By Austin Dacey
Have you listened to music today? If so, it probably did not occur to you that you were enjoying a human right. The freedom to make and hear the music we choose–protected by the guarantee of freedom of expression in Article 19 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights–is so commonplace in developed democratic societies that it is usually taken for granted.
And yet, the right to music is violated in many parts of the world. Surprisingly, given the universal love of music, this has received little attention relative to other human rights issues. A small non-profit based in Copenhagen called Freemuse hopes to change this, and has designated March 3 as Music Freedom Day.
Who could be against music?
St. Augustine worried that he loved it too much. In his “Confessions,” he confided to God, “I used to be much more fascinated by the pleasures of sound than the pleasures of smell. I was enthralled by them, but you broke my bonds and set me free.” Moved by listening to monastic chant, Augustine struggled to find the proper place for the feelings it stirred in him:
“I realize that when they are sung, these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung; and I also know that there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two.”
For Augustine, salvation and virtue had everything to do with the freedom of the will to rise above the passions. What troubled him about music in particular was that its evocative power could evade voluntary control by the will, ravishing his soul even when he wished it wouldn’t:
“But I ought not to allow my mind to be paralyzed by the gratification of the senses, which often leads it astray. For the senses are not content to take second place. Simply because I allow them their due, as adjuncts to reason, they attempt to take precedence and forge ahead of it, with the result that I sometimes sin in this way but am not aware of it until later.”
Although Augustine could bring himself, somewhat reservedly, to accept singing in church, like other Church Fathers he was totally opposed to the use of musical instruments in worship. The First Apostolic Father, Saint Clement of Rome, wrote, “[l]eave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping.” Instruments are better suited “for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason.” They become instruments of conflict, for they “enflame the passions.”
Remarkably, these arguments echo the traditional conservative opinion on instrumental music in Islamic thought. One of the earliest condemnations of music comes from the 9th-Century jurist Ibn Abi’ l-Dunya. His Book of the Censure of Instruments of Diversion applied to music the Quranic caution that “diverting talk” or “idle talk” leads one astray from the way of God. The prevailing argument among conservatives was not, however, that music is a useless or impotent activity. Rather, they held that it is precisely because of music’s power to excite emotion that it merits our suspicion.
The 14th-Century thinker Ibn Taymiyya took a hard line on music, concluding that most forms are prohibited. He acknowledged the reality of musical ecstasy, and that some religious mystics believe this ecstasy brings them closer to God, as in Sufi practices of drumming and communal singing and chanting. Ibn Taymiyya’s objection against the mystic was that by giving up worldly ecstasy to seek spiritual ecstasy in sound, he has only traded one passion for another. This intoxicating affect overwhelms our understanding of the will of God, as revealed in the words of scripture, which is the final arbiter of morality. The music lover is guilty not of indolence but of betrayal, of giving his passionate heart to something other than God. Of course, unlike their Christian counterparts, Islamic conservatives opposed instruments not just in their own devotional practices, but in the broader culture as well.
Early Christian thinkers were at pains to explain away the clear exhortations in the Book of Psalms to praise God noisily with the harp, the lyre, the blast of the trumpet and the clashing of cymbals. They did so by departing from the literal meaning of the texts, saying the human tongue is the “harp of the Lord” and a “cymbal” is just a symbol.
Today, we often tend to think that the conservatives are the ones who cling to the literal meaning and inerrant truth of their scriptures. But in the discourse on music, both Clement and Ibn Taymiyya were reading their books metaphorically, and liberalism would have lain in insisting on the plain meanings: “harps” are harps and “idle talk” is idle talk. Being a liberal about scripture does not necessarily mean endorsing a liberal reading of scripture; it means endorsing whatever kinds of readings of scripture bring into harmony with liberal practices and values.
The same thing that threatens any totalizing religious system–the untamed spirit of sound–also challenges anyone who would seek to monopolize power and authority in the secular realms of society and politics. For music represents an autonomous source of meaning-making, identity-formation, and social mobilization that does not answer to the dictates of power. Whatever its reputation as a “universal language,” music is every bit as much a force for difference and division.
So, it is no surprise that efforts to control music can be found almost everywhere. The Taliban are only the most extreme example. Their recent campaign of intimidation, vandalism, and murder silenced or displaced hundreds of Pashtun musicians in Northwest Pakistan. The Lebanese singer Marcel Khalife had to fight blasphemy charges in a Beirut court because of his song, “Oh Father, I am Yusef,” which outraged conservative Sunnis by referencing a Quranic verse. And Lapiro de Mbanga, a popular singer in Cameroon, sits in prison for his song, “Constipated Constitution,” which critiques recent changes to the constitution granting more power to the presidency.
Music Freedom Day 2010 will see the release of compilation album of banned music, entitled Listen to the Banned, a seminar on alternative music in Amman, Jordan, and a day-long focus on censorship in the broadcasts of the Afghan stations Tolo TV and Lemar TV, including on the popular “American Idol”-style “Afghan Star Show.”
In New York City, a new series called The Impossible Music Sessions will create collaborations between censored artists from around the world and their counterparts in North America who learn and perform the transgressive music in their stead. The first act: Brooklyn-based electronic rockers Cruel Black Dove interpreting the material of the illegal Iranian band The Plastic Wave, who will appear via remote from Tehran. Under the Khomeniist regime, so-called Western music is tightly restricted by government ministries and solo singing by women in front of mixed audiences is forbidden. If the Plastic Wave were to perform publicly today, they would probably be arrested.
On March 3, make some noise for those who are not free to make theirs, and celebrate Music Freedom Day by smashing a symbol or two.
Austin Dacey is former representative to the United Nations for the Center for Inquiry and the author of “The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life.”