Music retains the potential to offend, particularly if you’re a government with sensitive feelings about drugs, war or religion. But even if a song has been banned, it’s quite possibly come to the attention of Norwegian indie star, Pål Moddi Knutsen.
Performing under the name Moddi since 2005, he found himself booked to play Tel Aviv a couple of years ago. Pressure on him to boycott the show, in protest against the Israeli government’s actions in the region, made him rethink what he wanted from music. “All my sweet little love songs and songs about the sea had absolutely nothing to do with that harsh reality,” he tells me. “I just felt completely helpless and that I had nothing to do there.” He’d always held a belief in music’s ability to build bridges, but almost overnight this was lost. He ultimately cancelled the show, which left him quite low for a few days. Then fellow Norwegian singer, Birgitte Grimstad, got in touch with her story of a similar experience.
During the 1982 Lebanon war, Eli Geva was an Israeli commander who refused to lead his forces into Beirut and endanger its civilian population. He became an icon for the peace movement while equally demonised at home. An ode to the soldier’s courage was later written by Richard Burgess and performed by Grimstad. But she found herself warned away from performing the song during a tour in Israel. So it fell into obscurity, until Moddi’s own experience with the region’s complex politics. “It was pointless that such a powerful story should remain unheard and that such a powerful song would remain unsung.” Some research revealed literally thousands of songs which had been supressed around the world. It triggered a startling change of direction for a singer who’d established himself with three loveable indie-pop albums.
The result of this unfolding passion project became Unsongs, a bold collection of tracks that had been banned, censored or silenced in countries as diverse as China, Russia, Mexico and the UK. “In opening up the world in a different way, these songs are dangerous to people in power.” He’s realised the power wielded by music and poetry offered a philosophical and beautiful view of the world. Political and religious systems are conversely based upon rationality, power and authority.
Presented is a series of personal versions of some truly great records. These include Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, a protest against racism in the United States, Victor Jara’s A Prayer For A Worker which traces the events leading up to the Chilean military coup (during which he’d die), Izhar Ashdot’s A Matter of Habit which describes the fear and confusion affecting Israeli soldiers and Punk Prayer, Pussy Riot’s condemnation of the church’s support for President Putin. Kate Bush’s hit Army Dreamers also gets included. Telling the story of a grieving soldier, it reflects on the emotional turmoil caused by military actions. During the Gulf War the BBC found themselves shying away from playing this or anything with an anti-war sentiment. “It’s ironic that in the same month the UK sends off more than 50,000 soldiers to fight in Iraq and Kuwait, a song which takes the perspective of those soldiers is banned from the radio. There’s no time that the UK would have needed that song more.”
By Moddi’s own admission he was ignorant about Algeria and their treatment of the Berber people, and knew little about the dictatorship period in Chile. “These songs have been a gateway to the world, and were an awakening. Musicians talk very much about peace. How music brings people together, and playing instruments unites us in a virtual language. I believe conflict unites us more than consensus does.” In a way, this album has been a method of stepping onto the doorsteps of societies everywhere, perhaps teaching him more about human nature than world music ever has. He certainly believes playing songs about life, love and the things which resonate with everybody might have closed him off from the world at large. This immersion in works explicitly concerned with social conflict and controversial stories has made him appreciate so much more of life.
Finished last November, he followed the album by meeting its original composers. “I got to hear why they wrote the songs in the first place and how they got censored. I wanted to tell the stories, rather than just sing. This doesn’t belong to me; it belongs to the world.” Meeting the original composers was a challenge in itself, Moddi often having to evade the authorities on his journeys. While the project sprang from a turning point in his life, the repercussions of promoting these songs remain to be seen. He certainly doubts he’ll be visiting China again, but feels it will be worth it as the songs he’s assembled are needed in today’s society. If only to show what can flourish in the most difficult of circumstances. “It’s the amount of beauty which is hidden from the world. We live in desperate times. Everybody’s so afraid of each other, of different culture and expressions.” There’s a sense of pride and energy in his voice as he talks about the project. He knows he’s helped create something wonderful, and says there’s little point in being modest or withdrawn about the culmination of his project. “…because these aren’t my songs, and they deserve to be heard. Now it feels like I have napalm in my mouth when I’m singing – that’s how strong it is.”
Unsongs by Moddi is released on Fri 16 Sept, via Propeller.
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