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George Heymont

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The Music and Its Message: Songs of Protest and Cultural Identity

Posted: 03/22/11 01:05 AM ET

Whenever I read an interview with a singer-songwriter or a composer and lyricist team, one question never fails to pop up: "Which comes first: the words or the music?"

Whether one looks at the literature of songs created by such titans as Irving Berlin, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, and Cole Porter -- or songwriting teams like Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, and Kander & Ebb -- one thing becomes crystal clear. The lyrics communicate concrete thoughts that rest on the foundation of the music's theme and punctuation.

  • Without the words, many a melody might be hummable yet easily forgotten.
  • Without the words, a show's plot might not have any forward momentum.
  • Without the words, a tune could easily be deleted from one show and inserted into another ("Call Me Savage" -- a song written by Jule Styne, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green for their 1964 musical Fade-Out, Fade In -- was recycled as the "Witches' Brew" number in 1967's Hallelujah, Baby!).

Two thrilling new musical documentaries place great emphasis on the importance of a song's lyrics while paying homage to their creators. Each stresses the importance of song in a particular social setting in a way that makes it remarkably relevant to today's world.

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With massive demonstrations in Wisconsin and Michigan (as well as what's happening throughout the Middle East), the timely release of Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is cause for celebration. A beloved singer-songwriter of protest songs (who recorded eight albums during the 1960s), Ochs led a short but meaningful life. Although Phil Ochs wrote hundreds of songs before committing suicide on April 9, 1976, his music and lyrics inspired a generation protesting the war in Viet Nam and the corruption of the Nixon administration.

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Phil Ochs performing in the streets


Like his father, Ochs suffered from bipolar disorder which, in combination with his alcoholism, proved to be fatal. But as a musician and performer, Ochs was a man of prodigious output. Describing himself as a "singing journalist," many of his songs were inspired by news headlines. His lyrics were often directed against the Viet Nam War and written in support of the labor movement and civil rights movement. In the following interview, filmmaker Kenneth Bowser explains the political importance of Phil Ochs to the 1960s:



Bowser's documentary includes interviews with musicians like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter Yarrow as well as actor Sean Penn, writer Christopher Hitchens, and activist Tom Hayden. It also details the severe disillusionment felt by Ochs after the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and the debacle surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.


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Poster art for Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune


In 1971, Ochs befriended Chilean folk singer Victor Jara (who was subsequently tortured and killed by Chilean authorities). On May 11, 1975, following the announcement that the Viet Nam War had ended on April 30, Ochs was one of many folk singers to perform before a crowd of 10,000 in New York's Central Park. By that time, however, his behavior had become more paranoid and erratic. With the major focus of his songwriting no longer dominating his life, Ochs found himself among numerous idealistic Americans who had lost the enemy that helped define their art.

Phil Ochs:There But For Fortune offers an electrifying look into the political climate of the 1960s and the ability of certain popular musicians (Ochs, Baez, Seeger, and Bob Dylan) to inspire the people who were attending rallies and protests. It's rare to encounter a documentary about a folk musician that is so politically inspiring and musically rich. For those unfamiliar with Ochs and his music, the sheer beauty of his voice can be shocking. Here's the trailer:



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While scientists and conservationists agonize over the massive extinction of species currently taking place, many people ignore the phenomenon of languages becoming extinct. One of the easiest ways to conquer a civilization is to destroy its culture.

  • Many of the languages spoken by the indigenous peoples of North America have faded into obscurity.
  • China has done a steady of job of eliminating the Tibetan language and Tibetan music from modern Tibet.
  • In its quest to enact "the final solution," Nazi Germany destroyed millions of books that had been printed in Yiddish.

In 2005, Aaron Lansky published Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books. At the time, digital book scanning was a new technique that helped Lansky and his colleagues at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts to replenish the stocks of synagogues and libraries throughout Europe whose collections of Yiddish literature had been destroyed.

Many of the people who claim to be "real Americans" (or think they can see Russia from their back porch) have no idea that the 50th state to join the Union was once a proud monarchy with a language all its own. Like many Polynesian cultures, Hawaii was a society whose history was handed down to younger generations through song, chant, and dance by tribal kumu hulas.

The Hawaiian culture (which greatly valued the spoken word) flourished in isolation for centuries. After missionaries from New England introduced reading and writing to Hawaiians in 1820, literacy rates rose dramatically. For much of the 19th century, Hawaii was one of the most literate nations on earth, even surpassing the United States and Britain.

Unfortunately, the number of people who spoke Hawaiian as their native language steadily decreased from the time King Kamehameha III declared it to be the official language of Hawaii until the mid 1950s. According to Wikipedia, by 2001 the number of natives who spoke fluent Hawaiian had fallen to one tenth of one percent of the population.

Since 1950, Hawaii has taken steps to renew interest in its language. During the 1978 State Constitutional Convention, Hawaiian was made an official language of the State of Hawaii. Beginning in 1984, private nonprofit schools (Punana Leo) were launched in which the Hawaiian language is used for teaching as well as administration. The Punana Leo also became the first indigenous language immersion preschool project in the United States.


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Directed by Lisette Marie Flanary, an exceptional new documentary entitled One Voice (which was recently screened at the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival) is devoted to the annual Kamehameha Schools Song Contest. Not only does the film celebrate the 30th anniversary since Hawaiian was officially made one of the state's official languages, it shows students learning about their culture in a way that was denied to many of their parents and older generations.

Each year, nearly 2,000 high school students (who elect the musical leaders for each class) take part in a contest in which all songs are sung in the Hawaiian language using four-part harmony. The popular event is broadcast on local television and radio and streamed over the Internet.


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Those who are fans of Hawaiian music will, of course be thrilled to listen to such healthy young voices raised in songs about the Hawaiian culture. However, Flanary's documentary also meets with the students' extended families ('ohana) and allows them to describe why it is so important to them that their children learn how to speak in Hawaiian.

While fans of Glee will be delighted by the music making, I was fascinated to watch young students with little musical training tackling the music of their native culture with such enthusiasm. Many of them are learning what the Hawaiian lyrics mean for the first time.

For people who have been in their high school glee club (or participated in programs like Sing!), watching One Voice may become a surprisingly emotional experience. The fact that these teenagers are thrilled to be discovering the beauty of their own culture is a testament to the strength of its music and the beauty of the lyrics (which often reflect the Hawaiian culture's reverence for nature).


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Because there are only 12 letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, the 'okina used to represent a glottal stop is considered to be a consonant. Composed by Kainani Kahaunaele and arranged by by Herbert Mahelona "KA HINANO O PUNA" is one of the songs sung in the film (the Hawaiian lyrics quoted below are followed by an English translation).


"'O ka hinano o Puna ku'u li'a
E lauwiliwili ai ka 'i'ini
Nipo ninipo ho'i i ke aloha
Ka lehua ha'alewa la i ke kai

'O ke kai nehe mai i ka uluhala
E ho'ohenoheno nei i ku'u nui kino
No Puna ka makani Moani'ala
E halihali ana i ku'u ha'eha'e

'Ena'ena Puna i ke ahi a Pele
'U'ina la ka hua'ina i Pu'u 'O'o
Pu'o ke ahi lapalapa i luna
Punohunohu i ke ano ahiahi

Ha'ina 'ia mai ana ka puana
No ka hinano o Puna paia 'ala
Ha'ina hou mai ana ka puana
No ka hoa lulana moe i ke ala

The hinano of Puna is my desire
Twisting my emotions
Yearning, longing for love
Is the lehua swaying by the sea

The rustling sea by the hala grove
Gently caresses me
The Moani'ala wind hails from Puna
That carries my dear affections

Puna glows in Pele's fire
The gushing lava crackles at Pu'u 'O'o
The blazing fire blazes up
Her smoke billows in the evening

Thus the story is told
For the hinano of Puna with fragrant walls
The story is told again
For my peaceful friend who lies on the driveway.
"


One Voice is the rarest of musical documentaries. It's a delightfully educational, culturally inspiring, emotionally uplifting and extremely moving film to watch (I'll admit to feeling warm tears slowly streaming down my cheeks at many moments).

What the film also does -- quite brilliantly -- is show the phenomenal impact that school arts programs and a dynamic teacher (like Kamehameha High School's choral music director, Les Ceballos) can have on students in their most formative years. If you enjoy the following trailer, I would urge you to order the DVD.



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