Sunday, March 14, 2010

Technology, music, and freedom of expression

A while back I had posted about a fascinated book Heavy Metal Islam by Mark Levine. The book talked about the popularity and the cultural significance of many heavy metal and rock groups in various Muslim countries. On a related note, I just came across Mark Levine's recent post about the way the music of an underground Iranian group, The Plastic Wave, was performed in Brooklyn by another group, Cruel Black Dove. Banned at home and denied visa by the US consulate (in Dubai), members of The Plastic Wave watched their music being performed live in Brooklyn, over the internet:

The Plastic Wave is one of an ever growing number of rock, metal and hiphop groups forming in Iran whose innovativeness and talent easily rivals the emerging crop of bands in New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, London or Berlin. Indeed, if music clubs were allowed in Tehran there is little doubt the city would become as important a center for rock innovation as any of these cities, with clubs and bands popping up like mushrooms across Tehran's urban landscape.

The band's blend of electronica, ethereal yet catchy rhythms and melodies, and crunchy guitars brings to mind Portishead and even bits of PJ Harvey but with a more psychedelic and techno edge. As important is the fact that they are the first band in the Iranian scene to have a female lead singer, the hauntingly beautiful, siren-voiced Maral, whose alternatingly languid and intense English phrasings would make them a natural fit in the US music market.

The fact that The Plastic Wave is led by a female singer, eliminates any possibility of the band playing live in Iran outside of clandestine parties, as women are not allowed to sing alone in front of mixed audiences. The concert where the band members was actually crashed by the police, who arrested 230 audience members and saw Maral and keyboardist/producer Natch spend five days in prison on charges of satanism and immoral behavior.

Well, the group was invited to perform in US, but the US consulate decided not to grant the members a visa.

Under normal circumstances this would have proved the end of the story, but Freemuse, joined by the Center for Inquiry, and a new organization, the Impossible Music Sessions, teamed up to provide a forum that would highlight the band's plight. Unlike the major human rights organizations, all three understood that while we might take the freedom of music for granted, creative expression is limited by censorship, intimidation, and cultural pressures in many places, and so those of us lucky enough to have that freedom need to help expose -- and in doing so, offer at least some protection for, artists who cannot appear and the music that they are not free to make.

If there was one band that could do justice to The Plastic Wave's unique sound it's the Brooklyn-based electronic rock group Cruel Black Dove. With a sound that is at once rich and sheen yet also dark and haunting, the band was the perfect group to step in and help bring the Plastic Wave's music to an American audience.

While relatively small in size, the concert, at one of Brooklyn's premier performance spaces, Littlefield, will certainly go down in the annals of rock history for being the first time that a rock group has watched another group perform its music on system like ooVoo because it was not allowed either to come themselves to perform. And it was clear that the artists and audience understood the significance of the evening.

From the moment the night started with a short film introducing the audience to The Plastic Wave and their situation everyone was hooked to the screen. When members of the Cruel Black Dove, joined by Impossible Music Sessions creator Austin Dacey and Raam, lead singer of the celebrated Iranian rock band Hypernova -- the first Iranian rock group to get a visa to perform in the US -- sat down in a living room-like set in front of the stage to talk live with band members Maral and Natch, the whole room became part of an intimate conversation about The Plastic Wave's origins, creative process, the impossibility of giving up making music despite the challenges of doing so in Iran, and hopes for the future.

This is fascinating - and it again shows that the internet is changing the world profoundly and in ways that are difficult to predict. And change seems to be in the Iranian air as well - though the process and the pace may be uncertain.

In this slow, drawn out struggle, culture will play an increasingly important role in the battle for the hearts and minds of the tens of millions of young Iranians who are the country's future. And Iran's burgeoning youth music scenes clearly understand, as the great Nigerian afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti declared, that "music is the weapon of the future."

The more they can engage with each other, and with fans world-wide through software like ooVoo, the more powerful the impact of the music will be, and the greater the chance that in five or ten years time, bands like The Plastic Wave will live in an Iran where playing music live is no longer a crime.

Read the full article here. Here is a nice short video about this affair and it allows you to put faces to this story:


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