a project by Pål Moddi Knutsen
and Jørgen Nordby
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.
12 banned songs from 12 countries
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 gets even more direct. He mentions real names, real places, and in a language that is familiar to all Israelis. The opening words of the song leaves no doubt: This is a song about here, and about now.
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.”
MAHMOUD DARWISH HAS BEEN CALLED the national poet of Palestine, and Oh my father, I am Joseph is one of his most famous works. 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 was banned from Israel. He did not return to Haifa until 2005. 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:
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”. After three trials, in 1996, 1999 and 2003, Khalife was finally found innocent by the court.
Freemuse and Deeyah Khan “Listen to the Banned”
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 repeatedly 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 knew that the damage had already been done.
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 Putin’s re-election, calling his reign “a miracle from God”. The description of the patriarch was merciless:
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 regime.
A few days later, three members of Pussy Riot were arrested in their homes 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.”
Two members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to 2 years in penal colony for their performance of the Punk Prayer. A third was released from prison shortly after the trial, while the last two members assumed to have taken part in the performance fled the country shortly after.
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”
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.”
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”
Quote from Plegaria a un Labrador from the official translation by Adrian Mitchell.
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:
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”
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.
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.
IN MAY 2011, THREE CHINESE GUNBOATS opened fire on Vietnamese fishing vessels near the uninhabited Spratly islands in the South China Sea. This was only the last of numerous confrontations between the two countries, which both claim sovereignty over the remote, but resource-rich islands.
Foreign aggression is not something new to the Vietnamese people. After numerous and long periods of occupation through the country’s history, the fear of yet another invasion has become a national trauma. The incident at Spratly sparked off mass protests in the capital Hanoi, where people took to the streets demanding reactions against the Chinese hostility. The government however, responded by breaking up the demonstrators by force, including mass arrests and police violence against the protesters.
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.
Khang reacted with anger against the violent treatment of the demonstrators. 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:
Khang recorded the two songs in his home studio and uploaded them to Youtube. A few weeks after, he was arrested by the local police and and charged with “anti-state propaganda against the socialist republic of Vietnam”. The trial was short and superficial. Viet Khang was eventually sentenced to 4 years in prison and 3 years of house arrest in My Tho.
While Khang was 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 dispute over the Spratly islands is still unresolved.
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.
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.