New Internationalist

Music Rebels

August 2003

Dissident music then and now.

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.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 359 This feature was published in the August 2003 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 359

New Internationalist Magazine issue 359
Issue 359

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