I was once told by police to stop playing or next time our instruments would be confiscated. It’s a trivial story in the scheme of things. We were in Amsterdam in around 1980 in a city centre spot where busking wasn’t allowed, so next time we got the train to Gouda and played there instead. There were two of us, calling ourselves Cafe Music, and mostly we busked in York.
Songhoy Boys had experiences a world away from that. The band was formed by musicians from Mali at a time when Islamists were banning music completely and threatening musicians’ livelihoods and even their existence. I went to their fantastic London gig a week ago. The evening started with flying ants, downpours and extra heavy security but the musicians told us what security meant for them these days: they miss a lot of gigs and a lot of flights. They get sent to the back of a long line, or taken into small rooms for questioning, for being African, Black, and (most of them) Muslim. They also told any Malians in the audience that they needed to go back home and help rebuild their country. Here’s the stage at Somerset House, underneath the rainbow flag that was still flying to celebrate Pride week. So much for extremist religious censorship.
I wrote about Songhoy Boys briefly in my last post and mentioned a film they appeared in. Here’s a roundup of a few documentary films and a few notable musicians, on the theme of music and survival. There’s also a book by Andy Morgan, Music, Culture and Conflict in Mali, available from Freemuse. Did you know that March 3rd is Music Freedom Day? That’s one of many things I learned from Freemuse, an organisation set up to defend access to music as a human right around the world.
They Will Have To Kill Us First is about musicians in Mali dealing with, surviving and defying the Islamist attempt to ban music completely. At the end there is a very moving free concert in Timbuktu, staged at a time when the local people were still living in great fear. The filming of the concert is extraordinary. It focuses on the audience arriving nervously and then gradually appearing less afraid, responding to the musicians, dancing and having fun.
The documentary On The Banks of the Tigris follows Majid Shokor’s quest to rediscover the music of his childhood. He had been forced to flee Iraq and had settled in Australia, and was eventually astonished to find out that there were famous Iraqi musicians living there. They were Jews, unlike Majid, and had also been forced into exile. The film follows him as he interviews Iraqi Jewish musicians in Israel and other countries, and also follows his return to Iraq where he investigates how much is known about the origins of music that has been relabelled as ‘traditional’ but was in fact composed by Iraqi Jews. Most musicians in Iraq up until 1950 were Jewish, and much popular Arabic music was composed by some prolific Jewish composers such as al-Kuwaity, but that had to be concealed. On the other side, the musicians in exile felt the loss of their audiences and professions, and struggled to keep and pass on their own musical traditions. There’s a review article here.
Rock in the Red Zone is about young musicians in the border town of Sderot, whose inhabitants were originally refugees from North Africa and the Middle East. Children growing up under constant rocket fire from a few miles away in Gaza were becoming extremely traumatized, and composing and performing became less an escape and more a way for them to to try to deal with their stress, anxieties and emotions. The town’s people as a whole felt forgotten and abandoned. The music studio which nurtured young musicians was in an underground bunker and the film is punctuated by sirens and rocket attacks. The film director’s own story of getting to know local people and eventually marrying one of the musicians gets intertwined along the way, so there’s not as much about the actual music as I’d have liked.
Khaira Arby stars with Songhoy Blues in the film and was the force behind the extraordinary free concert in Timbuktu arranged in defiance of the jihadists. She has an amazing voice. Here she is in a clip on YouTube. Enjoy.
Songhoy Blues again
A big shout out to Hwages
This is the famous hiphoppy video featuring three bowling, skateboarding, Trump-dissing women from Saudi Arabia. A podcast on Freemuse gives some background. There are no live music venues in Saudia Arabia and for women to sing in public is of course forbidden, but there are also 19 million YouTube downloads a day so unofficially music isn’t exactly being excluded from life. Freemuse has a Let Women Sing campaign going.
The oud player Yair Dalal will be performing in September as part of the Sephardi Voices season. He appeared in On The Banks of the Tigris and is one of the artists trying to preserve what his website calls the ‘Babylonian musical heritage’ and teaching younger musicians.
Anothe oud player of Iraqi heritage, but this time performing music from the sacred rather than secular repertoire. I saw him perform live once in Kiryat Ata, northern Israel, in a synagogue built by and for the Jewish community from Mosul. It involved a short and scary road trip as I was driving my father (who was not convinced his daughter could drive anyway) in a hire car on a strange road in the dark with everything – controls, traffic – on the wrong side. I didn’t know the route and was worried there might be nowhere to park. My father told me there will be plenty of space, these are poor people, they don’t have cars. He was right.
When the musicians arrived I recognised the routine the violinist was going through untangling wires to attach a pickup to his instrument, as I was used to dealing with the same mess. There was another familiar routine when the concert began. The women around me in the gallery started throwing down sweets (hard candy type), as happens with Mizrachi barmitzvahs. It’s a tradition the musicians could do without as they were ducking and starting to protest. It was also pretty frustrating trying to listen as another ladies’ gallery tradition, which I’ve always assumed was a reaction to being excluded from the main part of the synagogue and service, is talking amongst yourselves all the way through. Although it was hard to hear properly I did get to buy some bootleg cassettes afterwards, all now unplayable. You can hear bits of tracks from his CDs on Amazon. I think he has a great voice but if you prefer oud instrumental music, there’s some of that too.
Linguistic note: the album you can stream is called Yaarat Davash and on the cover the artist’s name is given as Moshe Havusha. That’s the influence of modern Hebrew but that ‘v’ sound was unknown in the Hebrew spoken by Iraqi Jews. Instead the consonantal sound would either be ‘b’ or ‘w’. If you listen to the title track you can hear the musicians actually sing ‘dabash’ and not ‘davash’. Moshe Habusha himself is a lot younger than anyone in the old photo above – I assume it’s of a previous era back in Baghdad.
I feel I’ve now expiated my old sin of carrying around cases with Musician’s Union ‘Keep music live’ stickers on them, when I never joined the union as I didn’t earn much from music. It was a mild act of hypcrisy compared with the crimes of denying to musicians the right to perform and to everyone else their rights to enjoyment and participation.