Music and politics

From Roger Waters tour This is not a drill

All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists.

W.E.B DuBois

I recently had the opportunity to attend a concert by Roger Waters – best known as the co-founder of Pink Floyd – to promote various campaigns advocating the freedom of Julian Assange. I went there as part of the pan-European political movement, DiEM25, which also has its own petition against Assange’s extradition.

This experience gave me opportunities to discuss and contemplate the relationship between arts and politics. As W.E.B DuBois has stated, art can never be completely neutral in its political stance. This is of course true for basically all human activity, as it always takes place in a specific context and therefore relates to – or comments on – that context. (For more on DuBois, see my earlier post.)

Artistic responses to socio-political issues

In the polarised times we currently live in, some people seek ‘neutral’ spaces where they can just ‘be themselves’ and enjoy the moment. Such a space may be a sports event or entertainment such as music. There are an abundance of examples of such spaces of which politics should be ‘kept out of’ in the views of some. Recent examples are the World Championship football tournament in Qatar 2022 and the Eurovision competition in Israel 2019. Whether such music is the kind of art DuBois refers to, is a broader discussion for another time. For artistic – purely musical, if you will – responses to political changes, see my earlier post on modern music.

Marvin Gaye’s What’s going on is one of the best known concept albums made as a response to the Vietnam War.

While in the 60s and 70s pop and rock music – the latter still carrying some of its folk roots – could have quite some political messaging in the lyrics, nowadays popular music as a carrier of a message has become an increasingly multimedial endeavour. During the golden years of MTV, music video developed into its own form of artistic expression, sometimes with little relation to the song playing as a sort of soundtrack for the video. But often the video offered a clever alternative interpretation of the lyrics.

The genre that probably carries the most amount of political messaging is hip-hop. Rapping in hip-hop – also known as ‘Rhythm and Poetry‘ – is a form of word art, and many rappers are very talented in expressing their thoughts about the world through their art. Hip-hop emerged right into the MTV age and made full use of the new visual language. Often, however, hip-hop lyrics are too strong and direct to be accompanied by a secondary visual story line. Lowkey’s Free Assange below is a prime example.

The British rapper Lowkey has made several songs about political issues.

Roger Waters’ artistic activism

Roger Waters’ music is certainly popular in the commercial sense I have discussed previously, and it has received much critical claim. He has, however, never shied away from using his music as a platform for his political beliefs and the experience his concert gave me carried a very strong political message – while being very entertaining and musically enjoyable. I.e. there was a balance between the ‘show’ and the ‘message.’ I will come back to this later.

On the This is not a drill tour, he makes very clear from the start that his political views are an integral part of his art. The music of Waters itself – without the lyrics, that is – has little political connotations beyond some march-like rhythms to resemble totalitarianism. Distorted guitars may of course also be perceived as referring to machine sounds, but they are perhaps too ubiquitous in our times to very strongly bring that kind of association. However, as already mentioned, music for Waters is a vehicle for expressing his views of the world.

In live context, lights, smoke generators, and pyrotechnics have long been standard repertoire in popular music concerts. Contemporary LED screen technology adds a whole new layer to the storytelling of the musician, and Roger Waters certainly made full use of these possibilities. While his lyrics may or may not speak of a particular wrong in the world, the screens often told a very specific story.

The below clip of the song Powers that be was for me one of the most touching moments of the concert. The song lyrics speak of the misuse of power by the elites – a rather timeless narrative. The animation and texts on the screen, however, contextualise the song within the contemporary struggles of e.g. Iranian women (Masha Amini), American blacks (e.g George Floyd) and victims of state violence.


It was interesting to observe the reception of Waters’ activist message during the event. The audience was largely of Waters’ generation and in general not very interested in the political side of his art. Of the 17 000 fans, a handful came to our stand with the Free Assange material. I don’t know whether the activists of the BDS movement on the other side had better success. But as you can see in the video above, the stories shown on the screens and juxtaposed with the music did solicit responses from the audience.

This, in my view, is always the challenge of activism through the arts. Artistic experience happens in a moment that may include some deeper socio-political messaging. Art – especially music – is, however, capable of inducing an experience independently of the message. We saw this very clearly, as the concert goers were not particularly more open to our message after hearing it from Roger Waters.

To return to DuBois’ comment in the beginning, art always makes a statement of some kind about the world around it. It may be an engaging statement, calling for action, or just an observation. It is ultimately the receiver – viewer or listener – of the artistic expression that responds to it in a particular way. There’s also the subliminal part of the experience, which may surface much later in a realisation regarding something that was part of the art work. I.e. we shouldn’t draw too hasty conclusions from the above described audience responses to the political messaging during Roger Waters’ tour – on and offstage. The Assange debacle, but especially the Palestinian situation, have endured a long time with no quick solution in sight. Hopefully the tens of thousands of people Waters’ message reaches during his tour help change sentiments regarding these, and the many more issues he touches, and helps us towards a better world.

Mehmet Polat – Musical Journeys and existing through music

Treme Sidewalk Steppers 2ndline February 6th 2011

I feel like I have to start this post with a disclaimer as there’s been a much longer pause in publishing activity here than usual – not that I’ve ever been extremely active. Most of my free time in the last couple of years has gone into a project I will certainly come back to here as well. Most of this article was written nearly half a year ago after the concert I discuss here. At the time of writing these words, I’ve sat in Corona self-quarantine for two weeks. Luckily I don’t have any health issues but it has thrown me off my – already delicate – routines.

The present pandemic also puts the below article in a different perspective. In this time of severe travel and movement restrictions, music and other arts can offer us precious means of ‘travelling’ to distant places and experience cultures and people from far without risking contagion. We  could call this ‘virtual’ – see my previous discussions of virtuality – but at the present moment that might be as real as it gets. The other topic of this article, ‘existing through music’ or ‘musical being in the world’ can also be helpful during this time of crisis. As we practice social distancing – even isolation –  the social aspect of engaging in musical activities, whether listening, making, learning, teaching music (the latter two most likely online) or something else, becomes more apparent. Many are already habitually using music to regulate their emotional states and help them e.g. ‘be sad in a certain way’. During this period music can help us remain connected to the world outside, to ‘musically be in the world’.

I’ll elaborate on the above thoughts later, but now a glimpse of the pre-Corona world in the hope that the post-Corona world still allows us experience and appreciate musical journeys and experiences in real social environments.

Bassist on stage

Recently I had the pleasure of hearing the internationally acclaimed Oud player Mehmet Polat with his new band Embracing Colours in Bimhuis, Amsterdam.

Music – like all art forms – is very personal to its creators, even if artists are not always very explicit about it as they might want to leave it for the listeners/viewers to find their own meanings and references in art. Polat, however, was rather explicit about the personal dimensions of his music and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

Musical ontology

Polat’s introductions to his compositions were mostly quite personal and even biographical. At some point he mentioned that he ‘exist[s] through music’. This is an interesting philosophical statement that I won’t get into any deeper here but refer you to my earlier discussions regarding Martin Heidegger’s phenomenology and musical ontology in Hindu philosophy. In his discussion of music as identity the musicologist Simon Frith speaks of ‘musical-being-in-the-world’. Although he doesn’t cite Heidegger, I think his view is a musical application of Heidegger’s ‘being-in-the-world’. According to Hindu philosophy the universe consists of sound, which is perhaps slightly more literal ‘existence through music’ than Polat had in mind 😉

Polat is by no means the only musician to think in these terms. Below is a talk with the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who (from 26’20”) talks at lenght of ‘way of being as a musician’.

Musical journeys

During the evening Polat frequently reflected on translating his life experiences into music. For the present discussion I’d like to draw a comparison with another Oud player Dhafer Youssef, although not in any normative sense as they’re both unquestionably masters of their instruments as well as resourceful composers and skilful band leaders. Both musicians started their musical journeys by immersing into their native musical traditions and later encountering and exploring other traditions resulting in intriguing combinations.

Polat has not only innovated on the instrumental technique as well as the construction of his instrument to serve his artistic needs; he also has a unique talent for working with musical materials of other cultures and have a musical dialogue with them. In such dialogues, he – together with the other musicians – explores these musical materials from his own background and roots in the Anatolian folk and Ottoman classical music.

Cross-cultural instrumentation

The Embracing Colours project is a jazz band with drums, double bass and accordion. Polat is of course not the first one to play the Oud with a jazz rhythm section. The best known today is probably the Tunisian Dhafer Youssef who has for a long time had a similar group but with piano instead of accordion. The choice of instrumentation has quite significant repercussions to the musical possibilities available for the groups. While Arab music – like most musics of the world – has repertoire that can be played on Western instruments, it does entail sacrificing some of the tonal richness of the musical culture. The micro-tonal maqamat are difficult to perform on instrumentation with fixed intonation. Youssef’s choice is to avoid the micro-tonal maqamat, whereas Polat has cleverly arranged his music so that the accordion doesn’t clash with the micro-tones he plays on the Oud. The Mozaiek Ensemble I have discussed previously also managed to arrange their music to combine piano and micro-tonal maqama.

Cultural encounters

Cultural encounters always require negotiations on various levels to reach mutual understanding – or harmony, which in this context is not a musical term. Musicians are often inspired by each others’ music and musical cultures. Depending on their aspirations and understanding of the musical cultures they’re involved with the results may vary from mere exotic flavour borrowed – or stolen, a.k.a cultural appropriation – from another culture to exciting mixes of and dialogues between different musical cultures.

No music no life

I’ve earlier briefly discussed how The Beatles – especially George Harrison – were inspired and influenced by Indian music. Even earlier the usual Western response to music from other parts of the world was to view them as primitive (see also my earlier discussion of primitivism in early jazz criticism). The first attempts of the British colonialists to engage with Indian music was to harmonize it as they viewed it as lacking this musical dimension – central to much Western music, but much less so in many other musics of the world. Power relations in cultural encounters may result in cultural appropriation. In music, this risk is greatest with agents in prominent positions in the music industry.

Polat’s and Youssef’s different approaches to music-making and their own musical roots speak volumes of their respective musical journeys. While Polat has immersed himself and draws from the musical heritage of his home region and other cultures in the region, Youssef had his formative musical experiences at a young age in his native Tunisia but paid his musical dues in the jazz scene of Vienna.

It would be too simplistic to try to draw any straight correlations between Polat’s and Youssef’s backgrounds and their musical expressions. It is, however, interesting to observe the musical journeys of these artists.

Specifically, my interest here is the relation Polat’s and Youssef’s musics have to jazz as some of their music is characterized as jazz or jazz-influenced. I have earlier discussed jazz as Black music. However, jazz has ‘gone global’ already a long time ago and there are various local jazz traditions and different kinds of fusions and hybrids with other musical cultures.

While Polat’s and Youssef’s musics don’t use musical elements of jazz in terms of melodic materials (blues) or the characteristic triple based swing of jazz as already mentioned, they opt using the rhythm section of jazz. While bass and drum set are nowadays common across genres, it’s good to keep in mind in this context that this form of ensemble playing started in the Storyville district of New Orleans in the early days of jazz at the turn of the 20th century. Jazz musicians at those times adopted their repertoire to the audiences they played for. This legacy lives on with contemporary jazz musicians who are typically rather versatile stylistically, even if they specialize on, or prefer, playing in certain styles or (sub)genres. Polat’s and Youssef’s ensembles consist of these kinds of musicians brought together for the specific projects that mark the musical journeys of these artists.

Material culture – Part 2

By Vincent Clarence Scott O'Connor - The Silken East, Public Domain,

Continuing my account on the Bake society’s Day on musical instruments. Next in the program was a presentation of Masumi Nagasawa who already had brought three harps on the stage before.


Another family of instruments found nearly everywhere in the world is the harp. After a short lecture on harp in Asia by Fred Gales, Masumi Nagasawa performed for us on three different harps. She played first a composition of her own on the modern double-action harp. This composition showcases the various techniques available for harpists, bringing out a very rich world of sounds out of the instrument. I found the following video in which many of these techniques are demonstrated.

Nagasawa then told us a bit about the kugo, ancient Japanese harp, and played a short piece on it. Kugo is usually played in an ensemble such as a Gagaku Japanese court music ensemble. However, there’s also new music being composed for it. Below, an example based on some melodic material from Gagaku music. Notable in this performance is that Sugawara also uses a modern technique of playing harmonics on the harp.

The main part of Nagasawa’s presentation was about the single-action pedal harp and the transition to the modern Grand Harp with double-action in the early 19th century, which is the topic of her PhD research. Nagasawa had, nearly by coincident, found an original instrument by F.J. Naderman, the most famous harp builder of the early 19th century Paris as well as a composer and a teacher. As Marie-Antoinette played harp it was a very popular instrument among high society women of the period and there were up 16 instrument builders making harps in Paris during the period.

Nagasawa then performed a composition by Naderman on the Naderman harp. An interesting story about this composition was that Naderman wrote it for her wife. Meanwhile, however, the new double-action harp had been invented, and she was encouraged to perform the composition on the new model. As she had played the single-action harp for a long time and practised her technique on it, she wasn’t very comfortable taking on the challenge of premiering the new composition on the new harp. She eventually did it anyway, but gave up the harp soon after.

Music Instruments in Museums and Academia in the Netherlands

This was the title of the panel discussion that closed the day. In the panel were:

Joep Bor from the University of Leiden, Wayne Modest from the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden and the Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam and Giovanni di Stefano from Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The discussion began with establishing the state of instrument collections in the Netherlands and the considerable lack of attention to the study of musical instruments – organology in the Dutch universities, although it had a prominent role in early ethnomusicology. There’s also no instrument museum currently in the Netherlands, and most instrument collections focus on Western classical instruments. Giovanni di Stefano is currently the only full time instrument curator in the country.  He’s working in the Rijksmuseum with the instrument collection they got back in 2013 when the restoration of the building was complete. The collection had been borrowed to The Hague for 60 years.

street drummer

The discussion really kicked off when Mr Modest posed a question, how to get people interested in the instrument collections in museums. After the inspiring recital-lectures we had seen, many – myself included – were of the view that these kinds of live presentations should attract people and get them interested. E.g. the instrument museum of Brussels is doing this already, recently with Estonian folk instruments.

Digitalisation of the collections should also help interested people find information to deepen their knowledge. The Music Instrument Museum Online is doing exactly that. It currently has largely European museums participating and no instruments from the Americas. It could also use some audio samples to make the online collection fascinating. [update: there’s an ongoing process of recording audio/visual samples of the instruments.]

As discussed before, due to its abstract nature, it is difficult to represent music in a way that could be displayed in a conventional museum. Watching displayed instruments – perhaps with some audio samples through a headset – give a rather distant impression of how an instrument functions in real life. As the recital-lectures demonstrated, there are ways to bring the instruments alive for people to experience them.

Some instruments have thousands of years of history, but are still played today. What I’d love to see in an instrument museum are more horizontal rather than vertical histories of instruments. The recital-lectures showed how some instruments – flutes and harps in this case, but e.g. drums would fit the bill as well – are played in different variations around the world. Such instruments in a way represent vast distances in space and time, and when played a connection could be established.

I found this Day on Musical Instruments organised by the Arnold Bake Society very inspiring. I’ll certainly be posting back here again soon about further thoughts regarding this, so stay tuned!

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