By Noam Ben-Zeev
ISTANBUL – A Cuban ensemble whose members wear masks for fear of the regime and perform in shorts so friends and relatives can identify their legs; the Zimbabwean communications minister who broadcasts only his songs and jingles on the radio and television; Turkish and Afghani musicians who were persecuted, imprisoned and tortured; religious fundamentalists from Hezbollah who use music to attract supporters and diminish fears of a theocracy, and many other subjects were discussed at the third annual Freemuse world conference in Istanbul last month.
Freemuse is the only organization focused on the fight against censorship of music all over the world. It seeks to defend musicians’ right to freedom of speech and gives them an opportunity to air their voices.
Some 2,400 years ago, Plato wrote the following in “The Republic”: “Let our artists, rather, be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region, and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.” Plato wrote this as part of a discussion on good and bad musical tempi, musical intervals that destroy children’s souls, appropriate and inappropriate scales from an ethical perspective, as well as forbidden musical instruments.
It seems that the discussion and its conclusion, that it is necessary to supervise the music in the republic, reflect a universal picture of a balance of power between a regime and the musicians in a society, a picture which the Freemuse conference revealed has changed little since the days of antiquity. Musicians still represent the essence of the threat to every regime wherever it may be, and the regime is willing to allow them to create only according to designated criteria.
It was only natural for the conference organizers to kick off the events with a session on Afghanistan, the topic that closed the previous conference four years ago in Copenhagen. At the time, Afghani musicians who had survived the reign of the Taliban testified about what happened in their country only a year earlier: antique instruments were destroyed and because of the total ban on hearing or engaging in music, people would meet in unpopulated areas and exchange tapes, as if they were dealing drugs. Mangled tapes with their reels hanging from treetops in prominent locations were a common site – a warning of what would happen to those who listened to them. A rich and ancient musical tradition faced the danger of extinction.
Exiled DJ Shakeb Isaar, 23, and Prof. Mirwaiss Sidiqi, the head of the new Aga Khan Academy of Music in Kabul, attest today that the situation has improved slightly. But the ugly scars on Isaar’s legs, arms and back prove that the violence continues. He fled his country and today appears on a television show in Sweden, where he received political asylum. “Millions of my countrymen aged 14 to 30 are my audience, they support me and for them I perform.”