Norwegian singer-songwriter and activist Moddi will soon release an album which gives voice to singers whose works have been banned around the world. ANNE DOUGLAS reports
THE IDEA for the album Unsongs came to Moddi when he learned about an Israeli officer who refused to lead his forces into Beirut during the Lebanon war in 1982.
The song about Eli Geva, sung by Norwegian Birgitte Grimstad, had never been released due to being “too provocative” at the time.
“I was amazed to discover that one short song could convey so much history and still be unheard,” he says.
Fired with inspiration, he started looking for similar stories of banned and silenced songs from around the world, in the hope that he might find other voices that deserved to be heard.
The result is the album Unsongs, a remarkable collection of songs that have, at one stage, been banned, censored or silenced.
The attempts to suppress them were as mild as an airplay ban or as brutal as murder. With great sensitivity and imagination, Moddi has given them new life and created a moving and eye-opening album which simultaneously celebrates the censored and exposes the censors.
It contains translated and reinterpreted music from countries as different as Russia, Mexico, Palestine, Vietnam, Norway and England. Many of the writers who penned the songs are still imprisoned or exiled. Some, like Chilean folk legend Victor Jara and Algerian rebel singer Lounes Matoub, were killed.
Their stories, spanning continents and centuries, are as recent as Punk Prayer by Pussy Riot and as old as the 19th-century folk song The Shaman and the Thief.
The latter’s origins are in Norway’s aggressively assimilated indigenous Sami culture and it’s performed by the celebrated Sami singer Mari Boine.
Moddi was an activist before he was a songwriter. As a member of Socialist Youth and Young Friends of the Earth, he realised that the songs they sang were decades old.
“Beautiful songs but they don’t correspond to the reality we live in now,” he says. “That’s basically why I started writing music.” This impetus eventually led to his acclaimed 2010 debut album Floriography, hailed by Q magazine as “a heartwarming and beautifully constructed piece of melancholic folk-pop.”
In January 2014, after two more albums, Moddi cancelled a concert in Tel Aviv in protest at Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. On his website, he wrote: “Silence can sometimes be stronger than music.”
After the cancellation, singer Grimstad contacted Moddi to tell him about Geva, who had become an icon of the peace movement but also reviled among those who supported the war. That same year, she was warned against singing the song when she visited Israel — the Norwegian ambassador threatened to walk out if she did — and it remained unheard for another 30 years.
So Moddi made his own version of Eli Geva. When he performed it, he noticed that it invoked strong emotions in the audience.
“People reacted to it in a completely different way than my usual songs,” he explains. “I had people leave the room because they disagreed with the content of the lyrics. I had people crying because they remembered the war.”
The experience demonstrated to Moddi that suppressed songs still have power long after the fact. He began looking for those that had been similarly treated and cast his net wide.
“I asked the question: ‘What does it take for a song to be censored?’” he explains. “I decided I would accept the answer to that question, whatever songs came my way.”
The inclusion of Parrot, Goat and Rooster, a 1990s narcocorrido (drug ballad) praising Mexican drug dealers, shows that it wasn’t necessary for him to endorse the song’s message in order to find it worthwhile.
Moddi’s only rule was that the element of the song which caused it to be suppressed had to remain intact, even when translated into English and with a different arrangement and melody.
With the famous Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish’s Oh My Father I Am Joseph, he changed almost everything except the Quran-quoting chorus, which caused it to be banned in many Arab countries. Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer, which led to a show trial and imprisonment for the Russian feminist activists, is stripped of noise and returned to its melodic roots in Rachmaninov’s Ave Maria but the lyrics are no less subversive.
“It’s one of the most powerful lyrics that I have ever read,” Moddi says. He was afraid that his interpretation would take it too far to be acceptable as a psalm and when he tried to film the video in a Norwegian church, he was told the lyrics were “unfit for the Lord’s house.”
Moddi had to shoot the video outside on the church steps, in minus five degrees.
“It was freezing but reassuring. It proved that I still had the forbidden core of the song intact. It is still bannable.”
Some songs, such as Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Kate Bush’s Army Dreamers, became well known despite initial resistance. Others had dire consequences for the writers and performers. Viet Khang (Where is my Vietnam?) was imprisoned for anti-state propaganda. Algerian rebel and democracy campaigner Lounes Matoub (Open Letter) was assassinated by masked men for his criticism of the government.
Most famously, the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara was executed during the 1973 military coup that toppled socialist president Salvador Allende.
“People say musicians should keep out of politics and stick to what we’re good at, namely entertaining,” he says. “It’s the same argument I got when I cancelled the Tel Aviv show but it is really just a way to manipulate musicians and stifle their power.
“In disconnecting music from politics, artists are made powerless while, really, our greatest weapon lies in that we can make people listen.”
For Moddi, Unsongs will have succeeded if the album encourages listeners to learn more, and think more, about the different ways in which important messages are prevented from finding an audience.
“Through making this album I have found that people are tired of pop music with no content,” he says. “To me, making this album has been a doorway to the world, in a time when walls are being rebuilt and new doors are closed every day.
“The songs have made me appreciate the world a little more. Although the topic is serious, it fills me with hope. To me, at least, this album has proven that music is usually stronger than silence.”
Unsongs by Moddi is released on September 16, details: moddi.no