:forbidden stories

a project by Pål Moddi Knutsen
and Jørgen Nordby

UNSONGS - The Stories behind the Songs

WHAT MAKES A SONG BANNED? Through history, thousands of musicians have faced censorship, persecution and violent suppression. Often, their stories remain untold. Who were they? Who are they? And what can we learn from their stories?

In this project, photographer Jørgen Nordby and musician Pål Moddi Knutsen set out to trace the footsteps of songs that have, at one stage, been banned, censored or silenced. In countries as far apart as Mexico and Vietnam, we met musicians who have little in common except their tireless struggle for the right to sing.

The background for the project is the album Unsongs, 12 banned songs from 12 countries. The project is supported by Norwegian Arts Council, Fritt Ord and Bergesenstiftelsen.

Moddi – Unsongs

12 banned songs from 12 countries

Click here to listen to the album

Kate Bush - Army Dreamers

SOME CALLED IT THE VIDEO GAME WAR. The first Gulf War (1990-1991) saw 34 nations joining forces to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Through the American broadcaster CNN, one could follow the war live on TV, with daily videos from cameras aboard US bombers. With the Gulf War, the line between international warfare and entertainment was blurred.

Shortly after the war, a UK magazine published a list of nearly 67 songs that had been considered “inappropriate for airplay” on BBC during the combats in the Gulf. One of these songs was Kate Bush’s Army Dreamers.

Kate Bush was only 22 years old when she released Army Dreamers in 1980. In the song, she takes the perspective of a grieving mother who laments the loss of her son. He has been sent to war at young age, and returns home in a coffin. The mother sings about all the things he could have done with his life:

“What should he do? Could have been a rock star,
but he never even made it to his twenties.”

Was Army Dreamers indeed blacklisted? BBC never commented on the issue.

Original title: Army Dreamers

Country: United Kingdom

Released: 1980

Written by: Kate Bush

Reaction: Blacklisted from BBC

Click here to listen to the original

Izhar Ashdot - A Matter of Habit

“They’re just objects and shadows, not women and men. Learning to kill is a natural thing.”

IZHAR ASHDOT IS AN ISRAELI ROCK STAR. If you hum one of his songs in the streets of Tel Aviv, people will hum along with you. Women, men, old and young – everyone knows an Izhar Ashdot song.

That is why A Matter of Habit stirred so much controversy when it was released in 2012. The lyrics are based on first-hand testimonies from soldiers who have served the Israeli army. They speak about how easily occupation becomes the new normal – how, with time, the role as oppressor becomes a routine.

Izhar Ashdot mentions real names, real places, and in a language that is familiar to all Israelis. The opening words of the song leaves no doubt:

“Learning to kill is a matter of momentum
it starts slow and then it comes.
Patrolling every night the casbah in Nablus.
Hey, what’s ours here? What’s yours?”

The sharp words in A Matter of Habit were met with praise, but also with criticism. It was argued that the song was an attempt to delegitimise the state of Israel and its defense forces. Israeli government member Naftali Bennett claimed that “this song is going to go straight to the Hezbollah (...) because this is exactly the kind of ammunition our enemies need.”

A few weeks after the release, Ashdot was invited to perform at the Army Radio station Galatz, considered to be one of the most liberal radio stations in the country. But even as the musicians were tuning their instruments, the station commander called off the performance. He would not have A Matter of Habit played on his wavelength.

For the liberal station Galatz to censor a song was already unthinkable, but to censor a song by the respected and loved Izhar Ashdot was outright shocking. In the wake of the incident, the radio station issued a statement announcing that “Army Radio, as a station of soldiers, where many soldiers perform their military service, should avoid celebrating a song that demonises those soldiers”.

Ashdot himself disagreed that the song was primarily political. To an Israeli TV station, he stated that “I have a problem with calling something a protest song or a political song. This song talks about what happens to our kids when they enter the army.”


Emily Hauser “A Matter of Habit
World PRI “Song Banned from Israeli Army Radio Galatz
A Matter of Habit quote from the official translation by Uni Henis.

Original title: עניין של הרגל

Country: Israel

Released: 2012

Written by: Alona Kimhi & Izhar Ashdot

Reaction: Denied airplay

Click here to listen to the original

Marcel Khalife - Oh My Father I Am Joseph

“I saw eleven stars, the sun and the moon kneeling before me”

MAHMOUD DARWISH HAS BEEN CALLED the national poet of Palestine, and Oh my father, I am Joseph is one of his most famous poems. He was born in 1941 in a small village in Western Galilee. After the village was destroyed during the 1948 Nakba, he found his home in Haifa in the newly founded Israeli state. It was here that he established a career as a writer, poet, editor and critic.

In 1973, Darwish joined the militant Palestine Liberation Organization and chose to leave Israel. Darwish spent most of his adult life in exile in Lebanon, where the central topic of his poetry was the longing for watan – a homeland.

Oh my father, I am Joseph is characteristic of Darwish’s poetry. The poem is Darwish’s rendition of the Quranic verse about Joseph, son of Jacob, the youngest of 12 brothers. He dreams that he will one day become a great king. Upon hearing this, his brothers get furious, and scorns Joseph for his ridiculous vision.

In Darwish’s poem, the story of Joseph is an allegory of the rejection of the Palestinian people. Joseph asks why his brothers hate him so much, and what he has done to deserve their wrath. In the last lines of the poem, he recalls his own dream, with words quoted vaguely from the Quranic verse:

“Oh my father, did I hurt someone when I said
that I saw eleven stars, the sun and the moon
saw them kneeling before me?”

In 1995, the Lebanese composer and oud player Marcel Khalife set music to the poem about Joseph and released it as part of his album, The Arabic Coffeepot. Khalife had grown up in Amchit, a Christian village outside Beirut, where the psalms from the local church would often blend with the sound of the Muslim call to prayer. Khalife’s song incorporated both these musical styles, making Joseph’s story into a hymn for both religions.

Shortly after however, Khalife found himself faced with criminal charges, accused of blasphemy and of insulting Islam. It was the quote from the Quran which had upset Muslim clerics, who argued that singing verses from the Quran was “absolutely banned and not accepted”. Khalife was eventually found innocent in a Lebanese court.


Freemuse and Deeyah Khan “Listen to the Banned

Original title: أنا يوسف يا أبي

Country: Lebanon

Released: 1995

Written by: Mahmoud Darwish

Reaction: Prosecuted for blasphemy

Click here to listen to the original

Pussy Riot - Punk Prayer

“Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!”

ON AN EARLY WINTER MORNING in 2012, a group of young women walked into Moscow’s spectacular Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Without a sound, they tore off their winter coats and pulled on colourful balaclavas. Moments later, they were standing on the altar, kicking and punching in the air while shouting “Shit! Shit! The Lord’s shit!”

It didn’t even last a minute. The intruders were approached by guards and escorted out of the cathedral. The women didn’t protest. They had already achieved what they set out to do.

Later that evening, a video appeared on Youtube under the header “Punk Prayer: Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!”. The video contained footage from the spectacle in the church, accompanied by a noisy punk song. The lyrics were aimed directly at Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, and called attention to his increasingly close ties to president Vladimir Putin. Kirill had openly supported Vladimir Putin’s re-election, calling his reign “a miracle from God”. Pussy Riot’s description of the patriarch was merciless:

“Patriarch Kirill believes in Putin,
ought to believe in God, that bitch”

Within a few days, the video went viral. Pussy Riot made the headlines in newspapers and media outlets across the whole world, who reported enthusiastically about their performance and their outspokenness against the Russian government.

A few days later, three members of Pussy Riot were arrested and charged with hooliganism motivated by religious hatred. Throughout the following trial, they maintained that they were sorry if they had offended anyone with their song: “‘The Lord’s Shit’ is our evaluation of the situation in the country. This opinion is not blasphemy”, they insisted.

Three of Pussy Riot’s members were sentenced to 2 years in penal colony for their performance of Punk Prayer.

Even today, the message of the Punk Prayer remains disputed. According to a survey conducted shortly after the trial, 42 percent of Russians regarded the song as an attack on the Russian Orthodox church and its religious values. Only 19 percent thought of it as a protest against Putin and his influence within the Russian church.


Jeffrey Tayler “What Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer Really Said

Original title: Панк-молебен “Богородица, Путина прогони”

Country: Russia

Released: 2012

Written by: Pussy Riot

Reaction: Prison

Click here to listen to the original

Víctor Jara - Our Worker

“Scour like the fire from the mouth of my gun”

VÍCTOR JARA WAS MURDERED AT the age of 40 and at the height of his musical career. His death became the symbol of the brutal crackdown on left-wing culture through almost 20 years of dictatorial rule in Chile.

During the Chilean state coup of 11 September 1973, thousands of left-wing sympathisers, intellectuals, politicians and public figures were taken prisoner and held at makeshift concentration camps around the country. Many thousands were brought to the subterranean sports complex Estadio Chile.

Víctor Jara was one of them. The famous singer and theatre director was one of socialist president Salvador Allende’s strongest supporters. He had dedicated his entire career to political activism through a life on stage, as well as behind it.

In Plegaria a un Labrador, Jara displayed both his political dedication and his artistic talent. As in many of his songs, he addresses the Chilean working class. Borrowing the form and style of the Lord’s Prayer, he encourages the people to rise up and realise their own power: “You can steer the course of the river. You, with the seed, sow the flight of your soul.”

“Blow, like the wind blows
the wild flower of the mountain pass,
clean the barrel of my gun like fire.”

Víctor Jara’s commitment to the political left cost him his life. In Estadio Chile, he wrote his last poem on scraps of paper. A few days after the coup, his wife Joan found his dead body on the street. She gave him a swift burial in the poorest part of Santiago’s enormous graveyard, and fled the country along with their four children and Víctor’s original recordings in her suitcase. For nearly twenty years to come, Jara’s music would remain forbidden in Chile.

Today, more than 40 years after his death, Víctor Jara’s songs are again sung in the streets, in factories, in family gatherings, and in concerts by young Chilean artists. Although Víctor Jara was murdered for his music, his songs live on.


Joan Jara “An Unfinished Song
Åsta Sirnes - En studie av Victor Jaras musikk i en chilensk kontekst.

Quote from Plegaria a un Labrador from the official translation by Adrian Mitchell.

Original title: Plegaria a un Labrador

Country: Chile

Released: 1969

Written by: Víctor Jara

Reaction: Killed

Click here to listen to the original

Los Tucanes de Tijuana - Parrot, Goat and Rooster

“Now my name is known throughout the plains.”

NARCOCORRIDOS ARE BIG BUSINESS in Latin America, and Mario Quintero is one of its foremost merchants. As leader and songwriter of the Mexican Los Tucanes de Tijuana, Quintero has sold more than 13 million albums worldwide and has been nominated for no less than twelve Latino Grammys since his debut in 1987.

Mis tres animales was Tucanes’ definite breakthrough as a band. On the surface, the song tells the story of a poor Mexican stable boy who sets out on journey together with his three pets: a parrot, a goat and a rooster. He earns his first dollars and makes it across the border to the US, where he becomes a wealthy man.

It could almost be the lyrics of a children’s song, but Quintero wrote Mis tres animales with a double meaning to it. In the song, the parrot represents cocaine, the rooster symbolises marijuana and the goat stands for heroine - three of the most traded drugs across the Mexican-American border. Towards the end of the song, the stable boy warns that his methods are not for everyone:

“My animals are rough.
If you can’t handle them, don’t try.”

The narcocorrido genre has been associated with smuggling, money laundering, drug trafficking and corruption. The entire genre is denied airplay on most radio stations, and narcocorridos are banned by law in a number of Mexican states.


Freemuse “Two more states ban narcocorridos

Original title: Mis tres animales

Country: Mexico

Released: 1995

Written by: Mario Quintero

Reaction: Genre banned

Click here to listen to the original

Birgitte Grimstad -
Eli Geva

“If orders come to take the town,
I cannot obey their command,
I cannot follow them.”

RICHARD BURGESS MOVED FROM ENGLAND to Norway at the age of 19. The young Brit had a love for anything Nordic: the history, the language, the culture. In 1980, he arrived in Oslo and soon became an active part of the folk music community there.

One summer’s day in 1982, Burgess received an unexpected phone call. It was from the renowned Norwegian folk singer Birgitte Grimstad. She told him she was going on a tour in Israel and needed a song – and she wanted him to write it.

Grimstad provided Burgess with newspaper cuttings and reports from the ongoing war in Lebanon, where a young colonel in the Israeli army had stirred controversy by refusing to lead his forces into battle.

The colonel was Eli Geva, commander of the 211th Armor Brigade and a well-respected figure within the Israeli army. Geva had warned against invading the Lebanese capital Beirut, arguing that ground warfare would cost both many Israeli and Arab lives, and would not succeed in destroying the enemy. Geva was eventually discharged from the army.

From his home in Norway, Richard Burgess penned a ballad about Eli Geva – a tribute to the colonel and his courage to say no.

“A colonel who served in that army,
the finest in all of the land
said: if they send orders for taking the town
I cannot obey that command”

Later, Burgess learned that Birgitte Grimstad had been convinced to remove the song from her concerts. For more than thirty years, the song about Eli Geva would remain unsung.


NRK P2 Radiodokumentaren “Jakten på Eli Geva” (Norwegian)
The New York Times “Israelis Dismiss Officer Opposed to Beirut Drive

Original title: Eli Geva

Country: Norway

Released: 1982

Written by: Richard Burgess

Reaction: Not performed

Click here to listen to the original

Việt Khang - Where is my Vietnam?

“Our own have invited China in,
they are cowards and lackeys of Beijing.”

IN SPRING 2011, CHINESE OIL RIGS were stationed near the uninhabited Spratly islands on the Vietnamese east coast. This was only the last of numerous confrontations between the two countries, which both claim sovereignty over the remote, but resource-rich islands.

The incident at Spratly sparked off mass protests in the capital Hanoi, where people took to the streets demanding reactions against the Chinese aggression. The Vietnamese government, however, responded by breaking up the demonstrators by force.

Viet Khang was 34 years old and living in My Tho, a small city in southern Vietnam, far away from the most serious turmoil. Through internet forums and amateur footage on Youtube, he received news about the demonstrations.

Enraged, he wrote two songs where he criticised the government, and urged the people to continue protesting, both against China’s aggression and against the lack of action from the Vietnamese leaders:

“Old and young, men and women
raise your fists, fight the invaders
and the cowards who betrayed Vietnam”

A few weeks after, Viet Khang was arrested and charged with “propaganda against the socialist republic of Vietnam”. He was eventually sentenced to 4 years in prison and 3 years of house arrest in My Tho.

While in prison, his wife filed for divorce and left together with their 5-year-old son. When he was released, Khang had no family, no job and no home, and had to serve the period of house arrest in his mother’s place. Still, he did not regret having written the songs. “I spoke the truth. That is why the party is so afraid of me, because deep down they know that I was speaking the truth.”

The border dispute between China and Vietnam remains unresolved.

Original title: Việt Nam tôi đâu?

Country: Vietnam

Released: 2012

Written by: Việt Khang

Reaction: Prison

Click here to listen to the original

The Shaman and
the Thief

“Don’t you know who I am? I do not fold my hands. I will never pray to what you call God.”

IN 1820, JACOB FELLMAN WAS APPOINTED PRIEST in Utsjoki, Lapland, the northernmost parish in Finland. The village was beyond the reach of any road, and even the closest Finnish town was five days of travel away. It was easier for Fellman to travel to Norway.

Fellman was priest in Utsjoki for 11 years. He documented his travels in Finland and northern Norway in writing and drawing, paying interest in anything from the local fauna to religious traditions. The memoirs from his stay in Lapland comprises 2567 (!) pages, spanning folklore and mythology, history and language, botany and correspondences.

In between his writings, Fellman noted the words of a Sami song, Suola ja noaidi - “The Thief and the Shaman”. The text describes the meeting between two cultures, represented by a Sami shaman - a noaidi - and a Christian priest. The noaidi complains about the scarcity of food in the area following the Norwegian colonisation. The priest arrogantly replies that no one owns the ground on which they stand.

“Is it you who made the grass?
Is it you who made the trees?
Black wizard, keep to your place!”

After a while, their conversation develops into a verbal battle where the shaman scorns the intruder for his lack of knowledge and respect for local customs. In the end he gives the priest a final warning: “I still have power over you. I will drive you away!”

The conflict is never resolved in the song, and in many respects, the battle between the two has continued ever since. Today, the Sami are a stateless people, scattered and divided across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. After centuries of cultural assimilation, the Sami languages are considered endangered, and much of the Sami culture has been lost, destroyed and forgotten. In later years however, many young Samis have showed a renewed interest in their cultural heritage.


Henry Väre “Jacob Fellman, the botanising priest” (2011)
Harald Gaski “Med ord skal tyvene fordrives
Suola ja noaidi quote from English translation by Thomas DuBois

Original title: Suola ja noaidi

Country: Norway / Sápmi

Released: n/a

Written by: Traditional, written down by Jacob Fellman

Reaction: State-led assimilation

Click here to listen to the original