shostakovich was at times so well liked by the Government that he won two state prizes. However, his later works were derided by cultural authorities who accused him of being 'cosmopolitan', 'formalist', and 'anti-Soviet'. Much has been made of his Anti-Formalist Rayok which is widely seen to be a covert jeer at the expense of Stalin and his cronies. Characters in the piece mimic the speaking styles and wordy decrees of Stalin, his chief censor Andrei Zhdanov and others. Indeed, fragments of Zhdanov's infamous decree against Shostakovich's 'bourgeois' music are embedded in the text. The composition of such subversive music, even privately, would have led to certain death had it been spotted. It has also been suggested that his Tenth Symphony, commemorating Stalin's death, was overly light and joyful, conveying the impression of a nation celebrating the death of a ruthless tyrant.

Shostakovich died from lung cancer in August 1975.

Mercedes Sosa

Voice of Latin America

Though less of a songwriter, Mercedes Sosa has seduced millions with her powerful and emotional interpretations of others' songs. Always deeply political, Sosa was one of the founders of the Nueva Canción (New Song) movement in Argentina. Together with Armando Tejado Gomez and others, she developed el nuevo canciónero - a musical manifesto which sought to respond to 'new agreements and chords in the air' and to preserve and rehabilitate indigenous music forms (she herself is half South American Indian). Sosa has been referred to as 'the voice of a continent'. She was unflinching in her active opposition to the Argentinean junta and her huge, rousing voice became a symbol of the struggle against oppression in Latin America.

During a concert performance in 1978 Sosa and much of her audience were arrested by the Argentinean military and she was forced into exile.

Fela Kuti

Afrobeat ambassador

Nicknamed 'The Black President', Nigerian Fela Anikulapo-Kuti was a tireless campaigner for the poor, his incendiary anti-establishment music and politics earning him the respect of millions. Fela blended African-American jazz, soul and funk with traditional Nigerian and West African rhythms, often singing in the pidgin English spoken by the Nigerian poor. The Shrine nightclub he created became an important social and political institution, attached to his home compound, which he declared a sovereign zone - the Kalakuta Republic.

Fela was harassed and vilified by the ruling élite, spending most of the 1980s in prison. His song 'ITT (International Thief Thief)' - a scathing attack on the corporate looting by Western transnationals such as International Telecoms and Telegraph - earned him the wrath of the Nigerian military regime. Over 1,000 soldiers attacked and burned down his house, throwing the musician's mother and brother out of a window. When his mother died from her injuries, Fela, in an act of grief-stricken protest, placed her casket at the doorstep of the junta's headquarters.

A believer in African cultural heritage, he often took his cues from 'tradition' and held reactionary views about the status of women - he had 28 wives. However, in his later years he divorced all his wives saying: 'No man has the right to own a vagina.' He died of AIDS in August 1997, aged 58.

Miriam Makeba

Mama Afrika

Miriam Makeba began her lifelong struggle at the age of two weeks when she served a sixmonth jail term with her mother. As a girl in South Africa, she worked as a domestic servant for white families. By her teens she had got involved in the progressive jazz scene and was pursuing a singing career.

In 1960, while on tour in the US, Makeba was denied a visa to return home for her mother's funeral. The white South African Government then cancelled her citizenship to punish her for speaking out against apartheid at the United Nations. A defiant Makeba was thrust into the position of being black South Africa's de facto ambassador to the Western world, where she earned the moniker 'Mama Africa'. Her call for an end to apartheid became increasingly powerful, particularly after the Sharpeville massacres, and her recordings were banned in South Africa.

Her marriage to Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Toure) caused a storm of controversy in the US. The couple was harassed by FBI and CIA officials, Makeba's concerts were cancelled by tour promoters, and ultimately forced into exile. They settled in Guinea where they have lived for 15 years.


Raï’s hard-drinking diva

In Algeria during the 1920s, working-class Muslim women in the town of Oran rejected the prevailing values of men in power and combined street slang, French language, and populist poetry known as chir al-milhûn, to form a musical movement which came to be known as raï. It wasn't long before disapproving sheikhs took note, as did fundamentalist mujahedin independence fighters and the so-called 'liberal' French authorities.

A raï artist by the name of Remitti drew most scorn for her outlandish behaviour, lewd lyrics about sex - and her legendary drinking abilities. Despite the rumblings from above, peasants and workers came in droves to see Remitti and her friends perform.

In the mid-1950s when the country was steeped in anti-colonial insurrection, Remitti and the raï revolutionaries added to their repertoire songs of armed struggle. 'Cheikha Kheira Guendil [a raï singer] was the first. to brave the colonial police and sing about a free Algeria in public,' she later said. But even the postindependence socialist government reacted to raï by rounding up its musicians. Alcohol was banned, as were large raï concerts. A decade later, new musicians like Cheb Khaled took up the mantle again. With lyrics that speak of injustice, poverty and corruption, modern raï is as relevant as it was in the 1920s and presents the single strongest cultural challenge to the fundamentalist Front Islamique du Salut.

Bob Marley

One world, one love

While many are familiar with his posthumously over-commercialized pop hits, Bob Marley's political works remain as fresh and relevant today as they did 30 years ago. Back then songs like 'Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)', 'Slave Driver', and 'War' defined his unique brand of 'rebel music' and fuelled the political aspirations of millions in Africa and the Americas. A religious Rastafarian, Marley infused his songs with a 'positive vibration' and evoked a utopian 'one world, one love'. As the Majority World was shaking off the yoke of colonialism, such hopeful yet steadfast songs energized many.

In the violent run-up to the Jamaican elections, Marley organized the 'One Love Peace Concert'. Days before the show, six assailants tried to kill the reggae artist, his wife and his managers. Marley took the stage, arm in a sling, to play one of the most emotionally charged shows of his career. A few years later, in 1978, he held another peace concert and brought together on stage arch-enemies Prime Minister Michael Manley and opposition leader Edward Seaga. The historic concert ended Jamaica's most violent political rivalry and Marley received the UN Medal of Peace. Aged just 36, Bob Marley died of cancer in 1981.

Pariah beats

'NO-ONE will say this openly. Gandhi has done the greatest harm. he did not intend any good for the country!' Professor Subramanian, retired scholar of South Indian classical music, a man of the highest Brahmin caste, turns in his chair back to the singers' recital. He sniffs loudly and again turns to complain bitterly. The 'untouchables of India' are getting above themselves, he insists. They should know their place at the bottom of the Hindu hierarchy. Gandhi campaigned all his life for greater tolerance for the country's most dispossessed peoples - the Dalits - whom he called harijans or 'children of god'. Subramanian was getting hot under his Nehru-style collar just thinking about the upstarts. 'They say the harijans are being crushed, but in fact it is the Brahmins being crushed!'

The Dalits1 are fighting back. Born into marginal existences they increasingly assert their human rights. They are by far the largest group amongst the fifth of India's population who live in extreme poverty and destitution. Condemned to labouring in the fields of high-caste families in return for a subsistence diet, millions are undernourished and exploited by landowners, officials and moneylenders.

The unique music of the Dalits has long been viewed by high-caste élites as a degenerate culture born of an essentially 'impure people'. Their presence and cultural practices are viewed as polluting by people of high status.

Professor Subramanian dismisses all music not made by people of high caste. During the recital in Chennai (formerly Madras), cultural capital of the refined classical music of the Brahmins known as Carnatic, he says:

'There is folk music and classical music. Carnatic music is scientifically organized, folk music is not so. people who are not properly trained just sing out of emotion, enthusiasm. Folk music can be sung by any child. Quacks! Carnatic is not like this, you need a talent.'

Despite the prejudice of people of high caste, those at the gutter level of the Hindu hierarchy are reclaiming their music. It is becoming a source of powerful resistance, the basis of new and revolutionary identities. As Dalit women come together to share and find solutions to their problems at meetings of self-help groups in villages throughout India, they learn that they are not to blame for their individual problems. They become 'conscientized' - in the term coined by Paolo Freire, the Brazilian revolutionary educator - to the fact that their problems are rooted in an oppressive social structure. With this realization comes a new sense of self and community as they band together to fight for fair wages, access to clean water, electricity and land rights.

Ambu, an activist with the NGO Village Action Group, describes how Dalit women use song in their daily struggles. 'The women are used to singing about agriculture work. on suffering, temples, gods, but sing here about problems and solutions. We sing songs about the problems of women, dowry, chastity, about who will change these problems. We sing songs at women's meetings. The power of the songs is that they help women to pick up meanings fast.'

A thousand humiliations

Mr Arokiasamy is a Dalit. He is an intense man, whose heart burns at how untouchability is imposed upon communities such as the Pariyar through a thousand humiliations. At another nearby grassroots organization, the People's Multipurpose Development Society, he describes the many village teashops in which Dalits are still forbidden to drink out of the same glasses used by people of high caste. In certain villages they are prevented from 'contaminating' entire streets by being forbidden to walk in shoes or ride bicycles.

Arokiasamy may have been born at the wrong end of the Hindu caste ladder, but like Professor Subramanian he too is critical of Gandhi's position on caste. An intensely religious man, Gandhi believed that the caste system of the Hindu scriptures is divinely ordained and should remain in place. However, he felt that untouchability was a recent perversion of Hinduism and must be done away with.

Arokiasamy - like his hero, the great Dalit leader Dr Ambedkhar - feels that there will be no end to caste discrimination unless the entire caste system is overturned. Although Arokiasamy works with Hindus, Muslims and Christians from Dalit and other communities, the Pariyars - a caste of funeral drummers - are amongst the most downtrodden. When the British colonialists observed how severely Pariyars were exploited and excluded from the Hindu mainstream, they applied their community name to all in the world who were rejected and despised. They became known as 'pariahs'.

The Pariyars' low status is continually emphasized through association with one of the most impure and contaminating phenomena of all in Hinduism - death. Required in the past to clear away dead cattle from the fields of their strictly vegetarian landowners, they were forced through starvation to eat furtively the putrefying carcasses of sacred cows. This intimacy with death perhaps was the factor that compelled Pariyars to develop yet another stigmatizing cultural practice.

During funeral celebrations for other castes Pariyars are expected to play the distinctive pari drum of their caste community from which their name derives - its skin of dead cow is ritually impure. Pariyars are required at funerals of all castes to play for hours on end as part of a mourning process that involves processions and public dancing.

'I think it's a punishment for our caste. We have been forced to play this drum for other communities. That is why I consider it a punishment. Though they looked down upon us we had to help them with the funeral process. We had to or no-one would dance.'

At a meeting on the grounds of the People's Multipurpose Development Society, Savera, a master pari drummer, holds and beats the instrument to provide a stirring virtuoso performance. The rhythm builds in intensity as the listeners break into a spontaneous dance of Dalit pride as they celebrate the drum's message - that theirs is a culture and a political force to be reckoned with. Once a symbol of the degradation of the Pariyar, the pari drum has become a potent weapon in the struggle against casteism. Savera stops and wipes the sweat from his face. 'In the olden days we were ashamed of performing music in their houses and also our wages were very low. but now our situation has changed. Because they wanted us to play the drum for their funerals we thought badly about our culture but now we are proud. It's not funeral music any more. It's a music of our own.'

Many young Pariyar, however, prefer to play modern brass band drums covered with synthetic skins. The deeply internalized shame about the degradation associated with cow skin still remains.

'There has been hesitation amongst young people to use traditional drums. They use modern drums, but now Dalit leaders make propaganda: " This is our culture, our music; young people should come forward to play the pari drum."' Pariyars still use their traditional drums at funerals - a key means for them of earning a living. However, the drums are increasingly used to lead processions of villagers campaigning to win local elections for their own candidates.

Dance of defiance

Sagamarie is a vital woman with a ready laugh. A Dalit and leader of the Liberation Movement for Women, she works closely with Arokiasamy in assisting women through self-help savings groups so that they can start small businesses. Through collective action they attain credit from bank managers, develop small businesses, petition government officials for access to services and even run for local office.

She describes how she mobilized Dalit voters through staging a procession led by Pariyar drummers. Gathering crowds as they travelled through dusty streets and laneways, the procession united Hindu, Muslim and Christian Dalit villagers on the way to the voting booth. As the procession passed by the well-built or 'pukka' houses of the rich, upper-caste families of the more salubrious quarters of the village, the musicians, men and boys threw themselves into wild, spontaneous dances in front of the ever-growing crowds. The frenetic dance of defiance was a display of Dalit identity, pride and strength. Excitedly she recounts the triumphal march: 'A big procession. house to house to collect the votes, then vote time! I have a feeling inside me that I will win!'

The challenges are great and opposition to Dalit culture and rights means that activists like Arokiasamy, Sagamarie and Savera have a long struggle. For there are many others like Professor Subramanian who resent and inhibit any advances made by Dalits. Many who would agree when the Professor complains: 'The other castes have taken the upper hand everywhere. Pariyar have got position. they are brought up in immoral ways, illiterate! They don't know what morals are! Like that, the lower communities want to become leaders!'

‘It’s not funeral music any more. It’s a music of our own’

Lakshmi, a young Brahmin woman studying singing at the prestigious Music Academy of Madras embodies hope for an India of the next generation where caste and cultural difference is celebrated rather than despised. Standing outside the Academy's auditorium, her eyes sparkling with pleasure at the music escaping from within, she murmurs: 'They say this classical music is a divine music.'

I challenge Lakshmi, asking her if classical music is divine for Dalits as well as Brahmins. She laughs in embarrassment.

'India is like that. Some things we can't say openly. The people have to change mentalities and get a broader mind. Otherwise we can't save India. Brahmins have to. we must allow them near us. Brahmins will not accept them to come near... I can't explain. My parents think they are all backward classes. I am Brahmin but I am not like that.'

I ask her if she can imagine a concert with Dalits and Brahmins playing together. Wistfully she answers: 'It would be nice.'

Julian Silverman is Programme Director of Community Work at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia.

Listen to an interview with Arokiasamy and a snippet of music from a Pariyar popular theatre performance on the NI website at: www.newint.org/audio/dalit.mp3

  • The word Dalit can be interpreted to mean 'oppressed' but also contains within itself the possibility of an identity based on a drive for liberation. It is therefore the name the people themselves prefer.
  • Sound Facts


    Cashing in or selling out?

    A cacophony of censorship.

    Selling sound

    The Gang of Four

    Musical feudalism

    While a select few musicians make millions, the majority are beholden to the record company they signed with and earn a pittance. Steve Albini - an independent record producer famous for his work on Nirvana's In Utero - suggests that many bands who sign with major labels may be earning about a third the salary of an average convenience-store employee. 9

    The music piracy myth

    During the recent downturn in the global economy, record companies artificially deflated sales in order to strengthen their arguments that music piracy was severely crippling the industry.

    Illustration: Rich Anderson

    Sisters are doing it for themselves

    The world's most recorded artist is a toss-up between Lata Mangeshkar - the 'Nightingale of India' - and Bollywood legend Asha Bhosle. Both are extremely popular and prolific Indian film singers and they also happen to be sisters. Between them they have recorded nearly 100,000 songs in over 20 different languages.11

    1. Martin Cloonan and Reebee Garofalo, Policing Pop, Temple University Press, US, 2003, based on data collected by Index on Censorship.
    2. Index on Censorship and Orange, Rebel hearts heed authority's words. indexonline
    3. UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS), International Flows on Selected Cultural Goods 1980-98
    4. US Federal Trade Commission, Statement of Chairman Robert Pitofsky and Commissioners Sheila F Anthony, Mozelle W Thompson, Orson Swindle, and Thomas B Leary, www.ftc.gov/os/2000/09/musicstatement.htm
    5. Curtis Lee Fulton, 'Record Labels Pirated American CD Customers Too', The Online Reporter, 11 October 2002, Issue 317, New York and London.
    6. Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and other industry groups as well as the Future of Music Coalition, Association for Independent Music and the American Federation of Musicians, Joint Statement on Current Issues in Radio
    7. US Commerce Committee hearing, Media Ownership: Radio Industry, 30 January 2003,
    8. Billboard Magazine, 13 April 2003.
    9. Steve Albini, The Problem with Music
    10. George Ziemann, 'RIAA's Statistics Don't Add Up to Piracy', Mac Wizards Music, 11 December 2002,
    11. Based on statistics mentioned in Broughton, Ellingham, Muddyman and Trillo, World Music: The Rough Guide, London, 1994 and estimates of recordings made since 1991.

    No compromise: a tribute to nina simone

    Activist, artist, singer, songwriter, classical pianist - all these are merely anaemic categories by which we attempt to describe the legendary Nina Simone. For 70 years she stayed true to herself, passionate about her beliefs and writing and performing songs that will endure for generations.

    Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tyron, North Carolina during the Great Depression, she took an early interest in music, reportedly playing piano as early as two years old. By the age of seven she was an aspiring classical pianist and singing with her sisters in the church choir. But the virulent racism in 1940s US had an early and lasting effect upon her. Years later she recalled, as the most formative event of her life, a piano recital she gave in the local library at the age of 12 at which her parents were asked to stand at the back because they were black.

    With the financial support of the local black community she was sent to a girls' boarding school and then became one of the first black female artists to attend New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Her classical training came to an abrupt halt at 21, however, when she was refused a scholarship by the Curtis School of Music in Philadelphia which she maintained was due to her race.

    Shut out of the classical-music establishment, she found herself pursuing a reluctant singing career for which she is now world famous. While her earliest recorded songs - such as a rendition of the Gershwin brothers' 'I Loves You Porgy' - propelled her to fame, it was her own compositions which broke new ground in political music. In 1963, after the church bombing that killed four young black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, and the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, she wrote 'Mississippi Goddam':

    ‘Picket lines,
    School boycotts,
    They try to say it’s a communist plot.
    All I want is equality,
    for my sister my brother my people and me…’

    Weaving the turbulent events around her into her music, she dramatically transformed both music and politics and made them her own. Songs like 'Mississippi Goddam', 'Backlash Blues' and 'To Be Young, Gifted and Black' became anthemic to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Her songs about sensuality, beauty and love also contained within them a potent feminism. Songs like 'Four Women' and 'Blues for Mama' conveyed a deep anger at the injustice of sexism and racism combined with a rousing call to black women to hold their heads high, such as in 'Images':

    ‘She does not know
    Her beauty,
    She thinks her brown body
    Has no glory.
    If she could dance
    Under palm trees
    And see her image in the river
    She would know.
    But there are no palm trees
    On the street,
    And dishwater gives back no images.’

    In 1978 Simone was arrested, and soon released, for withholding taxes in 1971-73 in protest at her government's undeclared war in Vietnam. Her song 'Mr Backlash', co-written with the late poet/activist Langston Hughes perhaps best sums up her sentiments at the time:

    ‘Mr Backlash, Mr Backlash, Just who do you think I am? You raise my taxes, freeze my wages, And send my son to Vietnam. You give me second-class houses, And second-class schools. Do you think that alla colored folks Are just second-class fools? Mr Backlash, I’m gonna leave you With the backlash blues’

    Soon after she left the United States permanently, living in the Caribbean, West Africa and finally Europe where she bought her first home in southern France. In a 1998 interview she blamed racism in the US for her self-imposed exile saying she 'paid a heavy price for fighting the establishment'.

    Never holding back, she enthralled millions with a music that defies category. 'To most white people, jazz means black and jazz means dirt and that's not what I play. I play black classical music. That's why I don't like the term "jazz", and Duke Ellington didn't either - it's a term that's simply used to identify black people.'

    In a 1997 interview she explained how she wished to be remembered: 'I want to be remembered as a diva from beginning to end who never compromised in what she felt about racism and how the world should be, and who to the end of her days consistently stayed the same.'

    Nina Simone died on 21 April 2003 in Carry-le-Rouet, France.