Mustafa Zaman, Star Weekend Magzine, Dhaka, 4 September, 2009
In a mechanised age, the art of making music has become its own antithesis, a profitable enterprise. In the West, popular music is now only a cog in the great wheel of fortune called market economy. At the home front people are making efforts to replicate that ‘achievement’.
It seems that the music for the masses gets easily replaced by the music for the trendy when economy is the only drive. Accordingly, music in the album form are actually being churned out under the authority of predetermined poetics, one which stems from a choreographed convergence of money, editing panels, and the continuous demand for hit numbers. These industrial musical products bear the sign of the pure mechanistic intent, one that meddles with the sounds, sights and visualisations of any creative musician.
Some want to break away from this. And in their attempt to do so most usually try to achieve at least a degree of estrangement from what is the norm by reviving soppy melodies of the past. But Leela is an exception. As a group it banded in 2005 to ‘turn music into praxis’, displaying a strong tendency to make good use of the mileage still left in the songs that rocked this part of the world during the heydays of left activism. Add to that brew the 70s point blank deshi rock one that trashed artsy rendition to embrace a candid vocal style — of which Azam Khan emerged as the lone king.
Leela, in their attempt to manifest the difference from what is effete and feeble in the face of all kinds of transgressions that marks our time, has produced an album which they call Naiok, hero in literal translation.
Arup Rahi, lead vocal and conceptual guru of the band, readily transposes a new meaning to the word ‘hero’ by redirecting our attention from the urban location to the vast rural expanse, which is Bangladesh. For him the hero resides outside the cosmopolitan din ‘in the midst of the earth-tilling masses.’ His concept calls into question the very possibility of a hero’s existence in the urban, commercial/architectural setting. Both his words and music sets in motion a new understanding of the hero by relocating him/her among the peasant class, whose struggle and cause Rahi lionises and attempts to give voice to. This effort to dispel at least some of the misplaced notions around inorganic ‘heroism’ shapes the tissue and texture of the very first album which Leela has conceived. The conceptual difference bears down on many a track rendering some of the numbers noisy and nonconformist and a few chant-like and devotional.
Being a bard and activist, Rahi has been privileged to be able to pick up a lot of indigenous nuggets from the popular soundscape. Not that he is out to revive the past practices whose influence is gradually in the wane. The experience of giving a good hearing to rural popular music of Bangladesh has informed this album to an extent.
‘If the heavy beat and guitar work that builds the ambience of the album testifies to our affinity to hard rock, most of the tunes clearly links us to the local tradition,’ Rahi points out. Without even deviating much from the vocal style and the tune lifted from traditional songs, the compositional mishmash, intentional as it is, let the band achieve their musical signature.
If the album opens with an apotheosis of the Bengali peasants, inviting the listeners to stand witness to an imaginary sonar kishan, which is also the title of the song, the second number sinks into self-examination using a good bit of raga-tinged pleasantness that recalls Baishnab devotional music. Piasa amaar pathar angey keno jagale hey praan, pravu hey… the line itself harks one back to the days of Baishnab prem-infused (prem equals love and devotion in Baishnab thinking) movement of the 16th century Bengal. That the personalised lyric and the accompanying easy-going music secure a tryst with a new destiny is exactly what makes this song stand out among the 10 songs that make up the album Naiok. Aside from the last two of the numbers — which are Leela’s take on Lalon Fakir, compositions that are heavily fortified by grungy guitar work — the rest of the scores are Leela’s original.
The third number is an attempt at self-deprecation Bengali style, off-hand and untainted. Bondhur premey khaisi go dhara aami the very line puts the middle-class temperance to test. This is where the self-confessional mood meets streetwise language and is manifested through an intentionally pesky voice carefully attending to an indigenous tune a combination many would have flinched away from even at the time of devising.
As for the stotra or hymn-like quality that rules the two temperamentally slow numbers Ami tomaar maajhey jhirjhiriey boitey cheyechee and Yasmin, the firm yet melancholic side of Rahi’s voice gets to work its magic. These two songs carry all the loads of emotions to be able to resonate with the listeners. Consumer demand often robs music off this kind of instinctive quality that goes with the true musical intention. Leela’s Yesmin certainly is a piece that brings out the emotive spirit in its fuller, gutsier dimension.
Most of today’s musical productions are the results of inappropriate manipulation; they sound as if they are nothing but administered harvest. If there is manipulation in Leela’s first attempt, it is mostly informed by an inner necessity.
Their mix carries point-blank delivery and stream of rock where the guitar and the drum unite to assault as well as stimulate the ear. The highpoint of this album is Rahi’s lyrics that attentively put forward some imagery as well as bits and pieces of his mind, which in turn illuminate social realities for all to witness. At times the commonplace and the mundane is Rahi’s ideal vehicle as in Tui ashlee naa, where lines such as Aami kaancha bazarer shera shobjee nia randhee/ Aami chhera moshareer doree thikthak bandhee/ Tui aashlee naa serves to elucidate an aspect of existence that rarely find expression in art. The other side of the spectrum, as explored in the song Yasmin, also provides for a good bit of social/psychic examination. Addressing the perpetrators who molested and killed the little girl from Dinajpur by the same name, the song starts off with a strain of resentment the voice of Rahi’s replacing the voice of the reincarnated Yasmin. A song like this without refrain, without chorus could only sustain the interest of the listener through some engaging utterances –Aamar mormo pira nai, nai shukher abhiman… and Ebar tomar bishoi bolo, naam bolechho mohot kato naam…– which are directed to her male counterparts. For the song writer the reflexive mode suites the purpose, which is to give voice to the voiceless.
The musical experience that awaits one in Naiokdom, is based on a framework where noise, naff voice, breathy vocal skills commingle. In some of the songs noise rises to its pitch point but fails to overwhelm the eardrum as things seem to stay on a single plateau. It could have been groovier. Meaning this bunch of musicians did not pay much attention to the various facets of the musical experience. A smatter of grits could have rescued some of the songs from becoming a high velocity yet banal drone. One also gets the feeling that some polyphonic textures could have been exploited to the band’s advantage. In a couple of songs the dotara that accompanies the guitar does wonders for their style. As for the voice, a little less pitch and more timbre could have been fitting in some of the high-pitched zones in some of the songs.
Yet Leela’s Naiok experience has enough horsepower to throw one out into a new constellation of noise and meaning. If the disparate elements such as the rage of rock and the trembling, pensive voice unite to create its nerve centre, the listeners should have all the reasons to expect more of the same, only in its utmost qualitative variance, from the sound machine and social logic that created it in the first place. The challenge for the group is to make their nervy noise-stream breath life no matter from which direction the group wants to poke fun at or tickle that great emotional giant called life one that also harbours all our sensibilities around love, loss and longing.
AlJazeera, February 3, 2009
The Music of Resistance is a six-part documentary series that tells the stories of musicians who fight repression and sing about injustices.
They are unique musical personalities from some of the world’s most troubled areas – what makes them different is their need to communicate their politics through music.
They are all ambitious and talented but for them ‘making it’ is not about diamonds and sports cars – it is about radical political change.
They come from Nigeria, Mozambique, the favelas of Brazil, Cape Verde, the desert of the Southern Sahara and inner-city London.
Framed in their historical context and current political circumstances, The Music of Resistance will illustrate their messages through live performances, interviews and images from the communities they sing about and inspire.
Presenter Steve Chandra Savale is the musical force behind Asian Dub Foundation – a London-based group that has for years brought a strong anti-racism message to an international audience.
The race to fight racism
For almost 15 years, Asian Dub Foundation has delivered uncompromising messages of social change – looking at prejudice against Britons of Asian descent.
Alarmed by the number of inner-city youngsters turning to gangs, the group formed Asian Dub Foundation Education (ADFED) as a way of getting them back on track.
Part # 1
Part # 2
Survival in the southern Sahara
The nomadic Touareg tribes have endured years of drought and civil war. The one constant through this hardship has been the music of Tinariwen.
Once a group of rebel soldiers, training alongside Colonel Gadaffi in Libya, after years of struggle and violence Tinariwen decided to lay down their guns and fight with a different weapon – music.
Human rights for the most marginalised
Fela Kuti is one of the most significant musicians to ever come out of Sub-Sharan Africa. Through his music he confronted government corruption, multi-national corporations, and police brutality in Nigeria.
Only 14 when his father died, his son Seun has decided to carry on his legacy. Music of Resistance went to meet him.
Part # 1
Part # 2
Finding dignity in Portugal
Nuno Santos (aka Chullage) is a Cape Verdean living in Portugal. Like so many migrants from this small African island, he faces discrimination daily. His music tries to redress this injustice.
Part # 1
Part # 2
The Music of Resistance airs at the following times GMT: Monday: 1230; Tuesday: 0330, 1400; Wednesday: 0630, 1930; Thursday: 0130, 1030; Friday: 0330, 1000, 1430; Saturday: 1730; Sunday: 0430, 2030
AlJazeera channel on YouTube.
Nine Inch Nails, even ‘Sesame Street’ theme used for interrogations
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba – Blaring from a speaker behind a metal grate in his tiny cell in Iraq, the blistering rock from Nine Inch Nails hit Prisoner No. 200343 like a sonic bludgeon.
Rage Against the Machine … protesting against Guantanamo Bay at the Reading festival. (Chiaki Nozu/Filmmagic.com/Getty Images)
“Stains like the blood on your teeth,” Trent Reznor snarled over distorted guitars. “Bite. Chew.”
The auditory assault went on for days, then weeks, then months at the U.S. military detention center in Iraq. Twenty hours a day. AC/DC. Queen. Pantera. The prisoner, military contractor Donald Vance of Chicago, told The Associated Press he was soon suicidal.
The tactic has been common in the U.S. war on terror, with forces systematically using loud music on hundreds of detainees in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, then the U.S. military commander in Iraq, authorized it on Sept. 14, 2003, “to create fear, disorient … and prolong capture shock.”
Now the detainees aren’t the only ones complaining. Musicians are banding together to demand the U.S. military stop using their songs as weapons.
A campaign being launched Wednesday has brought together groups including Massive Attack and musicians such as Tom Morello, who played with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave and is now on a solo tour. It will feature minutes of silence during concerts and festivals, said Chloe Davies of the British law group Reprieve, which represents dozens of Guantanamo Bay detainees and is organizing the campaign.
At least Vance, who says he was jailed for reporting illegal arms sales, was used to rock music. For many detainees who grew up in Afghanistan – where music was prohibited under Taliban rule – interrogations by U.S. forces marked their first exposure to the pounding rhythms, played at top volume.
‘Plenty lost their minds’
The experience was overwhelming for many. Binyam Mohammed, now a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, said men held with him at the CIA’s “Dark Prison” in Afghanistan wound up screaming and smashing their heads against walls, unable to endure more.
“There was loud music, (Eminem’s) ‘Slim Shady’ and Dr. Dre for 20 days. I heard this nonstop over and over,” he told his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. “The CIA worked on people, including me, day and night for the months before I left. Plenty lost their minds.”
The spokeswoman for Guantanamo’s detention center, Navy Cmdr. Pauline Storum, wouldn’t give details of when and how music has been used at the prison, but said it isn’t used today. She didn’t respond when asked whether music might be used in the future.
FBI agents stationed at Guantanamo Bay reported numerous instances in which music was blasted at detainees, saying they were “told such tactics were common there.”
According to an FBI memo, one interrogator at Guantanamo Bay bragged he needed only four days to “break” someone by alternating 16 hours of music and lights with four hours of silence and darkness.
Ruhal Ahmed, a Briton who was captured in Afghanistan, describes excruciating sessions at Guantanamo Bay. He said his hands were shackled to his feet, which were shackled to the floor, forcing him into a painful squat for periods of up to two days.
“You’re in agony,” Ahmed, who was released without charge in 2004, told Reprieve. He said the agony was compounded when music was introduced, because “before you could actually concentrate on something else, try to make yourself focus on some other things in your life that you did before and take that pain away.
“It makes you feel like you are going mad,” he said.
‘Sesame Street’ tunes used for interrogation
Not all of the music is hard rock. Christopher Cerf, who wrote music for “Sesame Street,” said he was horrified to learn songs from the children’s TV show were used in interrogations.
“I wouldn’t want my music to be a party to that,” he told AP.
Bob Singleton, whose song “I Love You” is beloved by legions of preschool Barney fans, wrote in a newspaper opinion column that any music can become unbearable if played loudly for long stretches.
“It’s absolutely ludicrous,” he wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “A song that was designed to make little children feel safe and loved was somehow going to threaten the mental state of adults and drive them to the emotional breaking point?”
Morello, of Rage Against the Machine, has been especially forceful in denouncing the practice. During a recent concert in San Francisco, he proposed taking revenge on President George W. Bush.
“I suggest that they level Guantanamo Bay, but they keep one small cell and they put Bush in there … and they blast some Rage Against the Machine,” he said to whoops and cheers.
Some musicians, however, say they’re proud that their music is used in interrogations. Those include bassist Stevie Benton, whose group Drowning Pool has performed in Iraq and recorded one of the interrogators’ favorites, “Bodies.”
“People assume we should be offended that somebody in the military thinks our song is annoying enough that played over and over it can psychologically break someone down,” he told Spin magazine. “I take it as an honor to think that perhaps our song could be used to quell another 9/11 attack or something like that.”
The band’s record label told AP that Benton did not want to comment further. Instead, the band issued a statement reading: “Drowning Pool is committed to supporting the lives and rights of our troops stationed around the world.”
Tactics to make men go mad
Vance, in a telephone interview from Chicago, said the tactic can make innocent men go mad. According to a lawsuit he has filed, his jailers said he was being held because his employer was suspected of selling weapons to terrorists and insurgents. The U.S. military confirms Vance was jailed but won’t elaborate because of the lawsuit.
He said he was locked in an overcooled 9-foot-by-9-foot cell that had a speaker with a metal grate over it. Two large speakers stood in the hallway outside. The music was almost constant, mostly hard rock, he said.
“There was a lot of Nine Inch Nails, including ‘March of the Pigs,”‘ he said. “I couldn’t tell you how many times I heard Queen’s ‘We Will Rock You.”‘
He wore only a jumpsuit and flip-flops and had no protection from the cold.
“I had no blanket or sheet. If I had, I would probably have tried suicide,” he said. “I got to a few points toward the end where I thought, ‘How can I do this?’ Actively plotting, ‘How can I get away with it so they don’t stop it?”‘
Asked to describe the experience, Vance said: “It sort of removes you from you. You can no longer formulate your own thoughts when you’re in an environment like that.”
He was released after 97 days. Two years later, he says, “I keep my home very quiet.”
Red Pepper, August-September 2008
Manu Chao could be the most famous singer that many English speakers have never heard of. Yet he is to the alter-globalisation movement what Bob Dylan was to peace and civil rights in the 1960s. Oscar Reyes caught up with him by a campfire at Glastonbury, where he created a little ‘neighbourhood of hope’
‘I know I’ve got a responsibility, that maybe I can help people – I’ve got access to the mic, which a lot of people don’t have. But I’ve also got responsibility in my neighbourhood, because I’m the singer of my neighbourhood. There’s a guy who’s the taxi driver and the guy who goes to the factory and I’m the singer.’
Photo: Tatiana Pereira V, Flickr
Sitting by a campfire backstage at Glastonbury, Manu Chao is just getting going. Fifteen minutes ago he was closing the festival on the Jazz World stage, to an audience of thousands. Now he’s passing out beers and talking about politics, stressing that he cannot be a leader providing ‘a voice for the voiceless’, but can sometimes open up a space for political concerns that otherwise go unvoiced.
Manu Chao offsets his global celebrity with a disarming humility. He has played to 100,000 people on the Zocalo, the enormous main square in Mexico City, but still busks at bars in Barcelona – one of his adopted home cities. He frequently plays political gigs too, from the G8 in Genoa to the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, and numerous others – often unannounced – to striking dockers or in prisons or at many other unexpected venues. If you want an analogy, then Manu Chao is to the alter-globalisation movement what Bob Dylan was to peace and civil rights in the 1960s. His albums sell millions of copies worldwide, but the English-language bias of most UK radio stations means that Manu Chao could be the most famous singer you’ve never heard of.
Manu Chao’s political education went hand in hand with his musical awakening, but he can’t be drawn on which of them is the stronger influence. ‘First of all I’m Manu,’ he says. ‘Then music is a passion. And politics is part of me too.’
That politics began with his family history, which remains strongly etched onto his consciousness. His family fled Spain after his grandfather was sentenced to death by the Spanish dictator Franco, and he grew up in Paris, where he was born in 1961 to Galician and Basque parents. The sense of responsibility to his neighbourhood, he says, is paramount. ‘That’s my culture, that’s my education. My mother gave me that education. My father and mother were activists, so from when I was a kid I know about that.’
But he has never seen that need to root action locally as reflecting any kind of parochialism. ‘What is interesting in neighbourhoods is that each one is a little representation of society, of the world,’ he says.
Having lived in Rio, in Mexico, in Barcelona, and spent much of his life without a settled home, how does he square this paradox of being constantly on the move with his strong sense of responsibility towards his locality? ‘I have a lot of neighbourhoods in my life,’ he says. ‘So I go from one to another, and I organise, I work and try to dynamise things.’
Music that sounds like the world
The easy movement from one neighbourhood to another is reflected in Manu Chao’s music too. The music industry, for its part, tends to pigeonhole Manu Chao as ‘world music’. But he is dismissive of that category, describing it as a ‘neo-colonial’ label for songs not sung in English. If they are not world music, though, Manu Chao’s songs are very much music that sounds like the world. He sings in French, Spanish, English, Portuguese and Italian. His albums are littered with samples and street sounds, and often feature non-professional musicians he has pulled in off the street.
The Clash and Bob Marley are the most obvious influences. The Clash’s Joe Strummer was known to be a fan (as is Robbie Williams, who collaborated with Lily Allen to cover the song ‘Bongo Bong’). The affinity with Bob Marley, meanwhile, saw him dedicate a song to ‘Mr Bobby’, an artist he celebrates for his simplicity and global reach. But that doesn’t fully capture the punk-ska eclecticism of Manu Chao’s music, or his seamless ability to blend these different styles into a distinctive sound.
That fusion of styles comes from a long time spent on the road, listening to the responses of his audiences and learning from the music to which they exposed him – in Latin America, especially.
When he first came to prominence with the band Mano Negra in the late 1980s, he was advised by his management to tour America. They meant the United States, but Mano Negra instead journeyed around South America by ship, playing gigs in port cities as they went. A year later, in 1993, Mano Negra returned to the continent, bought an old train and toured Colombia – playing to audiences of guerrillas, peasants and drug traffickers.
These experiences still influence his outlook today. ‘I got the chance to spend a lot of time [in Latin America], I love this continent, and I’m building my family there,’ he tells me. ‘It is an incredible school of life.’ But the pace and intensity of their travels took its toll on Mano Negra, and the band split up shortly after the tour ended.
Manu’s response was to go backpacking, recording most of his debut solo album,Clandestino, on a portable eight-track recorder as he went. Released in 1998, the album was a huge success, selling more than five million copies. His next album,Proxima Estacion: Esperanza (‘Next stop: hope’ – a reference to a metro announcement in Madrid), released in 2001, consolidated his place as one of the world’s most successful recording artists.
It then took another six years for Manu Chao to record his next studio album, La Radiolina, which came out to critical acclaim last autumn. Not that he hasn’t been busy with writing, political activism, touring and DJ-ing in the interim. In 2004, he did, in fact, return to the studio to produce Dimanche À Bamako, an album by a blind, middle-aged Malian couple, Amadou and Mariam, which went on to sell half a million copies in its own right.
This passion for new musical encounters and travel, rather than concentrating on his recording career, speaks volumes for Manu Chao’s sense of priorities. Listening from one album to the next, you find similar themes – and even whole backing tracks – return in different forms. In this sense, he is not so much a studio musician as he is a troubadour, evolving songs and sounds as he goes.
That sense of the importance of everyday encounters lies at the heart of Manu Chao’s politics too. Asked what events most clearly influenced his political outlook, he says ‘It’s difficult for me to answer that. I think there’s no ranking in activism. The important thing is the everyday.’
There is actually a vital consideration before engaging in politics, he continues: ‘Before talking about activism, if everybody in this world acted with honesty, it would be a nice step. That’s what I learnt from my grandfather – honesty. I bless him for that.’ But honesty only takes you so far. ‘The situation today is so problematic that honesty is not enough anymore. People have to do more.’
Manu Chao’s sense of what it means to do more is as deeply political as it is suspicious of organised politics (or ‘politik’, as he dubs it on his latest single, ‘Politik Kills’). He sees this sense of honesty, and ‘re-organising at the level of your person, your family and your neighbourhood’, as standing in opposition to the kind of politik that needs ‘ignorance’ and ‘lies’.
As Manu explains to me a vision of the world that is unremittingly bleak, yet somehow without being cynical, I imagine his discussion punctuated with that song’s refrain: ‘That’s why, my friend, it’s an evidence – politik is violence.’
‘The big problem is money. The economic power is more powerful than the political. So we vote, but the politicians – they’re all puppets,’ he says, gesturing with his arms as he searches for the appropriate word. ‘It is not a real democracy.’
He is equally scathing about the distorting influence of media ownership on democracy. ‘In Europe,’ he says, ‘the first big problem was in Italy when Berlusconi took power for the first time, ten years ago. That was the proof that if you control the media, you’re president. And after Berlusconi, I think with Sarkozy in France it was the same.
‘So more and more people are not going to believe any more in democracy; and that’s very dangerous. I feel like a democrat – I think it’s the least worst way we’ve found to live all together. But the professional politicians have totally distorted the word and what it really means.’
His distaste for politicians is matched only by that he reserves for the influence of television. ‘Television doesn’t respect anything, so there are a lot of kids growing up respecting nothing. I think that’s the most dangerous thing happening in society … and it is very important that there aren’t another two or three generations coming like that, totally brainwashed by television, because its going to be terrible – all quick money, a lot of violence, everything must be easy, everything new, not a single work ethic.’ Here too, if nothing changes, he thinks the result will be ‘a lot of violence’.
Asked if he sees any possibility of change, Manu says he does, but talks about the sources lying in fear rather than hope.
‘I think things are changing. It’s a kind of race between the craziness of the system and the sense of conservation of the human being. In the last couple of years, I saw that people are getting scared. They talk a lot about the change of the weather – shit, it’s raining in July. Full sun in December. Something is going wrong. And lots of people who aren’t politically conscious are starting to change.’
At this point, Manu – who has grown more agitated as our interview has progressed – rests his hand on my knee and takes on a look of greater intensity. ‘I’ll say something politically not very correct but I really believe it. I’m not afraid for nature. We’re doing a lot of harm to nature, it’s terrible. But nature, one day she’s going to get nervous and she’s going to … phoooosh!’
With that, he reaches back in a dramatic gesture that signals the end of civilisation. ‘And we’re all going to get out of this fucking planet in one minute!’
‘We’ll make a lot of problems for nature,’ he continues. ‘She’s going to take one million years to cure herself. One million years for nature is one day for us. When we attack nature we’re attacking ourselves. Nature is much more stronger than us … We’re not going to win this battle, she’s going to win.’
Next station: hope
That may sound an apocalyptic outlook, but it is not unremittingly so – since, despite his pessimism at global changes, he still draws hope that meaningful changes can grow out of what goes on at a neighbourhood level.
‘You cannot change the world, I cannot change the world. I cannot change my country maybe – if I know what my country is – but everybody can change his neighbourhood. I try. That’s a responsibility of everybody. I hope the solution is there. I don’t believe any more in one big revolution that’s going to change everything. I believe in thousands and thousands of little neighbourhood revolutions – that’s my hope.’
With other journalists circling, and a succession of well-wishers demanding attention and congratulating him on a great show, Manu Chao beats a retreat to catch up with his friends. Interview over.
Then something remarkable happens. Manu’s guitarist, who had been thrashing out punk chords on stage, has picked up an acoustic guitar and is strumming some familiar tunes. Manu returns and starts singing by the campfire. Songs of liberty and rebellion: the songs of Manu Chao.
A crowd slowly forms. Another band member starts assembling his trumpet, playing in accompaniment to ‘La Vida Tómbola’ (‘A Life of Chance’) – a song about the footballer Diego Maradona, first recorded for an Emir Kusterica film. The campfire burns on. At one point, a chorus of ‘Campiones, campiones, Ole ole ole’ rings out – a reference to Spain’s victory in that night’s European Cup final. Manu smiles broadly but noticeably doesn’t join in. As he put it earlier, ‘Maybe they can be very proud, I’m very happy for them, but its not going to change nothing.’
Someone gives Manu a hat, which he plays, instinctively, as a tambourine. His manager repeatedly tries to coax him onto the tour bus. He promises her that he’ll go, then plays on – visibly enjoying himself. It is early in the morning already by the time the singing stops and he kisses friends goodbye.
I’d been thinking about how to square Manu’s gloomy predictions about the world with the radiant hope that is embodied in his music, and about how that music has kept a party of strangers together for hours. ‘You made yourself a neighbourhood here,’ I say as we bid farewell. Manu’s reply comes with an infectious smile: ‘That’s what we try to do.’
BRUSSELS, Apr 28, 2008. Inter Press Service – If a European rock music fan has just one album by an African artist in his or her collection, there is a higher than average chance it was recorded by Youssou N’Dour. The Senegalese man’s status as his continent’s most lucrative cultural export was underscored in 2005, when he was the only African to appear at the main Live8 concert in London’s Hyde Park, an event that attracted several billion TV viewers, according to its organisers.
As well as delighting audiences with his ebullient live performances, N’Dour regularly lobbies world leaders, urging them to show greater resolve in tackling African poverty. At last year’s Group of Eight (G8) summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, he joined Irish rock stars Bono and Bob Geldof in protesting at how pledges made by top industrialised countries to increase development aid are not being honoured. A goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Children Fund (Unicef), he has been especially eager to see international efforts to combat malaria intensified.
N’Dour spoke to IPS Brussels correspondent David Cronin.
IPS: Data published in the past few weeks indicates that the amount of aid that rich countries give to poor countries is falling. Does that distress you?
YN’D: If G8 countries decide to reduce their aid for development, that would be a catastrophe. With the increase in the cost of living, especially in poor countries, we need more aid, especially because children are more exposed to diseases like malaria. I’m very disappointed by the reduction in aid.
IPS: Louis Michel, the European commissioner for development, said last week that he does not believe European Union governments regard development aid as a priority. Do you agree with him?
YN’D: What Louis Michel says is the truth. But it is not enough. The European Union must maintain its leadership on aid.
IPS: But is that undermined by its efforts to foist trade liberalisation on Africa? And do you agree with Abdoulaye Wade, the President in your native Senegal, who has been very critical of the Economic Partnership Agreements that the EU wants to conclude with Africa?
YN’D: I agree completely with Wade. The agreements between Europe and Africa must be changed.
Everyone knows that the system of trade is not fair. Take the example of agriculture. Europe can subsidise its farmers but farmers in Africa are not subsidised. When European farmers sell their products, they sell them at a cheaper price than our agricultural products. That is not fair.
IPS: European vessels operating off Senegal’s waters have been accused of causing a great deal of damage to the fisheries sector in your country. The old fisheries agreement between the EU and Senegal has expired and not been renewed. Is that a good thing?
YN’D: For the past eight years, the government in Senegal has tried to pursue a certain vision. It is right to try to change the historic accord. A government that enters power without trying to change things should have to jump.
IPS: How do you feel about the electoral impasse in Zimbabwe and the challenge it presents for Africa?
YN’D: The problem in Zimbabwe is one of courage. There are good things happening in Africa but we are a continent of contradiction. We have seen democratic elections in some countries. But when the world sees an advance for democracy, we then see something like what has happened in Zimbabwe. It is tragic.
The world must help to advance democracy. There must be transparent elections. And when somebody wins an election, they must be able to govern.
IPS: Your 2004 album ‘Egypt’ addressed your Islamic faith. You have described Islam as a religion of peace but since the disc was released we have seen atrocities like the London bombings in 2005. What is your response to European politicians and some commentators who equate Islam with terrorism?
YN’D: Islam is a religion of peace. But every religion has a minority of extremists. The media gives the impression that extremists represent the totality of Islam. The reason why I made ‘Egypt’ was to show another side.
IPS: You have worked closely with Bono and Bob Geldof. How do you feel about the criticisms they have received, the allegations that they have become too friendly with world leaders, such as George W. Bush?
YN’D: Bono, Geldof, Youssou N’Dour: we have created a new type of diplomacy. A cultural and artistic diplomacy. We are not for either the left or the right.
If leaders do things that should be encouraged, we should encourage them. If they do things that should be denounced, then they should be denounced.
I have never been in favour of the war in Iraq. But I do agree that Bush has done good work on malaria and AIDS. We are not only here to criticise. We are also here to encourage. (END/2008)