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Smashed Hits
Music and censorship or the tunes you didn't hear....

By Andrew Jack

MOSCOW, 11 December 1998 - If the arrest of Augusto Pinochet in Britain in October refreshed unpleasant recollections of the hideous human rights' abuses of his dictatorship in Chile, the latest issue of the bi-monthly magazine Index on Censorship brings to mind a more subtle but equally damaging form of thought-control: the manipulations surrounding the composition and performance of music.

Entitled Smashed Hits, the publication's theme for November-December concentrates on one of the most long-standing but least explored targets of censors through the ages. From the condemnation of the use of specific intervals by Plato to the murder of the Berber singer Lounes Matoub in Algeria in June 1998, music has come under fierce attack.

But while other forms of censorship are regularly analysed, music has long been neglected as a focus for study - while being, in the perhaps debatable view of the editors of Index, the most censored of all art forms. The magazine's choice coincides with the first world conference on music and censorship in Copenhagen at end of November, and a concert of banned classical music in London during the same month.

There are some striking examples from around the world included in the issue. Many of the most eloquent articles come from the musicians themselves. Take the case of Mstislav Rostropovitch, for example, who was persecuted along with his soprano wife Galina Vishnevskaya after writing an open (and never-published) letter to the Soviet press in 1970 supporting Alexander Solzhenitsyn and offering him place in his dacha.

Allowed to leave the former Soviet Union in 1974 and stripped of his citizenship four years later, he was denounced in a cowardly article by Russian nationalist Igor Shafarevich, who said the musician had left the country of his own free will and that he like his fellow exiles had obviously "failed to act as they should" in order to be thus punished.

In an impassioned if immodest response, Rostropovitch replies: "There is so much I could do for my country if only they would give me my 'musical freedom' without 'cutting me down to size'. ... Physically one can bear almost anything ... But this is possibe only when there is a chance of fulfilling one's dream in the future. ... My wife and I ... did not leave because we did not have enough love at home, or recognition, comfort or money. .. We left only to fulfil our musical aspirations."

But Smashed Hits does not simply concentrate on historical examples. Indeed, one of the weaknesses of the issue is that the Russian examples cited are all rather dated with no effort to identify post-Soviet equivalents. But in other countries it highlights far more recent cases, including an interview with the Umit Ozturk, whose songs are banned in his native Turkey because they are in the forbidden language of Kurdish.

Or there is a striking description of the Talibans who have banned music in war-torn Afghanistan, and whose road-blocks are designed not just to eke out weapons but also recordings of anything other than certain religous chants. Gutted black and brown plastic innards of confiscated cassettes hang like streamers hanging from poles and trees alongside the roadsides of the country.

Yet, as the editors stress, modern censorship of music is for the majority of the world not engineered by intolerant governments but by other rather more subtle forces. While distasteful, the Nazi's ban on jazz as part of its "ordinance against negro culture" is hardly surprising. But in some ways it is even more distasteful to learn that the genteel British Broadcasting Corporation banned "hot music" from America until 1956, and its modern founder Lord Reith said the Nazis had dealt appropriately with "this filthy product of modernity." Even today, it is under-represented on the BBC's airwaves.

The BBC was equally culpable of censorship during the Gulf War, when it distributed long lists to its local radio stations of tunes with even the faintest anti-war theme that should be treated with caution, while broadcasting its popular Radio One's Simon Bates' show directly from the Gulf to boost the morale of British troops.

There are some extraordinary ironies in the history of music censorship. Wagner was notorious for his anti-semitism, arguing that Jew musicians were capable only of imitating and not of creation. But the consequence today is that his music is still not publicly performed in Israel - and that the Israeli Philarmonic Orchestra has removed Bach's Passions from its repertoire, over the sensitivity of the subject matter that Jews are blamed for killing Christ.

One frustration with Index is the lack of any value judgements in the very different examples of censorship cited and their potential justifications, such as against racist song lyrics in Scandinavia. The only exception is a tongue-in-cheek piece by Yehudi Menuhin in favour of censorship against all kinds of muzak including police sirens that increasingly invade daily life.

Most articles are frustratingly short, and often seem a little too much like raw material gathered together without much research or journalism: it would be good to read some more reactions from those affected, and to hold some of the censors accountable in print for their actions.

There is a slightly pat off-handed condemnation of the music industry itself - producers and retailers alike - by several writers, arguing that the "sole criterion of cash" is responsible for much contemporary censorship. Yet they do little to explore or justify the assertion, true though it might instinctively seem.

The editors also include a compact disk in the publication containing examples of banned music from a secret recording of songs by imprisoned Tibetan nuns to "spasticus autisticus" by the disabled singer Ian Dury, banned by the BBC for fear of offending sensibilities. Sadly they provide little further information in the form of articles on most of the tracks in the magazine itself. But their efforts are nonetheless thought-provoking and praise-worthy.

Index on Censorship. £8.99.

Andrew Jack is the Moscow correspondent for the Financial Times and a member of the editorial board of Culturekiosque.com. He is the author of a new book entitled, "The French Exception" (London: Profile Book).

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