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Mark Levine

Mark Levine

Posted: March 11, 2010 05:51 PM

The Evolution Will be ooVood

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Almost since the word first entered the Middle Eastern lexicon, globalization has gotten a bad rap. And with good reason. For hundreds of years the peoples of the region, like their counterparts across Africa, Asia and Latin America, were told that the price of great incorporation into the world economy and other benefits of modernity were imperial or colonial rule and systematic exploitation, followed by independence that brought rulers who were often little more than proxies for continued domination by their former colonizers.

In the last decade, however, a profound change has occurred in the larger perception of globalization across the Muslim world. Led by young people adept at both writing computer code and code-switching between their own and Western cultures, this more positive and proactive utilization of the technologies, concepts, and promise of globalization is epitomized both by burgeoning youth music scenes across the region and by the use of Facebook and other social networking technologies to organize activities that challenge their societies' autocratic elites.

But however powerful and inspiring, such technologies can only go so far in the face of governments willing to use systematic violence against their citizens. They can connect people virtually across cultures and continents, but they are still static, not real time enough to constitute a serious threat against zealous governments, and ultimately cannot substitute for face-to-face communication and action between people.

With governments still largely in control of the streets and able to monitor or block access to sites like YouTube, Myspace and Facebook, what technologies are left to overcome connect people in meaningful ways? Last week, on World Music Freedom Day, I saw first hand how the video chat program ooVoo and similar programs such as Skype, which allow users to connect and interact visually, in real-time, are becoming among the most important tools of social activism in the coming years in the Muslim world.

Music and Technology: Uniting to Promote Solidarity and Freedom

Human rights organizations like Amnesty International have long used well known artists such as Sting, Bono and Peter Gabriel to highlight human rights abuses globally (although almost never in the Muslim world). Other artists and actors have spoken out on behalf of the people of Tibet, Darfur and the Congo.

Yet to date no major human rights organization or musical artist has spoken out on behalf of musicians who suffer censorship or various forms of oppression at the hands of their governments or societies as a group. Indeed, it's proved almost impossible to get top level artists to support their fellow musicians around the world.

It's hard to know why Western artists rarely support their comrades in need. Perhaps supporting musicians is not considered sexy enough in a celebrity-driven media culture where orphans, earthquake ravaged villagers or newly released political prisoners are the gold standard for obtaining widespread coverage of one's charity work. Or perhaps living in a protective bubble they don't realize how risky it is to be a musician in other parts of the globe.

Regardless of why they ignore the plight of their fellow musicians, doing so is not only unethical, given that musicians in the developing world have provided so much inspiration for artists like Bono, Sting, Peter Gabriel and a host of other top rock, R&B and hiphop artists. It's also short-sighted from a human rights perspective. More than most any other form of cultural production, the treatment of music and musicians is a canary in the coal mine for the larger situation of political, civil and cultural rights in a country. This is particularly true in the case of underground forms of music, such as rock, which have traditionally been repressed in most Arab/Muslim countries.

Building an Axis of Empathy: From Tehran to Brooklyn

But if the superstars won't act, at a more grass roots level artists are coming together across the divides of oceans and cultures to show solidarity and provide whatever support they can for their fellow musicians. And when they can't do so in person, increasingly popular video conference programs are proving to be an excellent tool for raising awareness and building relationships.

On World Music Day the Copenhagen-based global anti-music censorship organization Freemuse organized a series of concerts globally to show support for musicians under threat in various countries. I was lucky enough to participate in one that, using the software ooVoo, brought together an indie-rock band from Tehran, The Plastic Wave, with a Brooklyn-based band, Cruel Black Dove, who were so moved by their plight that they decided to learn and perform several of their songs in tribute to their courage and plight.

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.

The Plastic Wave's obvious talent, coupled with the censorship they face at home, are no doubt why the prestigious SXSW festival, the biggest music festival in the US, invited them last year to perform at the festival. They would have surely captured the ears of critics and fans at SXSW; but unfortunately, the officials at the American Consulate in Dubai refused to give them a visa to travel there (apparently, they couldn't demonstrate enough experience playing live or artistic recognition; how they were supposed to obtain these in Iran was apparently not considered by the consular officer who rejected their application).

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. 

The intimate discussion laid the groundwork for the intensity of the show; but it wasn't just the music that made the event so special. To be sure, Cruel Black Dove did not do this show out of pity for their musicians. The affinity they felt for The Plastic Wave's music was obvious, and their tightly rehearsed renditions didn't merely reproduce the band's sound, but took it to a new level. As incredible was watching the members of The Plastic Wave watch the Cruel Black Dove's performance on the video projection screen along with the audience, to see both the pride in how good their songs sounded and the sadness and not being there themselves to perform it.

It was one of the more poignant moments I've witnessed in two decades as a musician and fan.

After performing three songs by The Plastic Wave, Cruel Black Dove ended with one of their own songs, whose sonic sympathy with the previous songs highlighted who close these two bands are musically. After a well-deserved applause finally quieted down the panel discussion resumed; only after the music the discussion was even more personal; the intense emotion it stirred in the members of the two bands--the sense that despite being well over 10,000 kilometers apart, together they had created something unprecedented and truly inspiring--was even more palpable.

The audience clearly felt that way as well, as they peppered the band and organizers with questions after the show, and seemed generally surprised and moved at the work that the sponsoring organizations, Freemuse and the Impossible Music Sessions, are doing on behalf of musicians under risk.

The ongoing struggle between the government and people of Iran will likely not be won by either soon any time soon. The government's monopoly on violence, and willingness to use it, is allowing it to maintain power -- it seems to have bet, correctly, that most Iranians do not want another bloody revolution and so will not turn towards violent rebellion. As more than one Iranian friend has put it, "Look what happened last time we had a revolution. Evolution, not revolution is the way forward."

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.