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Cut out the music!

The music industry, rather than clergy or governments, has become the biggest censor. Greed rules, and labels are overanxious not to offend the paying consumer. So they end up stifling music that challenges conventions and seeks to change things

Smashed hits:
The Book of Banned Music
Index on censorship

Edited by Ursula Owen, Marie Korpe, Ole Reitov
Issue 6/Nov-Dec 1998, produced in collaboration
with the Danish Centre for Human Rights

9.99 dollars (US)

Index on Censorship is published every two months. It has correspondents in various countries (India included) and documents acts of censorship. Published from London by a non-profit organisation, it provides a forum for banned writing as well. Index on Censorship's issue titled Smashed Hits focuses on music censorship.

Music is widely thought to be apolitical. It is not. It can suggest political meaning, provoke rebellion and give voice to anti-government feeling. As with literature, so with music: governments and religious leaders are the quickest to take offence.

Music is slightly more difficult to ban than literature. Its abstractness often makes it that much more opaque. But again, when the lyrics cannot be faulted, governments raise the question of 'good taste', which they decide often decide with the help of a likeminded judiciary. As Index editor-in-chief Ursula Owen and her colleagues say, "music censorship is alive and well, in many places and under many guises".

But more than governments and clergy, the market economy is now the villain. As the editorial says, "For the majority of the world the music censorship they experience now, unlike notorious occasions in the past, is not generated by intolerant governments, bigoted religions or overzealous consumer watchdogs. The bodies that seek to exclude radical new music, political music that challenges convention that seeks to change things, base their decisions on greed. The biggest censor is the music industry itself, and its sole criteria is cash". Labels are oversensitive to public criticism and axe music that could offend paying consumers.

The Christian right has consistently opposed rock. Islamic regimes in Iran and Sudan have their own anti-music strictures. The Nazis used brute force to put down the music of the Jews. They promoted composers like Wagner, who wrote an essay claiming the Jews were incapable of composing any original music. (An outcome has been that Wagner cannot be performed publicly in Israel today).

The Soviets insisted on "progressive" music, by which they meant cheerful, march-like tunes, and denounced as decadent anything that sounded sombre. Vande Mataram is perhaps the most controversial song in Indian history, again because it suggests different political meanings to different groups. Neighbouring China fears "spiritual pollution" by Western pop groups.

Smashed Hits carries an interview with Ashkenazi, the celebrated Russian pianist and composer, who describes how music in Soviet Russia was generously funded but also closely monitored and controlled. Gerard McBurney recounts the unhappy life of the composer Shostakovich through Stalinist repression, World War II and later.

Camille Paglia, a Philadelphia academic who writes and lectures on Madonna, admires the pop star for being at the forefront of the challenge to the American right, and affirms that many of her songs are wonderful music -- "straightforward, emphatic, mainstream pop".

Jello Biafra's rap song Ban Everything is a satirical statement against censorship. Rahimullah Yusufzai believes music will survive the Taliban in Afghanistan. He takes a truck ride on difficult desert terrain and is reassured to find the driver play a love song on his stereo, saying, "How can one live without music?" Reports from Nigeria and Tanzania also point to the stifling of popular voices. The BBC reportedly blanked out "unpatriotic" songs during the Falklands war.

Julian Petley, in her overview, says, "Music has power. As a means of communicating dissent it has few competitors, and it binds as tightly as any other cultural ties". A great deal of research has gone into Smashed Hits. What it offers is a hard-to-come-by compilation of facts about music censorship. This is an issue musicians and activists will treasure. Writers and Scholars International has also brought out a CD of banned music to accompany this issue. The friend who gave me this issue to review didn't get the CD; she fears it was lost somewhere along the way.

Yehudi Menuhin was a supporter of Index's efforts. Wole Soyinka and host of other artistes and writers too stand by it. S R Ramakrishna

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