Sound System: The Political Power Of Music
by Dave Randall
Pluto Press £12.99
From the Emperors of China whose Imperial Music Bureau was tasked with supervising court music, and keeping an ear on the music of the masses, believing it be a telling portent of social unrest, to the Catholic church, which established a Vatican’s Got Talent-style panel of cardinals in the mid-1500s to choose the most appropriate composer to uphold the institution’s values, what we, the people, listen to for entertainment has long been decided by those who have most to lose should we make the wrong choice.
It is a tradition which, according to Dave Randall, exists to the current day, and “encourages us to care more about who wins The Voice, than how we can make our own voices heard”.
In this entertaining and thought-provoking primer Randall, himself a successful session musician, references everyone from Plato to Theodore Adorno (who believed that capitalism was the opposite of true art) to present his personal manifesto: that music can and should be a political force in the world.
It always has been, of course, but until recently the ‘other side’ has always had its fingers on the controls. For example, the Orwellian-sounding Cultural Presentation Committee, established by the CIA, was tasked with arranging international tours for African-American artists such as Leontyne Price and Dizzy Gillespie as a “living demonstration of the negro as part of America’s cultural life”. Despite the appalling treatment of blacks at home in the US, America’s secret weapon had, according to a article from the NY Times, become “a blue note in a minor key”.
Randall explains the relationship that has always existed between economics and culture, illuminating our understanding with vignettes from his own life as a touring musician (with performers from Sinead O’Connor and Dido to his own band, Faithless). His journey takes us from the Trinidadian carnival – which the British, having previously banned the playing of various percussive instruments likely to lead to sedition, then attempted to abolish altogether – to the west African musicians who played a direct role in the struggle for liberation and independence in their own countries.
To paraphrase Randall, musicians were not so much fighting for their right to party, as partying for their right to fight.
Randall remains deeply aware that as a musician he is part of a self-perpetuating stage trick. “We may bring people together but we do so as itinerants removed from society and placed in a bubble of tour buses, hotel rooms and VIP area”. Or, as Adorno remarked more caustically, “the practise of music is historically linked with the idea of selling one’s talent, and even oneself … as a commodity … the fact that the artist appears in person … creates the illusion he does it for fun. .. and this illusion is readily exploited”.
Randall points out that the largest employer of musicians in the UK, and therefore also the biggest exploiter, is in the fact the British army. “A fact that underlines the importance ascribed to music by the state”.
Historical attempts to ban certain types of music have been fuelled by the fear that the music in question, much like any powerful weapon, might fall into the wrong hands, which is exactly what happened with devestating effect during the upheaval of the Arab Spring. In his strongest chapter Randall guides us through the soundtrack to the uprising which “begins with with an optimistic 21 year-old’s hip-hop tune and ends with a singer’s body washing up on the shores of the Orontes river”.
In November 2010, under the moniker El General, young hip-hop artist Hamada Ben Amor uploaded the track Rais Lebled (‘Mr President’) to YouTube. The demands for reform contained in the song were met with tear gas, batons and police brutality. El General quickly found himself in prison on the direct orders of dictator Ben Ali himself. But you can not jail a song, and very quickly Rais Lebled was reverberating across Egypt. Meanwhile in Syria, a fire-fighter and part-time poet called Ibrahim al Qashoush, inspired by the music he heard from across the border, gave an electrifying performance of a song he based upon a tradional Levantine call-and-response folk tune. “Your legitimacy here has ended – get out Bashar … Bashar you’re a liar … get out bashar! Bashar you’re an ass …” he implored an enthusiatic crowd in Hama town square. A few days later the Syrian regime responded. Qashoush’s dead body washed up on the shore of the Orantes river. His throat had been slit and his voice box removed.
Lenin described revolutions as “festivals of the oppressed” but this genuinely fascinating and heartfelt manifesto proves that music and songs, do much more than simply provide a soundtrack. “They can give courage to long oppressed people, uniting them around a set of demands.”
In the Arab Spring musicians were among the first to people the barricades, to occupy the squares, and among the last to leave. “Many have paid a high price for their bravery,” concludes Randall. Music, he says, “can capture and define the spirit of a growing movement” much as Randall himself captures and explains with startling simplicity, the ongoing struggle for artistic freedom in a world where too much of what we listen to is designed to blunt our desire to think for ourselves.
If as, Adorno once said, “art is the magic delivered from the lie of being truth”, then Randall’s impressive debut is surely the opposite. “Truth delivered from the lie of being magic.”