Tag Archives: Politics

Bodhráns and politics

From its humble beginnings as a ritual instrument, the bodhrán has developed into a globally recognized percussion instrument that is found in diverse contexts. During the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, the brilliant experiments and innovations of the drum maker Seamus O’Kane altered the bodhrán’s design, contributing to a rapid expansion of new performance practices and increased interest in the drum.

One of O’Kane’s signature innovations was the use of skins from the unionist lambeg drum. O’Kane had to precariously negotiate paramilitary politics and drum making in Northern Ireland in order to produce a superior instrument.

O’Kane’s bodhráns, which he continues to make in his County Derry-based workshop, draw from both Irish republican and unionist drum making traditions. This blending of traditions has enabled him to produce an innovative, tunable drum representative of the shared musical cultures of Northern Ireland within a violent, politically divided milieu.

This according to “Bodhráns, lambegs, & musical craftsmanship in Northern Ireland” by Colin Harte (Ethnomusicology forum XXVIII/2 [August 2019] 200-16).

Above and below, O’Kane demonstrates his instrument.

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The Taliban and music: An annotated bibliography

Music has always been a controversial topic in Islam. Although the Islamic world has birthed rich and brilliant musical cultures, conservative Muslims nevertheless believe that music (especially instrumental music) tends to lead people astray by indulging in sensual pleasures.

The Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist militant group that originated in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, emerged in 1994. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban essentially banned music altogether in Afghanistan, until 2001 when the Taliban regime was overthrown in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Yet with the recent Taliban recapture of most parts of Afghanistan, there are renewed concerns about the situation there. Will music be banned again?

Looking through the literature related to the Taliban and music, we can find that scholars, journalists, and directors have left us valuable information through their articles and films documenting musical life in Afghanistan during and after the Taliban rule. In chronological order of publication, we can outline a brief history of music in Afghanistan in the last two or three decades through these documents.

  • Yusufzai, Rahimullah. “All quiet in Kabul”, Index on censorship: The global magazine for free expression 27/6:185 (November–December 1998) 135–138. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 1998-26068]

Abstract: With the takeover of the Taliban regime in 1996 the cultural policies of Afghanistan changed dramatically, as music and any form of electronic entertainment were forbidden. The consequences of this prohibition are described and an excerpt of the Taliban’s official statement is provided.

  • Majrooh, Naim. “The Talibans have banned all music in Afghanistan”, 1st World Conference on Music and Censorship, Copenhagen, 20–22 November 1998, ed. by Marie Korpe. (Freemuse: København, 2001) 27–30. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2001-20196]

Abstract: Afghanistan’s centuries-old art and folk traditions began to decline after the communist coup of 1979 and the repression that followed, but they suffered a far greater blow with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. In 1992 women and music were banned from Kabul radio and television, and in 1995 all musical life was proscribed. While musical life continues in remote villages, in the cities even weddings and funerals are held without music. A black market in smuggled cassettes, enjoyed discreetly in private homes, shares many similarities with the drug trade in the West.

  • Baily, John. “Can you stop the birds singing?”: The censorship of music in Afghanistan. Freemuse report (Freemuse: København, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2001-20183]

Abstract: The people of Afghanistan under Taliban rule are subjected to an extreme form of music censorship. The only musical activity permitted is the singing of certain religious songs and Taliban chants.

The report traces the gradual imposition of music censorship since 1978, when the communist government of Nur Ahmad Taraki came to power in a violent coup d’etat. During 14 years of communist rule, music in Afghanistan was heavily controlled by the Ministry for Information and Culture, while in the refugee camps in Pakistan and Iran all music was prohibited in order to maintain a continual state of mourning. The roots of the Taliban ban on music lie in the way these camps were run.

In the Rabbani period (1992–1996) music was heavily censored. In the provincial city of Herat, the newly formed Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (religious police) enforced a virtual ban on live public performance, but private music making was permitted. There was a little music on radio and television, and audiocassettes of music were freely available. In Kabul conditions were somewhat more relaxed until Hekmatyar became prime minister; cinemas were then closed and music was banned from radio and television.

When the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996 a number of edicts were published against music. All musical instruments were banned, and when discovered by agents of the Office for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice were destroyed, sometimes being burnt in public along with confiscated audio and video cassettes, TVs, and VCRs. The only forms of musical expression permitted today are the singing of certain kinds of religious poetry, and so-called Taliban chants, which are panegyrics to Taliban principles and commemorations of those who have died on the field of battle for the Taliban cause.

The effects of censorship of music in Afghanistan are deep and wide-ranging for the Afghan people, both inside and outside the country. The lives of professional musicians have been completely disrupted, and most have had to go into exile for their economic survival. The rich Afghan musical heritage is under severe threat. The report concludes with a number of recommendations intended to counteract the effects of censorship.

  • Broughton, Simon. Breaking the silence: Music in Afghanistan. VHS (BBC Education & Training, 2002). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2002-15784]

Abstract: The Taliban’s prohibition of music was the most severe in history. Apart from unaccompanied chants, all music was banned and instruments were broken and burnt. This film documents the remarkable moment when the country was reconnected with its musical culture. Shot in Kabul and Peshawar (Pakistan) in January 2002, two months after the fall of the Taliban, this film is an introduction to the music of Afghanistan and the way it’s been caught in the crossfire of conflicting regimes over the past 25 years. Most poignantly, it shows the musicians in Kabul who are now rebuilding Afghanistan’s devasted musical life. Directed by Simon Broughton, it won the documentary prize at the Golden Prague Festival in 2002.

Includes: Sarinda-player Mashinai, forced to work as a butcher under the Taliban; Singer Aziz Ghaznawi, who had no option but to sing for them; Female singer Naghma, whose tapes flooded the Kabul bazaar as the Taliban fled; Rare footage of Sufi gatherings where Islam and music fervently meet; Ensemble Kaboul, the best of the traditional Afghan groups in exile, who formed when the very survival of Afghan music seemed under threat.

  • Seybold, Dietrich. “Kulturkampf und Musikzensur: Über die Hintergründe des Musikverbots der Taliban”, Musik & Ästhetik 9/33 (Januar 2005) 104–112. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2005-256]

Abstract: Historically examined, musical censorship is an almost commonplace phenomenon. Less common is a ban as radical as that imposed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996. The reception of the ban in the Western public sphere is analyzed, unifying the insights offered by various disciplines. Embedding this particular phenomenon in a historical examination of the theme of extreme, religiously based opposition to music, patterns of such opposition are revealed; these are also found in the occidental tradition, albeit focusing on a different problem complex: the stance of Islam, including its marginal, sect-like manifestations, in relation to music.

  • Alagha, Joseph. “Jihad through ‘music’”: The Taliban and Hizbullah”, Performing Islam 1/2 (2012) 263–289. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2012-13894]

Abstract: Discusses the cultural politics of the Taliban and Hezbollah. While Hezbollah embraces “resistance art” and encourages purposeful music and artistic expressions as pious entertainment, the Taliban censor music and restrict artistic activities, considering them innovations (bida’j) that distract from the practice of “authentic Islam” and “true worship”. To discuss the interplay between the “power of music” and “music in power”, this article uses samples of anashid (alternate spelling anachid or anasheed, meaning songs, hymns, and anthems) of the Taliban and Hezbollah, both of which practice jihad through music.

Most notably, both employ the same Qur’anic concept of “action of excellence under God’s guidance”, either to legitimize and justify certain artistic expressions and practices (Hezbollah) or to ban and prohibit them altogether (the Taliban). Hezbollah’s contextual argument leads to a music theory, whilst the Taliban’s prohibition in the absolute curtails cultural politics all together.

  • Cara, Gibney. “Dr. Ahmad Sarmast”, fRoots 39/10-12:418-420 (spring 2018) 31. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature 2018-1109]

Abstract: A profile and interview. Ahmad Sarmast is founder of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM) in Kabul, which asserts in its mission statement: “We focus especially on supporting the most disadvantaged children in Afghanistan—orphans, street-working vendors and girls”. It’s been long, hard, dangerous work developing a music institute in Kabul focused on these marginalized populations, and the struggle isn’t over.

Ahmad Sarmast left Afghanistan in the 1990s, seeking asylum in Australia away from the relentless Afghan civil war. During his years away from home he pursued a music education that would develop skills and knowledge essential for the years ahead, ultimately becoming the first Afghan national to obtain a PhD in music. He returned to Afghanistan in 2008 after the defeat of the Taliban, a land where music was banned for many years.

ANIM opened its doors in 2010, and now offers a core academic syllabus including math, languages, and social sciences. It offers studies in Afghan music, Western music, and various ensembles including Zohra—”the first-ever all-female ensemble in the history of Afghanistan”.

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The Air Horn Orchestra

Comprising area musicians, band members, and concerned residents, the Raleigh-based Air Horn Orchestra staged a months-long sonic protest in 2016 to ensure that North Carolina governor Pat McCrory really heard their outcry against the infamous House Bill 2, better known as HB2 or the Bathroom Bill, which eliminated important anti-discrimination protections for the LGBTQ community in North Carolina.

And how could he not hear? Air horns, whistles, trumpets, bells, and just about anything that could produce noise wailed outside the Governor’s Mansion weekly for over eight months. In addition to annoying the sitting governor, his staff, and their security detail, the cacophony stirred up national media attention and raised needed funds to help overturn the bill.

This according to “Sound politics: The Air Horn Orchestra blasts HB2” by Tina Haver Currin (Southern cultures XXIV/3 [fall 2018] 107–24; RILM Abstracts 2018-58458).

Below, a documentation of the Air Horn Orchestra’s efforts (Ms. Haver Currin addresses the group first; the performance begins around 2:00).

Related article: Cacerolazo and social media

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Electronic music and the Cold War

For a decimated post-War West Germany, the Studio für Elektronische Musik at Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR) was a beacon of hope.

In the 1950s, when technologies were plentiful and the need for reconstruction was great, West Germany began to rebuild its cultural prestige via aesthetic and technical advances. The reclamation and repurposing of wartime machines, spaces, and discourses into the new sounds of the mid-century studio were part of this process.

The studio’s composers, collaborating with scientists and technicians, coaxed music from sine-tone oscillators, noise generators, band-pass filters, and magnetic tape. Together, they applied core tenets from information theory and phonetics, reclaiming military communication technologies as well as fascist propaganda broadcasting spaces.

The electronic studio nurtured a revolutionary synthesis of science, technology, politics, and aesthetics. Its esoteric sounds transformed mid-century music and continue to reverberate today. Electronic music—echoing both cultural anxiety and promise—is a quintessential Cold War innovation.

This according to Electronic inspirations: Technologies of the Cold War musical avant-garde by Jennifer Iverson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019; RILM Abstracts 2019-1204).

Below, Herbert Eimert’s and Robert Beyer’s Klangstudie II, one of the first works produced at the WDR studio.

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Cacerolazo and social media

 

Cacerolazo, a fixture in Latin American protests for decades, involves a group of people making noise by banging pots, pans, and other utensils in order to call for attention. The first large-scale cacerolazos in Chile accompanied gatherings in 1971 to protest food shortages and other household stresses as the nation’s economy slid towards a severe depression.

Having solidified its presence in the Chilean protest scene by 1973, cacerolazo was a natural part of the weeks-long protests targeting government economic policies in 2019. Protest songs were also an established tradition in Chile, and the two came together in the social justice rapper Ana Tijoux’s politically charged single #Cacerolazo, which became a rallying cry for the dissent.

The hashtag in the song’s title meaningfully connected it to the newer phenomenon of online social media-based participation blending into offline action, and the protesters’ demands infiltrated the sociopolitical fabric at a pace and level that eventually resulted in Chilean leaders conceding to offer the public a chance to vote on replacing the Constitution in 2020.

This according to “Chilean cacerolazo: Pots and pans, song and social media to protest” by Kaitlin E. Thomas (Sounding board 2020; RILM Abstracts 2020-3028).

Currently, cacerolazos are part of the protests of the Myanmar coup d’état. Below, the official video for Tijoux’s song.

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Huapango arribeño and the voices of migration

 

From New Year’s festivities in the highlands of Mexico to backyard get-togethers along the back roads of central Texas, Mexican people living on both sides of the border use expressive culture to construct meaningful communities amid the United States’ often vitriolic immigration politics.

Huapango arribeño, a genre originating from north-central Mexico, carries the voices of those in Mexico, those undertaking the dangerous trek across the border, and those living in the U.S. The genre refigures the sociopolitical and economic terms of migration through aesthetic means, illuminating the ways transnational music-making is at the center of everyday Mexican migrant life.

This according to Sounds of crossing: Music, migration, and the aural poetics of huapango arribeño by Alex E. Chávez (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017; RILM Abstracts 2017-45167).

Above and below, Guillermo Velázquez, one of the musicians discussed in the book. Don’t miss the step dancing toward the end!

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K-pop and political activism

 

For those who are new to K-pop fandom, a fancam is a video closeup filmed by an audience member during a live performance by a K-pop idol group. Fancams have been the bane of many Twitter users, however, who often find their own viral threads hijacked by users posting fancams to capitalize upon the thread’s popularity.

Following the murder of George Floyd by members of the Minneapolis police force, K-pop “stans” redirected their energies to posts on Twitter and Instagram made by police departments seeking to identify protestors against police brutality—jamming them instead with videos of K-pop stars. Other strategies used to subvert such efforts, and to promote Black Lives Matter, include hashtag derailment, rickrolling, and weaponizing Disney’s heavy-handed copyright policing.

This according to “How K-pop fans are weaponizing the Internet for Black Lives Matter” by Aja Romano (Vox 22 June 2020; RILM Abstracts 2020-2918).

Below, a brief documentary on K-pop political activism.

Related article: The music of Black Lives Matter

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Zao and “champagne socialism”

 

 

In the mid-1980s Congo-Brazzaville was chafing under the heel of a military regime that fed its impoverished people irrelevant political slogans while the elite dined on champagne and caviar. Zao, a humorous band led by Casimir Zoba, a former schoolteacher in a comical pseudo-military uniform singing in an extravagant mixture of Senegalese French and local slang, seemed to pose no real threat to the authorities.

But Zoba was no ordinary humorist or village idiot, and underneath his buffoonish image was a hard-edged political and social critic. While Zao’s music was tolerated as comic relief, the group delivered sharp critiques of bureaucracy, corruption, gender relations, and abuse of power in the “champagne socialism” of the military dictatorship.

This according to “Couching political criticism in humor: The case of musical parodies of the military in Cameroon and Congo-Brazzaville” by Lyombe S. Eko, an essay included in Music and messaging in the African political arena (Hershey: IGI Global, 2019, 87–107; RILM Abstracts 2019-16663).

Below, Ancien combattant, Zao’s most popular song, and a case study in the article.

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ECD’s legacy

 

The Japanese rap pioneer and activist ECD (Ishida Yoshinori, 石田義則) was neither the earliest nor most commercially successful rapper, and he would have eschewed calling himself a leader of any protest group; nonetheless, he was what Gramsci would have called an organic intellectual of the working class.

The frankness of his music, writing, and performances touched his audiences at an affective level, connecting them to the movements in which he participated. His life embodied the worlds of hip-hop, contentious politics, and the working class, and his songs convey a vivid account of his life, reflecting his personal and political concerns as well as the ambience of street protests.

ECD was a key figure in the development of the underground hip-hop scene, organizing events that allowed it to take root and to be lifted into commercial viability. He was on the front lines of several Japanese social movements—anti-Iraq War, anti-nuclear power, anti-racist, pro-democracy, and anti-militarization. He wrote protest anthems, inspired Sprechchor, performed at protests, and helped to establish a new mode of participatory performance that engaged protesters more fully. His sheer presence at demonstrations, constant and reliable, energized and reassured protesters.

This according to “‘It’s our turn to be heard’: The life and legacy of rapper-activist ECD (1960–2018)” by Noriko Manabe (The Asia-Pacific journal: Japan focus XVI/6 [March 2018]).

Today would have been ECD’s 60th birthday! Below, a live performance.

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Ernst Krenek and Charles V

 

Ernst Krenek’s Karl V is a testimony to the anachronistic—in the best sense of the word—exploitation of the memory of the Holy Roman Empire, or the imperial idea of Charles V as the composer understood it, reflecting the unrealized possibility of a transformation of the medieval concept of empire into a contemporary form.

In its interpretation of the Holy Roman Empire, the opera builds a bridge to the world of values of the Austrian corporative state, which sought to attribute a special mission to Austria by linking it with the supranational idea of the Habsburg Empire.  This involves a distinct rejection of the National Socialist idea of empire. On the musical level, this is expressed by the use of the proscribed 12-tone technique. which in various respects corresponds to the conceptual theme of the work.

Krenek’s position can be defined both from the standpoint of music-art and of philosophy-politics, as that of a border-crosser, one which resists classification in any specific direction.

This according to “Die Idee des Reiches in Ernst Kreneks Bühnenwerk mit Musik Karl V, op. 73 (1933)” by Raymond Dittrich, s essay included in Was vom Alten Reiche blieb…: Deutungen, Institutionen und Bilder des frühneuzeitlichen Heiligen Römischen Reiches Deutscher Nation im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (München: Bayerische Landeszentrale für Politische Bildungsarbeit, 2011, pp. 421–33).

Today is Charles V’s 520th birthday! Above, Titian’s La gloria, once owned by the birthday boy, who is depicted in white near the top; Krenek called for the painting to be used as a stage backdrop for his opera. Below, the opening of the Bayerische Staatsoper’s production.

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Filed under 20th- and 21st-century music, Curiosities, Opera, Politics