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Michael Tellinger

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"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Friday, January 29, 2010

Beats of freedom: Artists under radical Islam... and continuing updates on the Muslim pop, film, and novelistic scene

Update 11/12: Check out my review of Offside, too. This wonderful director is currently being silenced; links included in the text.

Update 10/2011 Just saw this 2009 film on Netflix - No One Knows about the Persian Cats: Cannes winner and many other awards: modern indie rock bands in Iran. Here's the Wiki on it http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No_One_Knows_About_Persian_Cats
Includes women musicians. They continue to be banned from singing under extremist religious rule there, apparently.

WISE Muslim Women


Update 6/2/10. This post started as a short report on two women musicians (and referencing an earlier post on a woman writer) persecuted under extremist religious governments, but over the months it's been morphing into a kind of survey course of cultural diversity as I've added more interesting stories that I've come across. Here are the two latest, thanks to the wonderful blogger Sepia Mutiny, who covers the politics and pop of the South Asian scene.

First, how about a beat of Islamic freedom under Western post 9-11 extremism! Wish I'd known about this fellow years ago - but then his Post 911 Blues was banned I guess. A must-see! He's Riz MC from the UK. Here's Sepia Mutiny's great retrospective of his work complete with videos and links. He's an actor, musician, satirist, and now a filmmaker (Four Lions).

Second, there's Taqwacore - Muslim punk. Muslim punk is making the scene in the western US. So (thinking back) we've gone from balladeers and DJs to rock and roll jihadists to the sublimely cosmopolitan AR Rahman to Muslim punk - and see (not surprisingly, in any religion spread worldwide) that Islamic culture is as diverse as any other world culture. Beats of freedom? If they can't cope with the classic rock of Juhoon, I wonder how the radical religious establishment responds to Taqwacore. Not a fan of punk myself, but it's certainly an interesting development.

I learn there was a documentary about the phenomenon (as I catch up on all this...) and now there's a new movie. It premiered at Sundance and has gotten positive reviews. Here's a trailer for The Taqwacores. The movie is based on a novel (read the Wiki linked there - fascinating) by Michael Muhammad Knight. But the scene is real and if the film is successful (and reaches, as films do, more people than the novel) then an interesting story vis a vis radical clerics should follow. Unless this is so outre they feel they can ignore it. Anway - More links here - videos and interviews with various media. Fascinating stuff.

Update 4/6/10. Here's another prominent musician weighing in on the issue. From short but sweet article on brilliant composer AR Rahman, who composes worldwide but is probably most deservedly known for Bollywood scores such as my personal favorites Dil Se and Swades. He converted from Hinduism to Islam early on, and is embarking on a world tour (bolded phrases are my emphasis added):

AR Rahman, who after doing India proud with his double victory at both the Oscars and the Grammies, is set to promote love and unity through his music because it his belief that Islam has been hijacked by extremists.

Allah Rakha (AR) Rahman, who was earlier called Dileep Kumar, expressed that Islam had a rich musical tradition. He reveals that Islam appealed to him because it was a religion based on unconditional love and a belief in one God and one love. He admits to being specifically drawn to Sufism.

The 44-year-old musician clarified that Islam doesn’t forbid music, as contrary to what fundamentalists popularize. He states that he never skips prayers as it is his reprieve from tension and it gives him hope that God is with him. He wants to work to create music that will bring people together.

My favorite musician never fails to come across in interviews as just a lovely guy, spiritual and gentle, and his music is amazing, ranging over all genres and nationalities. Sometimes his score is the only thing that makes a movie worth seeing, and most of his music stands on its own quite apart from the film it was written for.


Earlier I posted a piece about Taslima Nasrin, the writer from Bangladesh whose voice extremists strive to silence. Lately I've been finding singers who are also struggling to do their art. This is an old, old struggle between freedom and tyranny on the most basic cultural level. I supposed there have always been the Miriam Makebas and the Almanac Singers, the Paul Robesons and even, of all people, the Dixie Chicks... sadly, the international list of politically targeted and silenced musicians could go on  indefinitely.

At the most fundamental (I use the word deliberately, yes) level it is a life-and-death struggle; all religions have extremists who keep their power by denying humans our most basic right to create culture. And it seems to me that in the corporate-owned and controlled West, corporations are increasingly playing that power game too, as they relentlessly work to fence the cultural commons.

But back to Taslima - here are some musical sisters and brothers of hers who are also heroes of the modern Islamic world (and a disclaimer: I am not by any stretch of the imagination an expert in any of this, it's just a thread of the world's tapestry that caught my attention lately because I kept stumbling across it. I'm scarcely qualified to judge the validity of these websites or even the information I quote here, so if you have corrections, I'd welcome them!):

DJ Maryam of Iran

"My name is Mahshar, daughter of the sun and the earth and sister of water and air," says D.J. Maryam, at this website: http://www.persianhub.org/must-see-video-clips/186556-tehran-rocks-forbidden-beat-d-j-maryam.html Here, and on YouTube, you can view several videos. This is her recent "Song of Freedom": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E92uc_QXljE
The text continues, "She says that D.J. Maryam is not her real name. Whatever her identity, this young singer has become a pop idol in a nation where 50 percent of the population is under 25 years old. The forbidden voice of a woman singing to a techno-beat embodies both their frustration with the repressive regime and their desire for change. The lone voice of a woman, having been banned, has become a powerful weapon of opposition and resistance. Tehran rocks to the forbidden beat of D.J. Maryam.

Stories (surely some of them apocryphal, I hope!) abound about DJ Maryam's suffering and she's a hero to many Iranians at home and expatriate. As far as I know she remains in hiding, but persists in her art -- and, thanks to the internet, has a global following. See http://news.newamericamedia.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=9b46b5e344323639102066f2f2dd83e0

Googoosh of Iran
An earlier-generation forerunner of DJ Maryam, Googoosh was a pop superstar of the Sixties in Iran (at right, in 1969). After the Islamic Revolution she opted to stay there to retain full citizenship rather than fleeing - and for her loyalty was branded a "temptress," silenced and persecuted for two decades of her life by Islamic clerics. But she was never forgotten - and now sings triumphantly again internationally, as an Iranian citizen with passport, in what seems to be an uneasy truce with Iran's rulers. Of her recent work, don't miss Googoosh's beautiful lament for Iran, "Man Hamoon Iranam": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J7obWvt0JIY Thanks to YouTube and similar online sources perhaps the clerics will continue to be defeated and Iranians given heart - at least as long as the Internet persists.

Googoosh: Iran's Daughter is a 2000 documentary about her life and comeback (Netflix has it). Here's the bio page from Googoosh's website: http://googoosh.com/?page_id=7 and here's another good article http://www.worldpress.org/0601people3.htm Below, Googoosh more recently. Still a knockout performer. And a knockout! Don't miss this: http://www.radiojavan.com/music/video/googoosh-shabe-sepid

Though the oppression of women under Islamic extremism is particularly horrendous and endemic, men are also struggling to keep alive and nurture the normal, vital, healthy kind of human culture that poses an alternative (more: a challenge and threat) to the living death of fundamentalist extremism. (Salman Ahmad, in the interview linked below, expresses this much more eloquently than I just did.) Here are two from Pakistan...

Salman Ahmad of the band Junoon, and author of Rock & Roll Jihad
I was vaguely familiar with Junoon, because I have a taste for Indian and Pakistani pop music sometimes. And I'd heard of a PBS documentary, "The Rock Star and the Mullah," but missed it when it aired and haven't been able to find a copy. Well, turns out it's about this fellow, Salman Ahmad, and he's just written a book (at right) which sounds mighty interesting. I didn't realize how important Salman and his band Junoon were, though, until I heard this interview (listen to how he redefines - and takes possession of - the concept of "jihad"):
It's amazing. A message on his website puts it most succinctly:
Work together...reject violence... find common ground...teach peace. Who in their right mind would argue with that? But of course there are plenty not in their right minds and he puts himself squarely in their faces. His website: http://www.junoon.com/
And here's another recent article, this time from UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2010/apr/22/rock-against-religious-fanaticism
Check YouTube for the Junoon sound  - here's "Yaro Yahi Dosti" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDXNNe7QZr0 I like the Washington DC backgrounds in that video. And this one is just great: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeShXimSRsg&NR=1 (Maybe I like this music because Indo-Pak rock triggers for me no unpleasant associations with the Western rock of the sixties and seventies, which were mostly a horrible time in my life. And when the lyrics are in something like Hindi or Urdu I can't understand most of the words, which probably helps. But even when they're translated, they tend to be more redolent of Persian poetic traditions and positive social messages than of the misogyny that permeates Western rock. As for women's rock, that's another subject). All that said, here's "Ring the Bells," a lovely mellow anthem for peace that Salman made -- with Melissa Etheridge! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAoPm3nkCN0&feature=player_embedded

Shoaib Mansoor, filmaker and his Khuda Kay Liye
This 2007 feature film broke new ground in Pakistan and has a wide following internationally. This is from Netflix's description:
Set across three continents, the plot concerns brothers... who both start out as musicians but come to adopt different philosophies when it comes to religion and culture. That's true, it's about two musician brothers from Pakistan who deal with Islamic fundamentalist suppression of music in different ways. That's interesting, yes, but there are two other reasons I was really taken with this movie, even though it does have some flaws. First, the screenplay elegantly balances two opposing stories on two sides of the world: one is a Western woman's story of oppression under Islam (born and raised as British, she is enslaved under Taliban rule in the clan-controlled territory at the Afghan-Pakistan border); the other is a Pakistani man's story of oppression under Western anti-Islamic fanaticism (a moderate, enlightened Muslim musician from a liberal family in Pakistan, he is persecuted horribly in America after 9/11). Both stories are riveting and painful to watch in one way--but in another, well, see for yourself what you think about it.

The other thing that made this movie very special for me was a ten-minute set piece in which the great Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah (spelled Naseer Ud Din, in Urdu - the bearded one on the left, in the poster at right) plays an Islamic cleric who utterly demolishes the fundamentalists' claims that music is sinful - and questions a number of other widely-accepted Islamic traditions, while he's at it. That's a masterpiece of writing and performance and it bravely takes on centuries of deeply rooted religious custom. And takes it on right at its source - in Pakistan, by a Pakistani filmmaker and a Muslim actor from India.

Oh - and the music is fantastic! I especially liked the scenes with the international mix of students in Chicago, as they composed and jammed together.

The war of certain strains of Islam against music and the arts (free human culture in general) has been going on for a very long time. I've seen some Indian historical dramas set in the times when Islam ruled much of India, that deal with the same issue (music being outlawed and how musicians cope with it). Of course, this kind of cultural repression is not unique to any religion - they all have their repressive fanatical sects. To bring the circle back round, as filmmaker Shoaib Mansoor reminds us in this movie no country including the US is without the capacity to take a tyrannical turn at times (as we Americans, who have seen our most cherished national values inexorably eroded year after year, well know). We continue to move in the direction of the Handmaid's Tale, bit by legal and political and religious bit.

PS - see the beautiful song "Bethe Bethe Kese Kese" featured among the pujas and tonics, in the right-hand column - or go to YouTube to see it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWJHZSjSFD4
PPS - just came across this relevant passage in a fascinating review in the blog Jabberwock - the book he's reviewing is Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer:  http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2009/03/stranger-to-history-aatish-taseer-on.html     ...    Jai Arjun writes:

For Taseer, this is an insight into Islam's enclosed world of "prescriptive and forbidden action, which was more detailed than most other religions, but in the end could only cover those things that were common to the world of today and the Prophet's world in Arabia". As his later experience in Damascus shows, this enclosed world can become a vacuum where modern concepts like freedom of speech hold no meaning.

I never seem to come to an end of wonderful discoveries in Jabberwock's archives. Truly a man after my own heart (and I do mean after - he's still quite young!).


And here's a trailer for a documentary, A Jihad for Love, about gay Muslims. On the same YouTube page are a number of other videos. Brave people; unapproved love is punishable by death under these theocracies. Music, love, sex - all things that fundamentalists must control, if they are to control lives and the economics of lives.