31 July 2008

Plug of the Week: O-Hum (Iran) and Acrassicauda (Iraq)

This starts with a stuffy section. You can skip the part between the lines if you want to cut to the chase scene.

It is traditional for new music to be scandalous. The waltz was shocking, flappers flapping without corsets was disturbing, and hot jazz was so disturbing that the German National Socialists were obliged to ban it. There has probably been no era without the kids thinking of ways to torment adults with their music, but I think that the all-time champion of getting the establishment up in arms has to be rock in its evolving forms.

There are many intertwingled reasons for this. It is supposed to be about sex, rebellion, and dark hidden things (as well as shiny happy people giving the best of their love to the most beautiful girls in the world, of course. Some things really are eternal.) It's not that Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard invented the idea of mixing music and sex. That goes back through Frank Sinatra into the dim past. Part of rock, though, is to put the sex right on the front of the stage, thrusting itself into your face. In turn, that is part of the larger ethos that says rock is rebellion. Obviously that goes in cycles and not everyone is cut out to be completely Rotten, but a big part of the appeal of rock is the appeal of the bad boy and of the teenager telling the world that he's not going to take it anymore.

So rock is rebellion and sex and music. Rock concerts bring together groups of young people just at the age when their brains are smart enough to think of ways to cause trouble, but not mature enough to give much thought to risk. (Really, it's science—that part of the brain doesn't mature until the early 20s.) Rock recruits, gathers, and indoctrinates rebels, so it's no wonder that establishments set on control of the population would see rock as a very bad thing and try to ban it.

Music is a sneaky thing, though. It's so easy to move around and surprisingly easy to hide considering how loud it is. It turns out that it is nearly impossible to keep the seeds of it out of a culture. The fans and musicians will keep the music alive underground and seize on the tiniest opportunity to burst out. Over the last 50 years, time and again we (in the larger sense, not us in particular of course) have seen that outburst give a shove to the forces that have broken authoritarian regimes.

The best example of this is the Plastic People of the Universe, who managed to bring Velvet-Underground style rock to Czechoslovakia through time that the Russians grabbed control of Czechoslovakia because the government was turning away from Communism. They went to extraordinary lengths to bring the music in to the country and to perform it. It is really worth hitting Wikipedia to get an idea of what they had to go through. It's not an accident that the Velvet Revolution was in Prague: when the Plastic People were arrested in 1977, Vaclav Havel and other activists kicked into high gear.

Governments who realize they can't keep the kids from listening to rock think they can control the problem by controlling the music: censoring lyrics, requiring reviews or permits to perform, record, or sell music, even maintaining government ownership of instruments so that only well-behaved musicians could get them. You can imagine how well this works in practice. Bands always find ways to code messages in ways that kids will understand and their parents won't. You can make gear out of scrounged parts and hold concerts in basements. The thing about rock is that the more you make rock against the rules, the more rebel energy you give it. If listening to Metallica makes you subject to arrest, then you might as well go all the way from youthful rebellion into active resistance or revolt. The power of rock to galvanize a revolution comes from the establishment itself. It's like a law of nature, and yet the Them never quite catch on to that and so we see the pattern repeating again and again.

Which brings us to now and the line I promised the people who wanted to skip the stuffy part.

Now it is the turn of authoritarian Muslim countries to deal with rock rebels.

There is an excellent documentary out on the only Iraqi metal band, Acrassicauda. They struggled with religious establishments's opposition to just about everything associated with metal, including headbanging (which is apparently Jewish) and singing (which is immoral). Then they struggled with the war. Now they are struggling with being refugees and rocking Iraqi expats. I'm not the best one to ask, but I think they are pretty good considering that they have had to go months or years without playing together because of the war separating them. And that lead guitar sounds to me like it has a lot of shreddy goodness. I read that they are now in Turkey and working on a full album and growing their hair. They have three demo tracks on their MySpace page and a link for donations to help them out.

Acrassicauda at their last concert in Iraq
on MySpace
Heavy Metal in Baghdad

The Iranian band O-Hum found a very modern way to subvert their religious authorities. O-Hum's label was denied a permit to produce O-Hum's first album. So O-Hum have released their whole catalog of music as MP3s on the internet, where their fans in Iran and anywhere in the world can get hold of them. This got people to their concerts, caused backlash and commotion, and has wound up with the band being a driving force in Iranian underground rock. They have developed an interesting Persian alt rock that uses elements of traditional Persian music and takes its lyrics from an esteemed early Persian poet. I'm not sure I love it, but I like it a lot. And every time one of those tracks is downloaded, a mullah gets a stomach cramp.

Babak Akhoondi of O-Hum
free downloads

It's hard to say where this will lead. I think that this is a lot harder rebellion than against communism in the Warsaw Pact satellites. A little encourgement could go a long way, though. Plus, you get to listen to the music.

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