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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
on Censorship. £8.99.
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