Music Freedom Day spotlights singers without a 'voice'

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"It was a bad year for music," say the organizers of Music Freedom Day. Around the globe, musicians have been silenced – or worse, killed. But on 3 March, dozens of cities worldwide commemorate artists’ rights to be heard.

Music Freedom Day is organized annually by Freemuse, a Danish-based advocacy group for musicians and composers. The day features activities, seminars, exhibitions, films, radio programmes and articles spotlighting those whose rights of expression have been taken away.

Murdered musicians

According to Freemuse, in 2011 at least three musicians were murdered, over 30 were attacked or tortured, ten were jailed and over 60 were arrested. Freemuse editor Mik Aidt comments:

"I'm inclined to say things are getting worse and worse for the freedom of music in the world. But perhaps my picture is distorted because we [Freemuse] are always receiving new reports."

The worst news in recent months comes from Syria. A day after his appearance in a square in Hama, singer Ibrahim Kashoush was found in a river murdered. Not only was the death itself shocking, but so was how it happened. According to Mr Aidt:

"His throat had been slit and his vocal cords removed. Now I ask you – his vocal cords! That's the main instrument for a singer, the main instrument of freedom of expression."

Two other musicians murdered in 2011 come from Latin America. Famous Argentinian protest singer Facundo Cabral was shot dead in Guatemala while on tour. In Mexico, El Sapo, the lead singer of a band known for narcocorridos (drug-trafficking ballads), was also shot dead.

West Papua

According to Mr Aidt, there are still some ‘white spots’ on the globe, from which little information is available. Yet one of those gaps is now filled: this year Freemuse has mapped musical freedom in the Indonesian province of West Papua.

"In West Papua, independence fighters have long been active. They have expressed themselves through music. And that music was of course forbidden. In the 1980s, a number of musicians were put in prison and died in their cells."

Central Asia
At the top of Freemuse’s blacklist are Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Somalia and Burma. Musicians in these countries are put under severe pressure. Mr Aidt adds:

"In Central Asian countries, such as Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan, things are going the wrong way. And take note that Azerbaijan is organizing this year's Eurovision Song Contest."

‘Do the burqa’
Across the world – including in free, democratic countries – another level of discussion deals with lyrics and songs used in political campaigns.

For example, the Netherlands witnessed much fuss over satirist Johan Vlemmix (see jukebox below), who has been threatened since the airing of his song ‘Doe de boerka’ (‘Do the burqa’). And in Turkey, many people were displeased to learn that French President Nicolas Sarkozy put singer Charles Aznavour, the son of Armenian immigrants, on his election playlist.

Good news
The year 2011 also brought good news from the music world. Burmese singer Win Maw was released after a long imprisonment for being accused of masterminding news coverage of Myanmar’s 2007 democratic uprising.

In Canada, the song 'Money for Nothing' by Dire Straits was aired on radio and TV for the first time since the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council deemed its use of the word 'faggot' offensive.

In Afghanistan, a rock festival was held for the first time since 1975.

Even in Pakistan, there are glimmers of hope. "More than a hundred million people live there," says Mr Aidt. "The vast majority can now simply enjoy music. But, yes, in some parts of the country, there is still severe repression. In the eastern province of Punjab, there was an attempt this year to ban hiphop.”

Further reading:

Interesting twitter feeds about music and freedom of expression: