Repression and Music

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Something that should probably be reflected upon during a time of crisis around the coronavirus and increasing authoritarianism across the world is how it will impact music. Much of the most profound music has come during times of huge strife, allowing artists to create music with a huge emotional resonance. Probably the most notable modern day example of this would be the case of Russian feminist punks Pussy Riot, whose unauthorised public performances of songs railing against Vladimir Putin, homophobia, sexism and the Russian Orthodox Church eventually saw two of their members imprisoned for 21 months for “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” after a performance inside the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February, 2012. Among the most most powerful and lasting examples of this type of music can be found in the legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti, who in creating the style of afrobeat, a blistering fusion of funk, jazz, blues and Nigerian folk music, had a nearly 30-year career of unflinching protest. Whilst albums like Why Black Man Dey Suffer, Sorrow Tears and Blood or Coffin for Head of State were certainly unsubtle, it was Zombie, arguably his most famous album of them all, that was the most controversial for the military government in power in Nigeria at the time. Painting the military in the most irreverent and mocking way imaginable in a blistering 12-minute track, Fela Kuti saw his commune raided by the military, suffering significant injuries and having his mother killed. Following this Kuti formed a political party, the Movement of the People, that was an anticolonial and socialist movement which nearly saw him become a presidential candidate. He was later jailed in 1984, before tragically dying in 1997 from HIV. Another fine example is that of Chilean folk musician Victor Jara. A committed social activist who with albums like El Derecho de Vivi en Paz (translated somewhat fittingly as “the right to live in peace”) created socially conscious but touching folk. Jara must have thought much of his ideology was going to be mirrored in his nation’s government when Salvador Allende, the Marxist leader of Popular Unity, was elected in 1970. In September 1973 however, after a military coup, he was arrested before being brutally tortured, dying 5 days after Military General Augusto Pinochet rose to power. Conversely, another of the most famous examples of music heavily influenced by repression was that of the Buena Vista Social Club. Named after a club in Cuba’s capital Havana, the closure of such clubs by the early governments following the Cuban revolution of 1959 in an attempt was an attempt to temper the drinking and gambling issues in Cuban society. This did however contribute to the erasure of a distinct music style linked heavily to the culture of the country’s Afro-Cuban minority. Guitarist Ry Cooder, known for his work with The Rolling Stones and Captain Beefheart, brought together a group of musicians from the nation, with their joyful and breezy debut album earning them a Grammy in 1998. There are many more examples, with the context of crackdowns, coups and dictatorships leading to artistic expression taking on a context beyond just merely enjoyment, often tragically with dire consequences for the artist. Within today’s political context, this should be considered more than ever.

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Stephen Owen

Music Editor | 19-21

4 Comments

  1. Ileana Dominguez-Urban on

    The night clubs were closed in an attempt to “temper the drinking and gambling issues in Cuban society”? Perhaps that was the stated reason, but the real reason was the suppression of anything smacking of Capitalism.

    I’m not rabid anti-Castro nor anti-communism, but with any repressive regime, you must assume the stated reason is not the complete truth. Look at the current government activity in Russia.

    What makes me conclude these closures weren’t just about drinking and gambling? Well, as far as I know, Castro’s government did nothing about alcoholism outside of closing these night spots. Although the availability of health care has been an important issue since the revolution, there were no attempts to cure alcoholics. Alcohol wasn’t rationed any more than any other food commodity. For several reasons (including the US embargo) rationing is widespread in Cuba. One policy reason is to extend the same benefits to rich and poor, urban and rural. Apparently, if was only in 1999 that alcohol sales to those 16 and under were banned. In repressive regimes alcohol is usually promoted, or at the very least, ignored. Locally produced alcohol is cheap to make and it keeps the people happy. Look at drinking in Russia. Look at our own country during quarantine and lockdown – alcohol is considered an essential item. It could be because banning it would cause societal unrest. It could be because alcohol is heavily taxed. It could be both.

    I don’t know about gambling, but if you are seriously looking at repression and music, ask yourself: “Why did these amazing musicians become unknown in their own country? Why did an entire genre of music disappear from Cuba for more than 30 years?

    Sure, the night clubs were closed, but if that is all, why didn’t the musicians continue elsewhere? Repressive regimes usually take pride in their cultural heritage. Socialist and Communist regimes always emphasize the need to bring the art to the masses. Thus, these governnents will hold government sponsored events of carefully curated performances open to all the people. None of that happened in Cuba with the music of that era, because the music and the musicians were repressed – just as much as Putin now tries to repress pussy riot.

    The music style would not have disappeared merely because some night clubs were closed.

  2. Ileana Dominguez-Urban on

    The night clubs were closed in an attempt to “temper the drinking and gambling issues in Cuban society”? Perhaps that was the stated reason, but the real reason was the suppression of anything smacking of Capitalism.

    I’m not rabid anti-Castro nor anti-communism, but with any repressive regime, you must assume the stated reason is not the complete truth. Look at the current government activity in Russia.

    What makes me conclude these closures weren’t just about drinking and gambling? Well, as far as I know, Castro’s government did nothing about alcoholism outside of closing these night spots. Although the availability of health care has been an important issue since the revolution, there were no attempts to cure alcoholics. Alcohol wasn’t rationed any more than any other food commodity. For several reasons (including the US embargo) rationing is widespread in Cuba. One policy reason is to extend the same benefits to rich and poor, urban and rural. Apparently, it was only in 1999 that alcohol sales to those 16 and under were banned.* In repressive regimes alcohol is usually promoted, or at the very least, ignored. Locally produced alcohol is cheap to make and it keeps the people happy. Look at drinking in Russia. Look at our own country during quarantine and lockdown – alcohol is considered an essential item. It could be because banning it would cause societal unrest. It could be because alcohol is heavily taxed. It could be both.

    I don’t know about gambling, but if you are seriously looking at repression and music, ask yourself: “Why did these amazing musicians become unknown in their own country? Why did an entire genre of music disappear from Cuba for more than 30 years?

    Sure, the night clubs were closed, but if that is all; why didn’t the musicians continue elsewhere? Repressive regimes usually take pride in their cultural heritage. Socialist and Communist regimes always emphasize the need to bring the art to the masses. Thus, these governments will hold government sponsored events of carefully curated performances open to all the people. None of that happened in Cuba with the music of that era, because the music and the musicians were repressed – just as much as Putin now tries to repress pussy riot.

    The music style would not have disappeared merely because some night clubs were closed.

    * http://www.ipsnews.net/2000/11/health-cuba-alcoholism-alive-and-well/

    • Stephen Owen

      Hi Ileana,

      Sorry for the late response, this was uploaded during a period where I was a little bit cut off
      during lockdown and thus didn’t see the email notifying me of your comment.

      This article was written a good few months ago now, and some of my views on Cuba have certainly changed, and also my knowledge of it has expanded a fair bit,
      so I will be altering the article to mention the countries’ history of criminalisation of certain types of expression etc, the specifics I now have more
      understanding of.

      Of the research I did before writing this up, which probably wasn’t enough, there wasn’t really a “stated reason” per se,
      but one suggestion put in this article
      was that a combination of night club closures and racial integration programs (given this style was particularly with the Afro-Cuban were a major reason why this musical style declined. I do think I was lazy in researching this particular aspect of the article however.

      Though there certainly was heavy funding of certain types of music, and also people like classical composers who disproportionately fled the country in the wake of 1959,
      I haven’t seen suggestions that traditional music like this was censored or cracked down upon by the government, just that the sort of industries that aided that kind of music, whether night clubs or tourism, were until the early 90s, heavily restricted. If anything, funding was provided as far as I know to try and preserve traditional styles of music, but presumably not the Afro-Cuban style of BVSC.

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