Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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A Little War Music

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Vestigial since WLIR lost its charm, my tuner got stuck up on a file cabinet to make room for the CD changer I bought last June, but the afternoon of January 15 I connected 14 feet of cable and punched some buttons. WBAI segued from Stevie Wonder's MLK tribute to something Arab before fading into an ecological teach-in. WNEW's Scott Muni looked disco tuneout in the eye and gave us Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On," followed by Lenny & Sean's "Give Peace a Chance," Stevie Ray's "Tick Tock," "Eve of Destruction," "The Unknown Soldier," and "hopes for peace to our soldiers in the Persian Gulf." On WBLS that night, Vaughan Harper also sent out "What's Going On," then backed a Dick Gregory routine about "puttin' the capitalists behind the United States Constitution" with Bob Thompson's soul-jazz "All in Love Is Fair," a title worth pondering. Later Champagne spun a whole side of the What's Going On album and Jarreau & Crawford's "Imagine" while listeners sent "smooth moves to all their loved ones in the Gulf." What kind of storm are Vaughan and Champagne into? A quiet storm, sisters and brothers, a quiet storm.

In the exhausting anxiety of the calm before, I needed radio to tell me I was part of a demographic wider than WBAI's. On January 15, it did. And though right now folks may feel that as long as the war's started they just want to get it over with, they'll be back. So I'm still tuning in. As news of the first bombs hit, Frankie Crocker delivered an enraged, choked-up "no blood for oil" rap, and in general BLS has been staunch--behind "Give Peace a Chance" while NEW pairs it with "I Won't Back Down" and the BBC bans it altogether. But that's no surprise--as I learned from BLS, blacks oppose the war in the polls even now. The surprise is that the pop stations are more unlistenable than ever--Z-100, which refused to air "Nothing Compares 2 U" during its 1990 countdown, displays "The Star-Spangled Banner" daily-- and that the boring old progs at NEW keep coming up with stuff, like when night man Dasher speculated on what else we could do with a billion a day in between Grand Funk Railroad's "Closer to Home" and a bone-crunching brag about the offensive capabilities of the Giant defense. So conventional music media may be of some use in a censored war. Score one for rock and roll.

But remember that even in the '60s, the music wasn't as oppositional as some now believe. With a tip of the cap to the Doors' "Unknown Soldier," getting requests and still a mess, the era's antiwar songs usually came from folkies, sometimes in folk-rock drag--Peter Paul & Mary, Donovan, Phil Ochs, Country Joe, and Bob Dylan, who wrote "Masters of War" as a rock and roller in folkie drag and kept his politics to himself for the entire Vietnam period. Arriving in 1969, the deliberately soft and general "Give Peace a Chance" failed to excite veteran activists--it was a teen hymn, favored by pink-cheeked newcomers to the protest-march scene. Never reluctant to exploit hippie retro-nuevo, Lenny Kravitz has yoked a '60s aura that seems both militant and warmly idealistic in secondhand retrospect to Sean Lennon's tougher, more specific rewrite, and good for him. The new "Give Peace a Chance" is an anthem where Randy Newman's compulsively subtle "Lines in the Sand" is only a work of art, and Sean's hopes for peace, unlike those of the supposedly nonpartisan remix of Styx's genuinely nonpartisan "Show Me the Way," aren't compromised by the working assumption that George Bush is a sincere statesman confronting a mad beast. (As of now, by the way, both the Newman, an Americana-style pop song, and the Styx mix--which features Gulf dedications and Congressional rodomontade and originated with Knoxville deejay Ray Edwards, not A&M--are radio-only.) And among ordinary potential protesters, smoothly noncommital moves hit home hardest. Despite its lucky "You can reach me by caravan/Cross the desert like an Arab man," Oleta Adams's big black-pop request "Get Here" is summed up by its bereft title, while Bette Midler's platinum "From a Distance," a profoundly ambivalent song that made a pass at encompassing every contradiction of faith and compassion in Nanci Griffiths's austere 1987 version, implies in this context that incomprehensible wars are better understood close up.

When I say these songs hit home, I mean they hit home here at home. How music functions among GIs in Sauda Arabia is harder to determine--there's no gauging the accuracy of scattered reports this early in the news blitz. "All we are saying/Is kick Saddam's ass," rewrite some grunts on CNN, and the Boston Globe's Colin Nickerson reports that the soundtrack of the Kuwaiti front comes straight out the '60s. Nickerson believes that Platoon, Apocalpyse Now, and Full Metal Jacket are why he's been hearing Hendrix, Joplin, "The End," "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and even Edwin Starr's "War" blasting out of boomboxes on, that's right, Armed Forces Radio. Declares a reformed rap fan: "We grunts are the mean green machine that's gonna make that King Saddam wish he never was born to breath. We need real war music from the war movies." This may not seem to jibe with Public Enemy's claim that "a lot of brothers walking around in the fine sand of the `Middle East' have adopted `Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos' as their marching song, according to the letters we've been getting." But though none of the letters in question originated in the theatre of war, I doubt that every uniformed African American goes over to the other man's music the minute he gets off the boat. Rap has long since established that in the teeth of kill-or-be-killed there's a tonic pleasure to be had from sick jokes and horror stories about your bad dream of a world. If the Doors can steel a recruit against hard rain someplace where there's not enough water to take a shower, why not PE? Why not both?

Public Enemy? On Armed Forces Radio? Well, maybe not--when I interviewed our Saudi Arabian PD, Sgt. Major Bob Nelson, the only rapper he cited was M.C. Hammer. But somehow I doubt the teetotaling nonsmoker, who says he would no more permit sex or Christmas carols in the Saudis' house than booze or cigarettes in his own, could name too many others--when he reports that the Navy station in Al-Jubayl likes "harder" stuff, he means "more country and staunch patriotic" songs, like Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." Nelson denies rumors that his network, often the best source of rap and metal near woebegone Stateside base towns, has run into flak in Saudi Arabia's urban centers, where decadent American culture can now be plucked out of the air by any unformed youth with a radio. Life during wartime means 50 per cent of his programming is news, but during music hours American requests rule--from Creedence to Guns N' Roses, he boasted, with lots of overseas dedications, slow love songs, and those inescapable favorites "We Are the Champions" and "Born in the U.S.A."

And if requests aren't respected, the ubiquitous audiocassette is there to compete with the airwaves, just like it does on the streets of Anytown, USA. Not just in the sand, either--Prong and Suicidal Tendencies were big in one reconnaissance plane, I'm told, while a recent report that bomber pilots were mixing Van Halen with radio communications in combat has alarmed U.S. Central Command. That's the risk you take with a hiply equipped army, I guess. Recruits were urged to bring Walkmen, Sony has donated more, and those so improvident as to embark for war without personalized music can take advantage of various giveaway programs. Many labels have proffered product, and shortly before Christmas CBS solicited public cooperation by offering a dollar discount for each consumer donation--store-bought cassettes only, no parental guidance stickers, and remove inlay pinups please. The Tapes for Troops program founded by Baskin-Robbins distributor Bill Frank (c/o VFW, 239 Rubber Avenue, Naugatuck, Connecticut 06670) will accept homemade cassettes as well. Frank told Billboard he was inspired by a newscast that "showed guys over there listening to Saudi music, snake charmer music. I thought it would be nice to send them some good tapes."

Well, yes. What American in his right mind would settle for "snake charmer music" with Public Enemy and Lee Greenwood there to remind him of a home that seems so impossibly sweet from a distance? I'm not being sarcastic, either--however hard Franco and Mahlathini hit my pleasure center, I think it's puritanical to claim that art should be good for you, and I've always resisted the world-beat propaganda that it's every fan's duty to extend his or her international boundaries. You like what you like, and though I'm here to tell you that effort can extend the boundaries of your pleasure center, the strange scales and heavy verbal emphasis of Islamic musical cultures from Morocco to Pakistan have never done the trick for me. A little rai, a few sub-Saharans, the first Najma LP, that's about it--five Umm Kulthum albums later, I still haven't gotten the point, and in the Arab world, Umm Kulthum was Elvis and Frank Sinatra combined. So just say I've had a breakthrough. My account of war music's other half draws on library research and two dozen interviews with scholars and music professionals (many of them Arabs of varying national origins who preferred--quite sanely, with the FBI and its brethren on the loose--to remain anonymous). Especially given the necessary generalization level, I doubt it's as accurate as I'd like. But it's as accurate as I can make it. It's a start. I wish I didn't believe I'll need it five years from now.

Since 1904, when recording began there, Arab pop's commercial center has been Cairo, although Beirut did pose a challenge in the '60s and '70s until circumstances intervened. Through its music and film industries, which are closely related--most singers were also movie stars--Egyptian culture and dialect came to pervade the Arab world. Although the pop-classical dichotomy makes less sense in that world than in Europe (or India, or Iran), a syncretic genre called "Arab song" or "ughniyah" arrived at a common denominator. While striving for a typically catchy pop simplicity of lyric and melody, ughniyah abandons Arab music's distinctive three-quarter tones to accommodate louder, more resonant Western string sections. Each country has its own stars, who tend toward their own modes, rhythms, and dialects, but relatively slight variations on the Cairo sound have dominated Arab popular music since World War II. Around the death of Nasser in 1970, however, less ornate and conservative folk-based musics (structurally and culturally similar to rock and roll, I'd say, although few of my sources volunteered the comparison) began to come up. Like the funk-tinged Algerian rai that's best-known in this country, the defiantly working-class shaabi and rebellious young al jeel showcased on David Lodge's Yalla: Hitlist Egypt synthesize Western and indigenous elements--Nubian and Bedouin rhythms and folklore, input from Libyan refugees, prominent roles for traditional flutes, cymbals, tambourines, and drums as well as synth and electric bass.

Somewhat less blatant in its modernization than these subcultural styles, more orchestral yet more danceable than ughniyah, is "the Gulf sound," said to be the most commercially potent trend in Arab pop. Different observers cite different influences--Indian movie soundtracks, Bahrainian pearl divers' music, Omani trade ties to East Africa, the intricate handclaps of North Africa. Everyone agrees, however, that the charge has been led by singers from, of all places, Kuwait. Because it favors more puritanical strains of Islam, the Arab peninsula has few classical or liturgical musical traditions to popularize, and so the Gulf sound's indigenous input--unlike that of classic Cairo Arab song--springs from lower on the class scale. But it's also crucial that modern Kuwait is wealthy enough to afford experimental leisure and hedonistic enough to permit it--that it has plenty of recording studios, although soon enough the stars moved on to Cairo and its string players. According the the BBC's Julian May, who produced David Lodge's radio feature on Kuwaiti music, it was before a live audience in Cairo last fall that the biggest Kuwaiti singer, Abdullah Roueshid, introduced a song about Kuwait (by an Egyptian composer) called "Alla Homma La Ertarag." Soon the entire house was weeping.

Arab pop is a music of romantic travail, of love and loss. Although a strong punning tradition makes for scandalous double and triple meanings in small-scale live performance, our democratic ally Mubarak censors recordings vigorously--no sex, no religion, no politics. In wartime, however, safe topicality booms--paeans to Nasser in 1967, assertions of Arab pride in 1973, songs of national suffering during the Lebanese tragedy. Instead of mourning a lost love in "Alla Homma La Ertarag" (which leads side two of a compilation called Al Layla Al Mohamadia, available from New York's flagship Arab record store, Rashid Sales in Brooklyn), Roueshid mourned his lost nation with an astonishing funereal intensity, and he got the monster hit he deserved. The martial resistance music created in Cairo to be smuggled into Kuwait, which Lodge also unveiled on his show, was nowhere near as rousing. But while the song's popularity proves that some ordinary Arabs oppose the Iraqis, many don't. There are vague reports of signals, calls, and marches emanating from Baghdad as a prelude to war, of an agitprop record called "Allah Akbar." Every day Iraqi radio transmitters beam Nasser songs by the late great Egyptian matinee idol Abdul Haleem Hafiz all the way to Cairo, where the notion that Saddam is Nasser's pan-Arab successor has plenty of takers--anti-Mubarak puns are plentiful in folkloric settings. And Paris's huge Algerian population has made an underground smash out of an ughnijah-style anti-American praisesong called "Saddam Saddam," which has been banned by our democratic allies of the French government.

"Saddam Saddam" is more heard about than heard--I'm still not even sure whether it's a record or a video, and I don't know the artist's name. But I'm certain it's by an Algerian rather than an Iraqi, and this is no surprise--Iraqi pop rarely travels, though there's more to it than accounts of the society's Orwellian horrors might lead you to fear. Iraq has its ughnijah stars--I now own a Bahrain-recorded tape by Hussein Naameh, who gazes warmly out from the inset card like a Julio wannabee and sounds blandly indistinguishable from anything else you might hear while eating falafel on St. Mark's Place. Cassettes are sold on the street as they are all over the Arab world--Sting and Bob Marley and maybe even Bon Jovi (though hostilities presumably make such ecumenicism impossible now) as well as Hussein Naameh and Umm Kulthum. It's fair to assume that political censorship (and self-censorship) is absolute, but Iraq has been more tolerant than Egypt, say, in sexual and religious matters. There are venues catering to Kurds and Bedouins and Chaldeans and displaced peasants, and venues where young Iraqis play their own electric music--sometimes Arabic, sometimes hybrid, sometimes even rock covers. But I've yet to find anyone who cares about Arab popular music who has much good, or much of anything, to say about Iraq.

By "popular" I mean commercial product, not "folk" or "people's" music, because I've also yet to find anyone who doesn't agree that Iraq has put more money into its traditional musics than any other country in the Arab world. Now, as far as I'm concerned, anybody who thinks Saddam ain't so bad--who believes Ba'ath anti-imperialism, or gains for women, or improvements in the standard of living somehow compensates for the regime's brutal Stalinism--should take a look at Samir al-Khalil's terrifying Republic of Fear and think again. So you can attribute Iraq's musical activism to vainglory or cultural bribery or bread-and-circuses or repressive desublimation or virulent nationalism or megalomaniac pan-Arabism or totalitarian taste without getting an argument from me. And you can mention that Iraq's musical traditions would be in much better shape if the Jewish instrumentalists who where once their chief caretakers--and who ended up nurturing them as Israeli citizens in an urban folk club called the Café Nuh near Tel Aviv--hadn't been chased out by numerous anti-Semitic crackdowns, the last shortly after Ba'athism's 1968 takeover. Neither point negates what Iraq's musical activism has achieved--respect for, and training in, the diverse traditions of a nation that may wave the glorious name of Babylon in the world's face but was in fact cobbled together by the British after World War I finished the Turks. Music doesn't negate so easy--it can thrive under the most perverse circumstances. I've heard and believe complaints that in both the folk and classical domains the reclamation job has sometimes been more vulgar, compromised, and inauthentic than one might hope. But purists and scholars always say such things, as they should. Cultural preservation is imperfect by definition. And it still beats cultural destruction a mile.

"You have to understand," one Arab told me, near tears. "For us, Baghdad is like Florence." He didn't add that Cairo was like Rome, or bring in the Medicis either. He was just an aesthete who hated bombs, and like most aesthetes these days, he was in despair watching his world explode. I wish I could spin some grand theory about the political spaces opened up by the shared pleasures and subcultural energies of this war's various popular musics. But not only don't I see any upbeat endings, I feel like a facile fool for every time I found one in the past. I can only counsel extreme cultural humility. Pop optimists who assume rock and roll is on the side of good should ponder the depressingly mixed evidence while avant-garde pessimists tempted to crow I-told-you-so consider the efficacy of their strategies of radical engagement and disengagement. And any American with the decency to mourn the Arab lives wasted in this conflict could take a first tiny step toward learning how to make amends by getting to know the cultures being twisted if not pulverized in his or her name. I'd start with Abed Azrié's Aromates (Elektra Nonesuch), darkly aggrieved artsongs by an expatriate Syrian highbrow who clearly deserves a Florence of his own. And Yalla: Hitlist Egypt (Mango), cheerfully defiant popsongs from two teeming Cairo subcultures whose instinct will be to hate the U.S.A. we were born in for as long as they exist.

Village Voice, Feb. 12, 1991