Category Archives: Editorials

Big Ideals and Puny Brains

About a month ago I made an editorial decision not to run a story. I’ve been kicking myself ever since. Toward the end of the 2007 Festival of Pan-African Music (Fespam) in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, news reports started leaking out that the organizers of the festival had housed pygmy musicians at the Brazzaville Zoological Park. National press organizations swooped in and zeroed in on the story as human rights activists started to circle with hackles raised and bared bloody fangs.

Here’s the story. The group of Baka musicians from the northeast forest region of Likouala, consisting of twenty individuals, including several women and a three-month old baby were given one tent- one tent for all of them to share – and herded into the capital’s zoo for the remainder of their stay. Other musicians were tucked away in nice, cozy hotel rooms. Left in the cold with the thirteen monkeys, two crocodiles and jackal, not to mention a horde of mosquitoes, the pygmies were basically left to their own devices like gathering their own firewood and cook for themselves. The kicker to this is that the pygmies became a photo opportunity for the tourists visiting the zoo.

Now the director of arts and culture for the Republic of Congo, Yvette Lebondzo didn’t see anything wrong with this. Her response to criticism was, "We lodged them in the park near running water and a forest simply because that will remind them of their usual surroundings – which is the forest." Bravo, Ms. Lebondzo, invite your musician guests to the big city, plant them in the dirt somewhere and make them homesick.

Ms. Lebondzo went on by saying, "I think our intention was noble toward our brothers who came directly out of the forest and have never seen a city." Never mind that at previous Fespam festivals the pygmy musicians had been treated to hotel rooms.

My favorite flunky commentary in this mess came from the zookeeper Jean Pierre Bolebantou of the Brazzaville Zoological Park who pointed out, "They were happy to find here an environment similar to what they knew in the forest. They have already shown us several medicinal plants." So, your guests behaved in a gracious manner even if you didn’t. Who would have thought such a thing possible!

Fortunately, the media attention and raging criticism over the story soon got the pygmies moved to a school putting an end to the story.

I chose not to run this story because it was so close to the end of the festival that by the time the story would have been posted the festival would have been over. I had another reason. News organizations like AP, Reuters, the New York Times and the BBC all ran this story, but ran no stories on the festival itself. I got a creepy feeling about it. It was one of those things where only the negative news gets on the news. Having wrestled with some cultural differences at the Fez Festival of Music in Morocco, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to be one more in the horde armed with a pitchfork over what is essentially a positive force in the Republic of Congo after years of war and strife, which is what Fespam is intended to be.

I was content to let the story settle into the dust, hoping that the festival’s shame would fade over time. While reading something unrelated to the pygmy story, another news bit caught my eye. It was the theme for this year’s Fespam – "Emancipation Music and Liberation Movements in Africa and the Diaspora." The ironic play between the theme and the pygmy fiasco hung heavy in the air around my office for weeks. I realized that I had to jump back on the bandwagon with all the other pitchfork bearers.

Now I’ll admit that the festival organizers might indeed have had the best of intentions for housing the musicians at the zoo, but they failed the first rule of hospitality about making guests feel at home. This means making your guests feel welcome at your home not recreating what you think is a facsimile of their home. Chances are that if you are not comfortable where you house your guests, your guests won’t feel comfortable either.

My other reason for taking up the pitchfork is the downright stupidity of such a blunder, considering the festival’s theme was based on emancipation and liberation. Somehow housing a bunch of indigenous people in a zoo seems the kind of thing a clueless American would do. Despite the best intentions, the thinking was small and that’s what really rubbed me the wrong way. I want to think that the director of Fespam, armed with a great theme and a spectacular lineup of musicians, would create an environment that pursued those big ideals.

Unfortunately, all this bad press has tainted this year’s festival, taking the focus away from emancipation and liberation in a land that desperately needs some good press. Maybe before the next festival they should house all the officials at the zoo.

Pygmies photo by Kate Eshelby, courtesy of The Rainforest Foundation UK.

Festival information at:


Thoughts About Censorship for Music Freedom Day 2007

With Freemuse’s global forum on censorship, Music Freedom Day 2007, right around the corner, I’ve been pondering over the idea of censorship. The idea of a banned musician is likely to conjure up an image of some frail songwriter holed up in a wretched apartment or hut with a battered guitar, afraid to make his or her way out onto the streets for fear of the secret police, whose mission it is to pick up and torture anyone who dares challenges the local government’s prevailing idea of public good. Now, the very notion of musical freedom denied or extinguished by means of decree or execution raises our hackles here in the West, but what does our own definition of freedom mean to the rest of the world?
 Freedom – there’s that peculiar word that pops up at almost every turn these days; the word that’s used as an impermeable protective shield for any idea, point of view or military action. But what does freedom really mean when it comes to music? For most, when we talk about censorship in music we tend to think in very clear lines between right and wrong, as in the pre-invasion religious leaders in Afghanistan who banned music altogether or Senegal’s attempts the past couple of years at censoring outspoken musicians.There’s the recent story about the Mujahideen Bajaur in Bajaur, Pakistan that has insisted that all public transportation drivers end the un-Islamic act of playing music on buses. There’s another story of a religious leader in West Bengal village of Kanupur, who has banned all music at home and in public performance.


Thomas Mapfumo, censored and hounded by the Zimbabwean government fled to the US, only to fear for his life when rumors spread about a murder plot when he chose to return to Zimbabwe. These stories slip in out of the public radar and most have an air of righteous indignation attached to them, as if we alone in the West are the arbiters of good and evil.

I think it’s become too easy for us to look at other governments with disdain in our flinty glares and our lips curled in disgust at their attempts to censor music and punish the musicians who are responsible when the current flow of freedom in the West is thready at best and often choked with illusive brands of censorship. What I struggle with as an American is the question – Is censorship ever right if I don’t like the message?

According to the United Nations’ Covenant on Civil and Political Rights I have the right "to hold opinions without interference" and "the right to freedom of expression." Now here’s the rub, I must in order to exercise these rights I have the responsibility to "respect the rights or reputations of others." It gets even trickier with a restriction on my rights as it applies to the "protection of national security or of public order, or of public health and morals."

That’s pretty vague language. Seen in a shaded light of the right or the left there’s plenty of elbow room in those words about the public good to censor just about anyone. So do we have the right to censor those whose message makes us cringe, that makes us want to riot, that makes us sick?

Some would respond with a resounding yes. The most familiar and obvious for the US was when media giant Clear Channel booted one song after another off their playlists after the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington under the guise of questionable lyrics. A spokesman for Clear Channel came out later and said that it wasn’t really banning songs, songs like Bob Dylan’s "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" but merely making the suggestion, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, that certain songs or lyrics were inappropriate considering the mood of the nation.

But Clear Channel wasn’t done. After Natalie Maines, a member of the country trio the Dixie Chicks, came out and made statements against the Iraq war and George Bush, the group’s songs all but disappeared from Clear Channel stations. For many Clear Channel listeners the company acted in the public good against the so-called traitors, while First Amendment proponents vilified Clear Channel management as corporate despots.

The tide has turned for the Dixie Chicks with a spectacular showing at the Grammy’s, while George W. Bush’s plummeting ratings on the Iraq seem to indicate a changed public opinion. Amazingly, a simple shift in public opinion over the span of two years turned traitors back into musicians. The odd aspect of this was it was a corporation working on behalf of a government that fueled its patriotic fan base to set up and implement the agenda of Clear Channel’s management. So under the guise of public good were Dixie Chicks detractors, who gathered to burn the group’s CD after Ms. Maines’s statement, wrong and now right because they’ve returned as fans and turned against the president’s war?

Let me give another example. In Sweden two members of a rap group are facing trial for hate speech because of the lyrics sung at the reggae festival Rotrock in 2006. Allegedly one of the group’s singers rapped the following lyrics:

"Everybody in Landskrona hates the police, and we will start a war against these pigs" (translated from "Alla i Landskrona hatar poliser och vi ska starta krig mot snuten").

Now Sweden hardly seems like a police state, where underground dissidents whisper to each other in dark alleys or where a riot might break out over tensions due to month-long paid vacations and national healthcare. No, Sweden hardly seems the place, but the courts are pursuing the two just the same under a vague charge of hate speech.

Now let me color the situation with some interesting information. According to Freemuse’s report, "A police patrol happened to be surveying their concert, and the officers gave in a report on the incident." If I were a naturally paranoid person when it came to the unchecked authority of the police, and I am, I would ponder how the police just "happened to be surveying the concert," and if they blandly "gave a report on the incident," or if they charged at prosecutors and the courts with demands that they nail these guys.

I couldn’t begin to tell you whether Emil ‘Emilush’ Göransson, 19, or Alexander ‘Caustic’ Nodbring, 22, were using their stage time to actually incite a war or merely posing as oppressed heroes against a fascist regime, if such a thing were possible for two white European kids, against the backdrop of a reggae festival. Maybe they were just attempting to sell some CDs to the disaffected, dissatisfied youth in the audience that clutch onto the nearest passing fad because it’s something to do on Saturday night and it will repulse their parents.

So, are the Swedish courts merely protecting its security force and public order against these two hate mongers? The better question might be – if the Swedish police continue down this path of "happening" on specific scenes, do they risk becoming the "pigs" these kids need to war against?

Now let’s take a look at reggae musician Beenie Man. United Kingdom police have been investigating the Jamaican singer for his violent, homophobic lyrics. In addition, he has been banned from the MTV Awards show in Miami and could very well lose his record deal with Virgin due to pressure from gay rights groups. Concert bookings in the US and the UK have all but labeled Beenie Man persona non grata, essentially putting an end to the man’s career. Similar artists like Elephant Man, Bounty Killer and Sizzla are also in the crossfire because of their anti-gay lyrics.

The censorship plot thickens when gay activist Peter Tatchell steps into the ring and advances a public endorsement for the criminal prosecution of Beenie man for lyrics, which Tatchell claims, call for or incite violence and hatred against gays.

Let’s just assume for sanity’s sake that Beenie Man is a big, fat jerk and a bigot for singing any song which glorifies violence against any person, but can song lyrics literally be a force of evil, requiring sanction, censorship and prosecution? Can a musician be guilty of creating a potential environment for a crime even though no crime has been committed?

I have, perhaps inelegantly, examined examples of corporate, government and social censorship and have played up both sides, failing to offer up some sort of definitive answer to any of them. I like to remind myself that people, cultures and governments are by their very nature ever evolving. The person who stood on the streets of Berlin in 1940 had to know that if they sung a couple bars of the Marseillaise it would earn them more than a fanny whacking. Now, in some European countries it’s legal to belong to the fascist party but against the law to be a Nazi. Likewise the person who stood up in a crowded room anywhere in the US during the Cold War and sang anything in Russian was bound for somebody’s investigative committee or worse. Now, you could book the official KGB choir to sold-out audiences if made a buck.

Yes, we are part and parcel of this every swirling mass of opposing political opinions, shifting forces and social dichotomies, but finding the right and true line of censorship is as effective as writing on water, because no matter your party, predilection or persuasion there’s someone out there with the what’s-new-and-groovy list from Wackyville that disagrees with you. But that doesn’t mean you have to buy the CD.

Freemuse’s site:


The Music Imperative

Every once in a while, when the international, national and local news aren’t quite enough to send me into a crazed frenzy, I wander over to the good folks to get a dose of the outrages of music censorship around the world. I know that there I’ll get the lowdown on the latest skirmishes between country music stations and the Dixie Chicks or updates on the American piano tuner Paul Larudee cooling his heels in a jail cell in Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport for his outrageous notion of tuning Palestinian pianos in Ramallah and Jenin.

Another story caught my eye detailing the Muslim extremists in Serbia ransacking the stage, equipment and instruments before the Balkanika Orchestra could perform, exhorting audience members with, “Brothers, go home, they are working against Islam here. This is Satan’s work.” An orchestra part of Satan’s work? Then there was the article on Osman Arabi of Lebanon, a composer and producer of
Dark Ambient music, being forced to sign papers ensuring government officials that he would no longer send or receive music considered “dark,” “harsh,” or “weird,” music seen as “satanic” and “offensive to people’s morals.”Pushing the whole theme over the top was the report on local Taliban leaders in
North Waziristan, Pakistan issuing a ban on all “un-Islamic” activities like listening to music. The kicker to this story was that the tribal leaders thought this was just the thing to smooth over infighting in the tribal agency. And these guys were serious, announcing that, “Any person committing these atrocities from Monday ( June 12, 2006) will be punished accordingly if spared by the government.” Happy thought, no?

I began to wonder about these attacks on music. When exactly did music become considered as an atrocity? When did it become so evil as to call out the moral police and officials to be publicly excoriated and be vilified as a perfidious force? Amongst many on the world scene today music has become something to fight and die over. There have always been, over course of history, those politically, religiously and socially motivated to squelch opposition by targeting the arts and music deemed unfit, evil or morally corrupting, but when did music become an atrocity? Mass murder, rape, ethnic cleansing and torture are all recognized by the United Nations as the instruments of atrocity, but how did a bunch of fanatics hook onto the idea that music in itself was an atrocity with so many other horrors laid in the hands of man?

Then I began to wonder if music was an essential part of man, a necessity and a human right. Can music be considered an imperative and does the banning of an imperative constitute an atrocity of its own? Some wouldn’t think music on the same scale as they would water, food and shelter, but is music not a human imperative too, so intertwined and intrinsic to our existence as to be on level with air? If we take a stand against genocide, rape, ethnic cleansing and torture, mustn’t we also take a stand against the banning of music? Is the censorship of music a sign of a culture’s deeper sickness and a symbol of other atrocities? How much of an imperative is music to a people?

When I was a kid, I had a girlfriend who belonged to a small, severely strict fundamentalist sect in which there was no singing, no dancing and no music, especially in the church’s service. Followers met in a tiny house where the preacher and his wife lived. I just assumed that the parishioners, being mostly from relatively poor families, wasn’t able to afford a piano or organ, therefore decided to forgo musical praises to God. The group was so staunchly severe as to prohibit any music or dance at all times and required all the women and girls to wear dresses and never cut their hair.

I considered what services at my church during Christmas and Easter would be like without the music or even what a regular Sunday would be without those familiar droning hymns and cringed. I’m sure I turned to my friend and said something, “No, really? You must sing something, perhaps hum a little.” She, very straight and certain, turned to me and said, “Singing and dancing are a part of the Devil’s work.” That took care of that conversation, and any personal ones that didn’t have to do with schoolwork.

I’ve always considered music an essential part of life on this planet. Music is used to lull babies to sleep, comfort children during a thunderstorm, drown out the prattling of disapproving parents, blot out the neighbor’s leaf blower, set the mood for the occasional intimate evening, entertain us as we sit in traffic while we sip our decaf lattes and mellow us out after a long day.

Music can be a collective rant, a come on, a protest or a solo in front of the mirror with a hairbrush. The way unwanted pop tunes heard over the sound systems in grocery or convenience stores get hard wired into the brain and torment us throughout the day must surely be a sign that music must have its own elemental properties and effects on the human brain. So what’s music’s worth? What does listening and
playing music really do to us?

To gauge music’s worth I hopped on the Internet and did a little research. I discovered that music is a health benefit. Recent studies have shown that music can reduce the human stress hormone cortisol, alleviating the stress in heart attack victims, serious injury patients and the every day folks suffering from overloaded circuits. Music therapy is currently being used in everything from lowing blood pressure to aiding in the anxiety of cancer treatment patients.

Studying music makes our children smarter, resulting in higher test scores, reducing behavior problems and the development of math and science skills. The National Education Longitudinal Study in 1988 found that students participating in music programs “received more academic honors and awards than non-music
students, and that the percentage of music participants receiving As, As/Bs, and Bs was higher than the percentage of non- participants receiving those grades.”

Another study by physician and biologist Lewis Thomas discovered that 66% of music students applying to medical school were admitted, far and beyond any other group of applicants.

The American Music Therapy Association has been working with a wide variety patients and illnesses, even getting involved in geriatric studies as more and more emphasis has been placed on reaching out to dementia and Alzheimer’s patients. Imagine being an elderly man or woman in a care facility, unable to
remember your family members or how to tie your shoe, but someone puts on a cut of Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher” and then suddenly you can remember the tune and lyrics.

Doctors and researchers are now promoting the learning to play an instrument, citing that the play and practice can keep the mind active and help stave off such illnesses. Music is starting to look more and more like a health imperative.

So, for all the religious bleaters and blatherers out there and the dictatorial thugs wanting to squash a musical rebellion how hard is it to erase the music? Well, let’s put it this way archaeologists in the Swabian Mountains of southern Germany recently discovered a 30,000 year-old flute carved from a ammoth’s
tusk. The three-finger holed flute is considered one of the oldest musical instruments found to date. The flute is bound for an exhibit on Ice Age music. Thirty-thousand years is a mighty long legacy to try and wipe out in an afternoon or two.

The recent book The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body by Steven Mithen, put out by Harvard University Press in March 2006, might just push the evolution of music back to early hominids who possibly “may have initiated the greatest musical revolution in human history.” Blending
musicology with neurology, anatomy and archeology, Mithen sets up his arguments about the evolution of man sure to turn any creationist or Taliban cleric inside out with rage.

So, what’s the basis in all this religious ferocity to music censorship? In the US, the early years of jazz saw politicians, moralists and preachers jump on the censorship wagons at the risqué wildness brought on by the intoxicating new genre. Later, the Big Bopper, Chuck Berry and Elvis, as well as every other rock ‘n roll act, were thought to be the usurpers of good character and sound living
by just about everyone over the age of thirty. (As a side note, there is a site called, based on the book Taboo Tunes A History of Banned Bands and Censored Songs, by Peter Blecha out on Backbeat Books that offers a gallery of posters and information on music censorship throughout history.)

Then there were the good old days of parents sitting hushed and tense around the record player listening to Beatles tunes backwards, trying to catch the outright pronouncements of devil worshiping. Heavy metal bands didn’t do themselves any favors with the occult images splashed across their album covers, but I couldn’t find a single reference to music being evil or considered an atrocity in any of the religious books and sites I searched. Several moderate Muslim sites noted that the prophet Muhammad makes no mention of the banning of music; that only later books, the Hadith and Sunna, both written 200 years after the death of the prophet, have been employed to censor music by current Islamic religious

Don’t get me wrong, I did find more than one site suggesting that rock music was the work of the Satan and would eventually lead to emotional instability, self-expression, sex and the abandonment of the sanctity of marriage. Even the Seventh-day Adventists came out with a philosophy of music, where they stated that, “Music that does not directly praise and adore God – so called “secular” music – has a legitimate place in the life of the Christian.” Hey, at least there’s one group out there saying it’s okay.

So is music an imperative? I’d like to think so. Music has soothed and saturated our collective history from the time we were able to walk upright. Music is good for us, makes our children smarter and has the ability with a good pair of headsets make the fool down the street with the jackhammer a faint memory.

Without music, at least half of our cultural, religious and historical heritage would be reduced to rotting papers and dull as dirt. Music is what we drown our sorrows in, collectively cheer for our favorite team with, express love and devotion with, rail against injustice with and soothe the savage beast in all of us. It is an imperative. But what of the fringe fanatics calling it an atrocity?
We might tell ourselves it’s just a few kooks out there calling music an evil, but if music is a human imperative are we not called to stand up against such, dare I say, atrocities? Unfortunately, there are more than just one or two fanatics out there willing to step on your music imperative for their own power trip in the name of whatever political position or religion they follow.

The question remains – do we stand by and watch another person’s music die? Is not the end of one person’s music a threat to the whole music imperative?


School Music Programs Going Corporate

According to a 2005 Harris poll regarding the importance of an arts education in American schools, 93 percent of the respondents agreed that arts programs were essential to a well-rounded education. Fifty-four percent of the respondents valued the arts a ’10’ in a 1-to-10 sliding scale in importance, putting the arts right up there with reading, science and math. Eighty-six percent believed studying music improved children’s attitude toward school. Eighty percent of respondents to a 2003 poll about arts education felt that studying music made children smarter.

This all seems fairly reasonable considering the research out there about the benefits of an arts education. Students with an arts education score an average 63 points higher in the verbal section and 44 points higher in the math sections than children with no arts programs according to the College Entrance Examination Board. Studies by researchers Frances Rauscher of the University of Wisconsin and Gordon Shaw of the University of California-Irvine point a marked 46 percent improvement in a child’s spatial IQ, skills essential in math, engineering and science problems, when there is an accompanying music education. Some educators and researchers go so far as to suggest a higher incident rate of discipline problems in a school setting with no or little arts programs.

Now imagine you are a school administrator armed with all the facts, figures and latest research on the benefits of a music education. Keep in mind the burden of the No Child Left Behind testing requirements that have your guts and your budget tied in knots. There’s the dozens of teachers you’ve been forced to let go, while you’ve got the rest of your teaching staff’s doing double duty as janitors. There’s the new requirement that each student bring a roll of toilet paper the first week so you can restock the school bathrooms. Meanwhile you did get your principals to help out by working as substitute teachers in between shooting incidents. Outside your window, you’ve got local news team coverage of the “no more taxes” crowd getting louder and louder, how are you, a lowly school administrator, going to get the money for an arts program? You’re going to go corporate, of course!

And you won’t be alone in the growing trend of corporate sponsorship of school programs. Take for instance the Hershey’s All-USA High School Band program that picks high school band students from around the country. There’s also the Yamaha 40th Anniversary Essay Contest offering monetary prizes and Yamaha wind instruments for their appreciation of the “educators and schools who have supported the company.” Catch that last phrase – “educators and schools who have supported the company.”

Slashing wages, doing away with non-essential positions and sacking teachers haven’t been enough for struggling school systems. The current trend forces school districts into making deals with the devil. “The devil?” you say, “That’s a bit strong.” Is it?

I’ve visited dozens of online music school sites and have noticed a disturbing number of logos attached to those sites – logos for companies such as JP Morgan Chase, MetLife, Bank of America, Pepsi Cola Company, General Electric, Jeep, Wells Fargo, Alltel and IBM. These are the more well-known, larger corporations, but there are others. The logos of small banks, local construction companies, automobile dealerships and many other types of businesses can also be found hidden along the bottom or outer edges of the sites or on the corporate sponsor pages of these music programs and schools.

So what the problem? If schools can’t afford to offer the music programs with their meager budgets, why shouldn’t they get the money from corporations?

I’ll tell you why. These businesses are selling something, and more likely than not, it’s not good will. Bank of America, Pepsi Cola, Wells Fargo and IBM want to sell you and your children a product or a program and it has little or nothing to do with charity, especially if they can sock their corporate logo on something like a website, a tuba, a band uniform or your kid’s forehead, while taking a tax writeoff at the same time. The money might be good, but it comes at a price. Do you really think that some school administrator has anything close to the experience of a passel of corporate lawyers to broker a deal that benefits the students more than it does for the corporate image? And what happens to the school that unwittingly fails to carry out the agreement between the school and the corporation? What if that corporation turns out to be a polluter, supports child labor in foreign countries or a campaign contributor to a “no publicly funded arts” candidate or worse?

Before you sell your kid’s education to McDonald’s, Microsoft or Benny’s House of Cheese, don’t you think you should ask yourself what you’re selling and what the corporation buying? Don’t forget it is great PR for the corporate newsletter when the company supports the local school’s music program, and those photo opportunities at Smallville High School’s annual musical revue are a priceless bit of business. Let’s face it, it’s a hell of a lot more glamorous wearing an evening dress and expensive jewelry to the latest charity benefit than it is to just pay your taxes.


Relief Information to Help Victims of Hurricane Katrina

Music Central
laments the disaster that has struck the southern states of
the United States.
Some of the poorest citizens of the
United States live in
Mississippi, Louisiana
and Alabama, a
land rich in American roots music culture.

American Red Cross
is leading the efforts to provide aid.
Catholic Charities USA is
collecting financial donations to help communities recover from the damage
brought on by Hurricane Katrina. Donations will be used to fund local Catholic
Charities agencies’ emergency and long-term disaster recovery efforts in areas
hit by the hurricane. To contribute to the Hurricane Katrina Disaster Relief
Fund call +1 (800) 919-9338 or send checks to: Catholic Charities
Hurricane Katrina
PO Box 25168
Alexandria, VA 22313-9788

Catholic Charities USA is unable to accept
contributions of food, clothing, blankets and other relief supplies. Our Tsunami
area has links to other charities that may provide relief. Go to:

Tsunami and earthquake relief

In this time of need, one should not
forget some of the reasons why many are now suffering. World Music Central
condemns the deficient planning and lack of concern for the poor during the
evacuation period. While citizens were asked to evacuate on their own, the state and Federal
governments did not take into consideration that many of the poor do not own
vehicles nor do they have money for bus fares or expensive gasoline. A country as wealthy, and with so
many resources, as the United
States could have easily commandeered school
buses and National Guard trucks to transport the poor to safer areas.

The libertarian attitude (small
government, let the market rule) of many government officials in the
United States is truly disgraceful. Their
mind-set of “you are on your own” shows an inhumane lack of concern and respect
for the less fortunate. Citizens should remember these individuals during the
next elections and hold them accountable. They should be booted out of office.

Other Hurricane Katrina stories:

Music Community Fundraises for Katrina

Orleans Music Club Looted

Concert for New Orleans Hurricane Victims in Toronto

Music TV Channels Announce Hurricane Katrina Relief

[Hurricane photo courtesy of NASA].


Musical Pollution: When You Stumble Upon Unwanted Music

Unwanted music has become an insidiously pervasive nuisance whenever one
ventures outside the home. It is ubiquitous and yet another overbearing
marketing scheme. In the United States, where residents are marketed from cradle
to the grave, annoying tunes bombard shoppers everywhere they go. The
problem is consumers are constantly assailed by music they don’t like or don’t
want. With over $244 billion being spent on advertising and in-store music in
2004, companies rely heavily on music as a marketing tool to be the feel-good
prop customers need to keep shopping. Imagine the average weekend. You get up on a Saturday morning and set off to
take care of some chores. You notice you are low on fuel, so you stop at the
gas station. While you pump, speakers attached to the metal overhang above the
pumps spout Nashville-factory country music. Every so often the wailings at the
pump are interrupted by commercials that invite you to walk inside in and shop.
You think, “Sure, I’ll go in and load up on a box of stale donuts, a couple
of bags of chips, an air freshener for the car and a giant Slurpee
.” According
to the Country Music Association,
41,893,000 adults listened to Country Radio stations nationwide every week (2002
data). What’s interesting is that they are probably including the numbers of
individuals who dislike the genre, but are force fed country music at different

As you get back in your vehicle, you realize you need a haircut so you go to a
unisex hair salon. The management, or the employees, have the radio blaring. It
is permanently tuned to that omnipresent soft rock format that one finds in
these businesses. Why they call it rock is a mystery. “There is no backbone!
Where’s the bluesy guitar?
” Your mind tries to tune out the songs that are
repeated ad nauseam. Artists like Elton John,
Phil Collins, Shania Twain, The Bee Gees, or Mariah Carey. You smile and engage
in polite chitchat, but what you are really thinking is “Make it stop!” Because you know if you hear “In The Air Tonight” one more time, you’ll throw
up. It’s a shame because at one time Elton John made some good recordings I

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
was a great album. Phil Collins was one of the
key members of Genesis,
one of the best progressive rock bands from the early 1970s, but that can hardly
matter when your ears are bleeding from hearing “Take A Look At Me Now” and “Sussudio” again and again.

Now that your hair looks nice, you enter the shopping mall to buy some
batteries. Once you cross the threshold, the instrumental earworms of smooth
jazz weave their way into your head. Again, you try to block it out. The format
is so limited and pathetic one would think that it would die out of sheer
boredom. But, no, some people actually like it and, thus, you are condemned to
smooth jazz hell if you shop at the mall. Unfortunately, smooth jazz sneaks into
other places like doctor’s offices, hospitals, elevators (remember
elevator music?), and
many other spaces.

What’s intriguing or perhaps frustrating is that smooth jazz is practically
dominated by a single company,
Broadcast Architecture
, another great gatekeeper. They have developed an
incredibly restrictive format, which is the reason why all smooth jazz sounds
the same. The company has partnerships that span 19 countries, 5 continents, and
some of the world’s biggest broadcasters: ABC Radio, Australian Radio Networks,
Bonneville International Corporation, Chrysalis Radio, Clear Channel
Communications, Entercom Communications, FM Japan, Globo Radio / Brasil,
Infinity Broadcasting, Lagardere Active Radio International, New Zealand Radio
Networks, RTL Radio Group, Radio One, SBS, Saga Communications, Sandusky Radio,
Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, and Univision.

The shopping mall has become a cacophony of unwanted music. You can encounter
all types of aggravating tunes. Doowop and 1950s oldies will wrap around you in
the dollar store, while the record dealers will overwhelm your senses with
whatever the major label hit factories are pushing.

Before Kenny G triggers diabetes, you run to your car and turn on the CD player.
You crank up the electronic beats and uilliann pipes of
Celt Sound System
and in a fit of revenge, you roll down your window so that
the mall rats will get a taste of something different.

As you drive home, you remember that your spouse asked you to get some milk at
the grocery store. You walk in and, yet again, the soft rock tunes are haunting
the premises. You promise yourself to spare the torture by bringing the Walkman
or iPod next time.

There are times when unexpected music in public places is actually pleasant.
There is a beautiful complex of volcanic caves and pools in the island of
Lanzarote (Canary Islands). As
you walk along a dimly lit natural volcanic pond, local artists have programmed
soothing ambient electronic music. The volume is low and the effect is
hauntingly beautiful. But that is not common. Other examples are ethnic
restaurants. Doesn’t it make sense to play Moroccan music at a Moroccan
restaurant, at a discreet volume? Sure it does.

You can fight back against corporate musical gatekeeping by filing complaints at
the customer service desks or toll-free phone lines. You can also suggest that
if stores want to please customers, maybe they should play something soothing,
like the sounds of brooks, waterfalls, or surf. Some consumers are also starting
guides that list businesses and restaurants that play annoying music. Or you can
simply carry your personal music player.

Further reading:

Read our editorial about unwanted Christmas music:
Bye Bye
Santa Baby


Lost Without Translation

Something rank and insidious has crept onto the world music scene recently and it’s coming from the reputable weekly journal Time Magazine. The foul scat littering Time’s pages is coming from music critic Josh Tyrangiel. In his March 21, 2005 music review, Mr. Tyrangiel titled his piece “Five Great Albums With Foreign Accents.” Not too bad, right? Well, he subtitled the piece, “These women span the globe – but they don’t need subtitles.” Still, not offensive enough to make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But wait. Here’s Mr. Tyrangiel’s opening paragraph:

The problem with world music is that it’s usually impossible to understand the lyrics (although that hasn’t kept Lil Jon from having a successful career). But if you want to enjoy one upside of the global economy, here are five albums by international women with something to say–in English, but with distinctive pronunciation.”

Now I don’t know if Mr. Tyrangiel has become the cultural attaché for the Minutemen Project posted along the Arizona/Mexico border or if he’s sucking up to United Nations ambassador nominee John Bolton, but this isn’t his first stab at cultural inanity. In an August 30, 2002 article in Time Magazine, titled “Top Five Moments at MTV’s VMA” and subtitled “The highlights of a night of self-promotion, weirdness and general stupidity according to music critic Josh Tyrangiel” he wrote of Shakira:

She’s Colombian and her English flows like a Berlitz tape. But no one was looking at Shakira’s mouth last night. With four inches of premium leather stretched magically over the expanse of her backside, Shakira jiggled through the four minutes of her mini-hit Objection like a modern Charo. Jennifer Lopez’s ass had no comment.”

It’s no wonder that Mr. Tyrangiel is part and parcel to the mainstream media with his English obsessive, puerile commentary given the growing trend of fast food style McMusic and McCulture.

I’m not so sure that Mr. Tyrangiel should be taken so seriously as a critic considering he’s the proud owner of Bully Magazine’s Horseshit in Journalism Award,, for an article he wrote for Time Magazine on U2’s Bono or the slam he got in the Harvard Independent for creepy remarks about the university

It isn’t that Mr. Tyrangiel espoused his preference for English lyrics that bothered me. He’s entitled to his own opinions. What offends me is this passes for American opinion abroad. I’m not a subscriber to Time Magazine, so I had to search online for the entire article, which I found in the European version of the online magazine. There it was, free for all to see. People around the world reading that article must have sighed and rolled their eyes, thinking here’s another American who can’t speak another language or can’t be bothered to read the English translation of the lyrics in the liner notes.

I looked up Shakira’s website and discovered her thoughts about her bilingual lyrics. Her comments:

I did not set out to make two albums when I began the writing process but suddenly I realized I had written sixty songs, some in English and some in Spanish. Twenty of these songs were selected and divided up by language to make two different albums.” As Shakira lives a bilingual life, it is no surprise that the songs were written in two languages. She explains, “As I write songs, some times they come to me in English and some times they will come to me in Spanish. Many times I let the melody suggest which language the song should be.”

I don’t know if Mr. Tyrangiel is one of those paranoid Americans afraid of untranslated lyrics like “kill the white man,” or is one of those tyrannical hotheads who thinks that English and America is good enough for them and good enough for everybody else, but I do know that to force the world’s music to be compatible to American ears is just plain idiotic.

What Mr. Tyrangiel and others like him don’t understand is singers, dancers, musicians, writers and other artists exist in their own countries all around the world and sometimes they sing just for themselves. They sing their own songs in their language, not for Americans, but for their own people. The polite Americans, and they do exist, will listen to a song and revel in the joy, sorrow and love expressed in a language that isn’t theirs and enjoy it just the same. This exchange is meant to be a cross-cultural sharing and it will never work as long as there is a Mr. Tyrangiel out there whining and stomping his foot like a two-year-old and his English only ears.

[Shakira’s photo courtesy of Sony Music].


Singing For Your Supper

As I am writing this, on the eve of the March 31st parliamentary elections in Zimbabwe, the tunes playing over the airwaves there are as tainted as the strong-armed tactics of Robert Mugabe’s government. Zimbabwe’s music and politics are coming from the same place – a corrupt regime bent on retaining power at all costs, even if that means hijacking the airwaves, the styling of catchy political jingles by propaganda minister Jonathan Moyo and pimping popular musicians for votes.

A few musicians like Andy Brown and Chiyangwa, known as Tambaoga, have cozied up to the Mugabe’s Zanu-PF (Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) and sung for their supper praising Mugabe’s policies on the government controlled radio stations. But Andy Brown’s “Siyalima” (We Are Farming) and Chiyangwa’s recent song attacking Britain’s Tony Blair have had the opposite effect for both musicians, marking them as Zanu-PF toadies and have resulted in plummeting record sales and popularity. Gospel artist Elias Musakwa has suffered the same fate with his CD lauding the Mugabe regime.

Another popular Zimbabwean musician, Oliver Mtukudzi, has been in trouble with fans over his song “Totutuma” (We Are Boiling) after it was used in a Zanu-PF campaign ad. Outrage over the use of the song and threats of a boycott prompted Mtukudzi to come out with a statement vowing that he is not a Zanu-PF supporter. He also responded that an invitation to sing to a private group that was filmed and distributed as part of a Zanu-PF event was done without his knowledge or permission. He also stated that the use of “Totutuma” in a Zanu-PF event was done without his permission. In his statement Mtukudzi states, “As a musician, I have been appalled that the Government has used its monopoly of the airwaves to restrict airplay of artists who they see as unsupportive of its policies. People who do not promote government’s image are often seen as being enemies of the government and attempts are made to silence them or undermine their careers. This is a gross abuse of human rights, so many of which have been violated in order to secure government’s grasp on power.”[Read Mtukudzi’s entire statement here].

The situation in Zimbabwe is such that suspicion and fear abounds, where musicians like self exiled Thomas Mapfumo aren’t officially banned, but just not played on Zimbabwean radio- ever. Musicians are forced to walk a fine line and self censor. Oliver Mtukudzi understands that fine line when a lighting technician was arrested after in a 2000 concert for spotlightng a picture of Mugabe as Mtukudzi sang his “Wasakara” that translates to “You are worn out.” Mtukudzi claims there is no political motivation to the song and fans are free to interpret the song as they wish, but there is an uncomfortable wink-wink-nudge-nudge to everything in Zimbabwe right now.

Towing the Zanu-PF line has been profitable for some with the Mugabe government supporting musicians by offering money and recording studios. The downside is of course brutal as Tambaoga found out when he was assaulted by opposition MDC (Movement for Democratic Change) fans. Boycotts, lagging record sales and general disgust might sway the opinion of some of these musicians, but as long as the Mugabe government is holding out the purse there are sure to be others willing to sing his praises.

The question I come back to in all of this is when you’re forced to sing for your supper does it really matter what the entrée is? I am the first to step up and express outrage over any censorship in any of the arts. As an American, thousands of miles away, is it my place to shame musicians supporting the Mugabe government? And isn’t my criticism of these musicians a form of censorship? Do I have the right to criticize musicians in the midst of poverty, AIDS, election scandals, food shortages and daily threat of violence who are just trying to make a living and feed their families?

Of course it is possible that the sentiments of these pro-Mugabe musicians are heartfelt, just as much as the commitment of the people at white power Panzerfaust Records are devoted to putting out songs such as “Commie Scum.” (Bet the folks at Panzerfaust Records never thought they’d be mentioned in the same sentence as a bunch of Africans!) In no way shape or form do I support Robert Mugabe and his swath of terror power trip across Zimbabwe, but at the same time I won’t condemn any musician for expressing his or her point of view. In the end is it right and proper to kill the message for the song or the song for the message?

[Photo 1: Andy Brown; photo credit: Thomas Dorn; Photo 2: Thomas Mapfumo].


Oh, Danny Don’t

I imagine more than a just few people will be waking up the day after St. Patrick’s Day still wearing-‘o-the-green, of course it might just be the deathly pallor of a mean hangover, the green fuzz they shave off their tongues or the fact they were too drunk to change their underwear.

Possessing Irish ancestors myself, I didn’t feel the need to sexually harass others with a cute button saying, “Kiss Me I’m Irish” nor did I cook up a batch of corned beef and cabbage. I didn’t hit the local watering hole, dressed up in its shiny paper renditions of shamrocks and sappy leprechauns hovering over pots of gold, and drink myself silly, raising glass after glass to my ancestors until dyed green beer came out my nose. I didn’t even bother to wear green for day figuring my green eyes would have to do.

When St. Patrick’s Day rolls around every year the last thing I want to admit is that I’m Irish. I blame the blarney bullshit that oozes out at every turn of the radio and television dial from the late night local news coverage of the stuporific, drunken Irish bash being held a local bar to the cheesy, slap-happy jigs that accompany email greeting cards. I’m one of the few embarrassed by the shameful come-ons to get me to shop for my yearly dose of heritage as I am at the spate of radio jokes done in broken brogue about the stereotypical Irish drunk. The most disturbing of this once-a-year Irish mania has to be the music. I can only imagine that it’s standard operating procedure come March to send the newest intern into the basement to haul out the dusty bin labeled ‘St. Patrick’s Day music.’ Some of the worst produced, cliché bits of Irish garbage make it on the airwaves come St. Patrick’s Day in some lame, inept attempt at the portrayal of a cultural identity. Sometimes I wonder if fall-down drunkenness is the only answer to some of the downright rotten stuff they play to evoke the Emerald Isle.

Now before you party hardy, wearing-‘o-the-green bunch of Irish diehards get your knickers in a knot – comb your hair, pick that stringy piece of corned beef from between your molars, wipe the dried drool from your chin and listen up. A man from Buffalo, New York named Chauncey Olcott wrote the lyrics to “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and set those lyrics to music written by Ernest Ball – another American. And I’ll bet you didn’t know that while you were crying into your overpriced Guinness Stout that the lyrics to “Danny Boy” were written by an English lawyer named Frederic Edward Weatherly around 1910. He set lyrics to the tune “Londonderry Air” and published a revised version of the song in 1913. It’s suspected that Weatherly never set foot in Ireland. Two of the most overused songs denoting St. Patrick’s Day didn’t come from Ireland.

Let’s set aside the political implications of Weatherly’s penning what is considered in America the quintessential Irish ballad and the state of affairs in English-occupied Northern Ireland. This isn’t about politics as such but musical cultural illiteracy running amok. So, do you know what Ireland’s national anthem is? “Londonderry Air” and “Amhrán na bhFiann” are the national anthems of Northern Ireland and Ireland respectively, although “Londonderry Air” is only considered locally the anthem because Northern Ireland is still part of Great Britain. The point of this is Americans have been sold a false cultural identity. As horrific as it sounds, some Americans when asked probably think “Hava Nagila” is the national anthem of Israel and “Guantanamera” is the national anthem of Mexico.

Someone recently told me that a Mexican man expressed confusion over the recent American interest in the holiday Cinco de Mayo. He found it odd that Americans had no clue about the importance of Mexico’s Independence Day, but would haul out all the old, tired renditions of “La Cucaracha” and advertise Margaritas and Tequilla shots for Cinco de Mayo, a holiday the Mexicans themselves don’t really celebrate.

How is the rest of the world expected to take us seriously when we can’t even get holiday music right? In an age dominated by lowest-common-denominator advertising blitzes, I’m not expecting that we culturally get it right every time, but how is it possible that we could get it so wrong? Americans are the first to point out when others get it wrong whether it’s politics, culture or family values, but Americans are all too willing to accept cultural illiteracy for the sake of tradition and a good marketing campaign. Passing along a hokey musical version of a culture to our children along with two-for-one drink specials and goofy hats doesn’t make us cute – it makes us stupid.

Makes you wonder what an Overthrow Saddam Day will look and sound like, doesn’t it? Don’t worry you have time to learn the Baghdad Shuffle or the Kirkuk Kick before they start serving the Karbala Kamikazes and the Itty Bitty Tikriti Martinis.


Dumbing Down, the Dwindling Funding of the Arts

Recently, I received in the mail a request for a donation to a children’s softball league. The problem with this request is that it came from California and I don’t live anywhere near California. I can only guess that the mistake was a result of some person thinking that NC stood not for North Carolina but Northern California.

Along with the request for cash, the letter also offered a phone number for any items I might want to donate to for their upcoming super-duper auction, with all the proceeds going to fund the softball league. The darker part of my nature desperately wanted to spend the money on a long distance phone call and actually see if I could arrange a pick up for a couple of unused household items for their auction.This do-it-yourself community initiative to save a softball league prompted some serious thought about the dwindling funding for the arts and our national cultural identity and whether that identity is disappearing. Is that all it takes, a nationwide auction of bad gifts and piled up junk in our garages and attics, or better yet a full-scale, star-studded telethon, save music education in our public schools?

Everyone has heard the stories, those quickie reports on the local news, announcing the demise of yet another music or art program in our public schools. These reports have become so common and numerous, it fails to inspire the necessary outrage these reports deserve and instead prompts only a momentary stab of guilt and remorse for the loss of what was for some of us the best part of the day in our early education. So how bad can it be? Has the homecoming halftime show at the local high school been replaced by a Brittany Spears video or has our national anthem been out sourced to a Bhangra group from Bangalore via satellite?

Let me throw down some numbers. According to the National Education Association (NEA) website, the Durham School System in my home state did away with 112 mostly teaching or teaching assistant positions. California eliminated 3,000 experienced teachers and another 9,000 in support staff. You can guess that none of these positions came from the math or science departments, and considering the rah-rah mentality of the US, probably only a few came from the high profile sports like football or basketball. Now in Yonkers, New York the education system, in hot pursuit of better test scores, was more egalitarian in cutting 233 teaching positions in athletics, as well as the arts and music departments – that’s 233 teachers from one city. I’ve given just three examples of the changing face of arts education for one county, one state and one city, and that’s 12,345 teaching and support staff positions. To come up with a complete tally of the damage done to music education, and arts in general, across the country must be so staggering as to be considered downright obscene.

It doesn’t stop there. In Milwaukee, the Westside Academy might actually be forced to return the $25,000 grant from VH1’s Save the Music program because there’s no full-time music teacher for the piano lab. In the Ipswich Public Schools, plans have been made to cut the school’s fine arts department by eliminating the director of the program, the accompanist for the choral program, funding for all musical instruments and the instrumental program for all elementary public schools.

One Ipswich high school senior, Reeve Pierson, calculated the participation in his school and found that out of 629 students 445 participated in the music and art programs. Some communities are indeed fighting back with the auction idea and bake sales to save art, music and other programs in their schools, but exactly how many blueberry muffin sales does it take purchase a saxophone, I wonder.

Being on the slick side of this slippery slope doesn’t mean that Americans are ignorant of the benefits of music education. In a nationwide Gallup poll in 2003, 95% of Americans questioned felt that music education was essential to education and 80% responded that music education made a child smarter. Here’s some real proof:

“Students with coursework/experience in music performance and music appreciation scored higher on the SAT: students in music performance scored 57 points higher on the verbal and 41 points higher on the math, and students in music appreciation scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on the math, than did students with no arts participation”. — College-Bound Seniors National Report: Profile of SAT Program Test Takers. Princeton, NJ: The College Entrance Examination Board, 2001

“Secondary students who participated in band or orchestra reported the lowest lifetime and current use of all substances (alcohol, tobacco, illicit drugs).” — Texas Commission on Drug and Alcohol Abuse Report. Reported in Houston Chronicle, January 1998

“A study of 237 second grade children used piano keyboard training and newly designed math software to demonstrate improvement in math skills. The group scored 27% higher on proportional math and fractions tests than children that used only the math software.“
Graziano, Amy, Matthew Peterson, and Gordon Shaw, “Enhanced learning of proportional math through music training and spatial-temporal training.”Neurological Research 21 (March 1999).

“According to statistics compiled by the National Data Resource Center, students who can be classified as “disruptive” (based on factors such as frequent skipping of classes, times in trouble, in-school suspensions, disciplinary reasons given, arrests, and drop-outs) total 12.14 percent of the total school population. In contrast, only 8.08 percent of students involved in music classes meet the same criteria as “disruptive.” — Based on data from the NELS:88 (National Education Longitudinal Study), second follow-up, 1992

“A research team exploring the link between music and intelligence reported that music training is far superior to computer instruction in dramatically enhancing children’s abstract reasoning skills, the skills necessary for learning math and science.” — Shaw, Rauscher, Levine, Wright, Dennis and Newcomb, “Music training causes long-term enhancement of preschool children’s spatial-temporal reasoning,” Neurological Research, Vol. 19, February 1997

Rather than debate the merits of tossing a ball against the skills learned through musical training, let’s agree that this discussion is dire. It comes down to making difficult choices. If “No Child Left Behind” or our ad nauseum, for-the-children mantra means anything and our local schools and communities are in trouble, relief to be found in state government at this point might be pointless. Consider the following:

  • *Thirty-six out of 57 states and territories in the US plan to slash funding for culture. Estimates suggest that funds will be reduced from $355 million to $274 million in the 2004 fiscal year according to Americans for the Arts.*
  • Florida governor, Jeb Bush, reduced his state’s arts funding from $28 million to $5.9 million.
  • Colorado’s arts budget shriveled to a mere $200,000.

The list goes on and on, state by state. Now federal funding for the arts did fair better, but not by much. In a recent Washington Post article detailing Bush’s latest budget proposal, the National Endowment for the Arts funding would remain unchanged, although the Challenge America program would lose 30% of its funding.

It’s not too difficult to imagine the path art and music programs will have to take in order to retain what little funding they have, where innovation and creativity will give way to the safe and boring. It’s also not difficult to imagine a time when public funding of the arts will disappear altogether. Our future cultural identity might just be reduced to computer-generated jingles for commercials and Saturday morning cartoons.

Let’s put aside the research and the numbers for a moment and consider the best reason for arts and music education in our public schools – the pure joy of it. There’s something utterly captivating in listening to the musical rendition of “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain” by a bunch of first-graders on kazoos and percussion instruments. What kind of society will we be without the squawky notes of “Greensleeves” emanating from an open window as a fourth-grader practices on a black, plastic recorder? What kind of cultural identity do we preserve and pass on without a music education? What happens to us if we become a country without a culture, without a voice, without a song?

I guess Air Force One should invest in a good sound system and a CD of Sousa marches, because a future president might be stepping of the plane into the adulation of crowds, not to the strains of “Hail to the Chief” played by a school orchestra but to a bunch of kids holding up multiplication table flashcards.