Unsongs: Breaking Musical Censorship

Is a song still a song if no one hears it? I’m not talking about the thousands of tracks on Spotify which have never been listened to, but about those songs which have offended someone with the power to ban them. Censorship is always about weakness – silencing someone tells the world that you are terrified of what they have to say. Moddi, a Norwegian folk singer, is doing his part in getting these powerful, silenced, songs back out to the world by re-recording them.

Unsongs, as he calls these banned songs, is a project which found its genesis in the cultural boycott of Israel. The arguments for and against musicians and artists not going to Israel are so complex and morally challenging that many avoid the whole issue by keeping silent. You can understand why. When the singer Lorde cancelled a planned concert in Tel Aviv recently, she was applauded by some but also labeled a bigot in a full page ad in the Washington Post.

Moddi may not be as familiar a name as Lorde, but his plan to play a concert in Israel caused a similar storm. Some people hailed his choice to play in Israel as a full throated support of all the actions of the state of Israel. Others attacked him for lending credibility to a country they feel has committed atrocities. Moddi just wanted to play his songs. Whatever action he took would be taken as support for one side or the other, leaving many angry with him. In the end he canceled his concert.

After this cancelation, he was contacted by Birgitte Grimstad, a Norwegian folk singer. During the 1982 war between Israel and Lebanon she had been invited to perform in Israel. A story from that war made news around the world – a young army colonel named Eli Geva had refused orders for him to lead his troops into Beirut. Geva felt the attack on the city would cost too many lives on both sides. For his act of insubordination he was removed from the Israeli Defence Forces. Grimstad had a song composed that praised Geva’s refusal to perform an act against his conscience and planned to sing it on her tour of Israel.

When Grimstad arrived in Israel with this song in her repertoire, there was excitement about the "protest song" she would be performing. On the night before her concert, however, she was informed that if she sang the song the Norwegian ambassador to Israel, who would be present, would be forced to walk out of the concert. After a night of soul searching Grimstad decided not to play her ode to Eli Geva. For the next 30 years the song was buried in silence.

Birgitte Grimstad heard about Moddi’s problems with playing in Israel and contacted him, explaining the tale of her song about Geva. This turned Moddi’s mind to the notion of censorship. What constitutes censorship? Is it mere pressure as Grimstad was placed under? What about a state banning the song being played? Are threats of imprisonment, violence, and murder acts of censorship? When Moddi began to look into the history of songs which have been censored, he found all these types of censorship, and also more subtle ones, come into play. He decided to record some of the songs, and Unsongs the album was born.

 

 

Moddi’s version of Eli Geva

 

Moddi’s selection of 12 songs takes us around the world. There are pieces like “Where’s my Vietnam” by Việt Khang who protested his government’s relationship with the Chinese. For his musical protest Việt Khang was arrested and sentenced to four years in jail with another three years of house arrest. Khang was still under house arrest when he met with Moddi to describe the situation. Arrest, trial, and prison chill the environment of artistic expression which we might take for granted.

 

 

Việt Khang discusses his imprisonment

 

Beyond the threat of silencing a song, or locking the artist away, there are acts of censorship which do not just tear a page from a book, they burn the whole work. Victor Jara made a name for himself in Chile in the the 60s and 70s as a singer, poet, and activist. His song “Our Worker” is typical of his music in that it talks about the conditions of workers and prays for better. When a right-wing dictatorship came to power such sentiments became dangerous. Jara was captured, tortured, shot, and his body was dumped in a street.

 

 

The story behind “Our Worker”

 

Some might complain that Moddi alters the songs he brings to our attention. For example, Pussy Riot’s "Punk Prayer" is transformed from a cacophonous scream against Putin’s Russia into a longing supplication for help. Is Moddi right to change the songs he seeks to rescue from obscurity? All translation is change, but here it is not only the words that are altered but the melodies. Through introducing us to English versions of the banned songs Moddi dares us to search out the meaning of the original songs. What are their stories, and why did they make the mighty tremble? At concerts he played a snatch of the original Pussy Riot song and many in the audience, myself included, shied away from the grating noise or laughed nervously. Then Moddi sang the words in melodic English and we understood why someone would want to shriek out these words in rage.

 

“Holy Mary, be a feminist.
Pray not for the mighty but the meek.
Drive away the lies that they speak.
Our lady, hear our prayer unto thee.”

 

 

Moddi’s version of Pussy Riot’s "Punk Prayer"

 

Perhaps the most poignant song on the album is “Oh my father, I am Joseph.” Taking its theme, and some of its words, from the Quranic tale of Joseph, it is an existentialist cry based on a poem by Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish. Joseph had been given the ability to prophesy from reading the dreams of others, and this power upsets his brothers who cast him into a well. Sitting forsaken in the dark he calls up to heaven “Did I upset you? … For being like you made me they have cast me in this well.” Joseph has done what he feels is his duty and been punished for it. One can imagine the Marcel Khalife, who turned this poem into a song, must have felt the same way. For composing a song which quoted from the Quran, he was dragged through the courts on a charge of blasphemy. All for “being what you made me.”

Lest anyone in the West begin to feel too proud about the liberal achievements of our own countries, Moddi includes a song which was effectively silenced by the BBC during the first Gulf War. Army Dreamers, a song by British artist Kate Bush, tells of all the could-have-beens of a young boy who goes to war but comes home in a box. This was felt to be inappropriate to the times. As if questioning the realities of warfare is ever unimportant.

Selecting which songs to include in Unsongs must have been difficult. There were so many banned songs that “I could have recorded 12 more albums,” Moddi told The Independent. With each song you want to know more about the life of the writer and the audience of the piece. You feel there are whole worlds you know nothing about. Then you wonder whether it is the censorship which has blocked you from finding out about these people, or your own lack of intellectual curiosity about your fellow humans which has kept these stories hidden from you. Every song on this album is a challenge and a prod to find out more.

Unsongs is a timely project. It may even be timeless, as there will always be messages that those in power do not want us to hear. Listen to the beautifully crafted music on this album and then seek out the original songs and hear the stories of those who do not have the luxury of speaking out.

 

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Ben Gazur is a biochemist, freelance writer, and keen student of classical philosophy.