2nd World Conf. on Music & Censorship

2nd World Conference on Music and Censorship, Copenhagen, Denmark, September 28-29 2002


More than 100 musicians, musicologists, producers, journalists and human rights defenders from 25 countries worldwide convened in Copenhagen on the last weekend of September in order to lecture, discuss, present cases and hear personal testimonies concerning the state of music censorship in 2002.

A South African protest singer and the police spy assigned to stop his career met face to face in a panel discussion, a famous Afghan musician from Kabul told his personal story on how he was forced to work as a butcher under the Taliban regime

The 2nd World Conference on Music and Censorship examined the above cases, as well as personal testimonies from a Palestinian cultural worker, a controversial Israeli/Palestinian singer, a censor from Nigeria, and other musicians, journalists and scholars from Sudan, Cuba, Israel, Malaysia, and USA.

A total of 30 speakers from 20 different countries spoke at the conference, which also focused on the many aspects and effects of music censorship worldwide. Among the themes were censorship by corporative, governmental and religious bodies, media and music industry concentration, nationalism/protectionism, and limits of musical freedom caused by the September 11 attacks and other political events.

Thematically, the conference moved in various directions: the historic testimony in the South-Africa panel, the consequences of war and conflict leading to almost total absence of technical infrastructure (the Middle-East) and the more or less sophisticated examples of recent censorship, ranging from Turkey through the even more hardliner-regimes of Afghanistan and North Korea.  The latter country includes two officially state appointed pop groups who, throughout their «careers» have released a total of more than 100 CDs, the only pop-CDs available in the country.  In Turkey, self-censorship still hinders Kurdish music and cultural expression in spite of the fact that Turkish authorities recently lifted their ban. Recently a trial was announced against 11 women in a folk music ensemble performing a 60-year-old Kurdish song at a cultural festival in Diyarbakir.  But, in spite of this, things are slowly getting better.  Only a few decades ago certain instruments like the «oud» were forbidden, and government appointed committees «chose» the music you were supposed to hear and approved bands and ensembles.  Needless to say, only those that played  pure, Turkish music were allowed and all foreign, ethnic expressions were banned.

On the telephone from Jerusalem, Rania Elias, director of Yabous Productions – a non-profit Palestinian organization set up in 1995 in order to organize festivals and concerts and promote Palestinian groups and artists within the performing arts, excused herself explaining that this was the 13th international conference she had to turn down so far this year.  She is not allowed to travel.  The situation for Yabous is getting increasingly difficult.  One aspect is the Israeli occupation which «deprives us of our ability to move and work freely» as well as the bombing of Palestinian TV and radio stations.  But even if they could move around freely – the Israeli have imposed a six o`clock curfew – people are afraid to move around during nighttime.  Also, the economic situation being the way it is, musical events are not among people`s main priorities.  The consequences are, that in several cities such as Ramallah, public concerts are simply not being organized.

And then there is the political aspect.  Whereas writers in the Middle East, at least in secrecy, keep in contact, there are no musical relations between Palestinian and Israeli musicians.  At one of the last festivals that was arranged in the area, musicians from Egypt and Palestine refused to attend if Israeli musicians were invited.  The festival organizers chose to comply with the demands of the Arabs and so the reactions from the Israeli side were unanimous («You`re a bunch of nazis»). The Arab music world on the other hand, would also evidently welcome a total cultural boycott of Israel.

A session called «limits of free expression» gave examples of Mexican and Italian authorities trying to come to grips with «underground» music gone popular: The Mexican corridos associated with the drug-business and Italian songs associated with the Mafia.  The music, as was demonstrated at the conference, was sweet, almost folkishly naive, but the lyrics were another story altogether, brutal, violent and gloryfying the bussiness.  Both authorities and artists, however, seem slightly ambivalent.  Said one corrido bandleader after Mexican authorities had banned their song critizising president Fox: «I would have banned it too if I were the president.»

The Afghanistan session was a mixed experience.  While bringing together musicians in exile and Afghan musicians who had stayed home during the Taliban regime, the panel was top-heavy with representatives of the latter group who all seemed to condone the new regime and the presence of the international society.  Be that as it may, their reluctance to answer questions relating to the total lack of women in music and media as well as the ethnic diversity of the country, left this listener with the impression that the music scene in the new Afghanistan may not be as free as we were being told.

But the situation under Taliban was pure horror in comparison.  Whereas music has always been an important part of Islam and censorship rules have been muddy, the only form of musical expression allowed during Taliban was unaccompanied chanting.  Musical instruments were forbidden and destroyed, musicians got their fingers and even hands cut off and there were no public performances at all.  Still today, there`s a lack of musical infrastructure to meet with the growing demands of the Afghan people; poor distribution, few media outlets, no education and almost no venues.

If the Afghanistan panel was confusing, the session on South Africa was both interesting and touching.  It was the story of a South African protest singer and the security branch policeman assigned to end his career.  The whole story was also told in the 54-minutes film «Stopping the Music» which got a special screening outside the conference.

Roger Lucey is a white, South African protest singer who dared to challenge the injustice of the apartheid system through his songs.  He encouraged his colleagues and his audience to «stop singing Bob Dylan texts and start singing about our own reality.»  When he became very popular the security police intervened.  The film, which was shot in post-apartheid South Africa, as well as the panel during the conference, focused on the relationship between Lucey and the policeman assigned to stop him, Paul Erasmus.  They each described and explained their experiences of the dirty tricks campaign waged against Lucey.  Having individually explored their past during the shooting of the film, they agreed to meet each other for the first time on camera in the very hotel where Erasmus used to celebrate his successful campaigns, including some of those against Lucey.

The film and the panel was ultimately a story of reconciliation in a country once torn apart by severe racial and ideological conflicts and offered a moving insight into the cathartic process of facing up to one`s past.  But the session was not without humorous aspects.  Music producer and publisher David Marks explained that political consciousness was very low, both among white South Africans and among visiting artists.  Some of the artists playing the famous «Sun City» resort in the seventies and eighties did not even understand that they were actually in South Africa.  As for the South Africans themselves, Marks illustrated his point by telling the following story:

Once upon a time in the 1970ies, Boney M, the popular black soul-pop-disco group of that era, visited South Africa.  They did not at all like what they witnessed.  Some time after, they attended the MIDEM festival in Cannes, the record industry`s annual get-together.  At MIDEM they ran into a white, female South African record producer and started questioning and almost harassing her about the political situation in her country.  The producer, obviously baffled by the hostility of the musicians, gave the best answers she could.  But this was not doing it for Boney M, and at a certain point one of the musicians screamed: «But when are you guys going to release Nelson Mandela?»  Whereupon the producer, evidently slightly confused, replied: «Yes, well – what label is he on?»

Paul Erasmus «turned» in the late eighties.  He himself became a security risk and was persecuted by his own colleagues.  In his opinion, this was part of the white regime`s strategy in their negotiations with the ANC – they needed to give the impression that they were serious.  Whatever aspect you choose – the South African reconciliation process is something to be studied by other countries as well as ethnic and political groups in and areas of war and conflict.

There were other sessions equally interesting, if not that moving.  During «The Logic Behind Music Censorship», the «logic» of conservative interpretations of music in Islam was explained by Jonas Otterbeck of the University of Malmø, Sweden, as the «fear of music as a competing source for passion and pleasure.»  Music, according to Islamic hard-liners, is useless.  Instead of giving praise to Allah and learning about Islam, musicians engage in useless and sometimes harmful activities.  And this, then, becomes the crucial issue: The presumed power of the music.  Music is seen as a competitor for the passion of humans.  That is the «logic» behind the hard-liners attitude and, consequently, music censorship in parts of the Islamic world.

During a session on Cuba, a Cuban anthropologist now reciding in USA, tried to «explain» censorship as part of a deeper logic which had nothing to do with censorship imposed by authorities.  She was paired in the panel with Gorki Luis Aguila Carrasco, a musician from the band «Porno para Ricardo», one of Cubas most censored groups.  In spite of the fact that their band-posters are red with the good old hammer and sickle, their CDs contain warnings and in reviews and newpaper articles journalists change the band-name in order not to provoke readers and authorities.  They simply go too far.  But this is Cuba today, seemingly more tolerant, but according to Carrasco they fool you.  The communist party tries to influence young musicians, censorship is heavy and, in short, «everything is being monitored.»  Nobody speaks their own opinions in public, there are rules for all public expressions and performances and, last but not least, everybody should abide by the «fact» that «the Cuban government takes care of your happiness.»  So, where is the deeper logic?

There were still other sessions, discussions and speakers, but this is what I was able to cover.  The program was packed with an impressive list of speakers and important themes, enough to fill more than the two days that the conference lasted.  So, the next time around, we may very well spend a full week in Copenhagen.  Sadly enough, music censorship will not go away, at least not in our time.

A complete report from the conference will be available in February 2003.  Meanwhile, check out the organisation Freemuse at www.freemuse.org.

Carl Morten Iversen