Don’t shoot the piano player. Or the guitar player. Or the tabla player ...
In Francois Truffaut’s excellent 1960 film Shoot The Piano Player we see a classical pianist slumming it playing piano in a bar who then gets dragged into an underworld of Parisian gangsters. It’s a classic nouvelle vague homage to hardboiled American film noir. Not only is it witty and at times profound, it sports that great title, flipping the Wildean phrase (“Don’t shoot the piano player, he’s doing the best he can”) on its head. (Apparently the Truffaut title became a common joke among 60s musicians, wise-cracking evenings away in clubs in Soho or Montmartre).
All very nice, but the funny-yet-sinister phrase always pops into my head whenever I hear news of a musician getting murdered because ... well, well because of their music. Last month’s killing of the Pakistani Sufi singer Amjad Sabri in Karachi was a frightening recent example. Sabri was explicitly targeted by the Pakistani Taliban because it considered his devotional Qawwali music “blasphemous”. Anyone who’s ever been to a Qawwali concert (I’ve only ever been to one, the excellent Irshad Ali Qawwali Party, who I saw a couple of years ago) will know that this is extremely intense, deeply spiritual music, using tabla drums, a harmonium and amazing soaring-voiced singing. But “blasphemous”? Only to bigots. Which of course is exactly what the doctrinaire fanatics of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan are.
This has been going on in Pakistan and Afghanistan for years. Pashto musicians in Peshawar have been threatened and attacked (in some cases vigilante neighbours and local officials have hounded the musicians out of their traditional music shop quarter before the Taliban could do so). Musicians at weddings in Afghanistan have been beaten and publicly humiliated. And a leading Afghan music professor has been seriously injured by a suicide bombing at a concert in Kabul.
As the ethnomusicologist John Baily explains, the Taliban have tried to obliterate all but a very narrow field of musicality. Only a “duff” (or daf) drum and certain kinds of unaccompanied religious chants are tolerated. (Ironically, Bailey says the approved Taliban chants are themselves “extremely musical”, albeit that lyrically they’re rigorously ideological, glorying in the martial exploits of the Taliban's fighters).
Meanwhile, we shouldn’t forget that musicians have been targeted in other countries. To take just a few examples - Iran’s Revolutionary Guard (hardline Shias and no friends of the Sunni ideologues of the Taliban) have a track record of persecuting musicians, including most recently with the imprisonment of Mehdi Rajabian and Yousef Emadi. While in Chile, during Pinochet’s military dictatorship, numerous left-leaning musicians were threatened, with many fleeing into exile and the prominent folk singer Victor Jara killed. The jailing of Pussy Riot for their polemical music-theatrics In Moscow would of course be another example.
But why actually go after musicians? Are they really much of a threat? I think the answer is paradoxical - they aren’t a major threat, but somehow they represent something that’s threatening. On the one hand, when musicians have offered explicit - or near-explicit - political challenges (in Britain think of Crass’ anarcho-punk diatribes or The Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen) they've sometimes ended up under secret service surveillance or being banned from the BBC airwaves.
But authoritarian regimes are probably more worried about what musicians represent. And what they represent, when not regulated and controlled, is unruliness and social disorder. The Conservative government under John Major was so perturbed by unlicensed rave culture that it panickedly introduced the notorious Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. Meanwhile, a few years ago the Met police went through a phase of banning popular but rumbustious grime concerts in London on dubious public safety grounds. Jump back rather further in time (all the way back to the seventeenth-century in fact!) and you had zealous Puritan clergy doing their utmost to suppress traditional revelry in English villages and towns - “Church Ales”, travelling players, maypole dancers, drummers, pipers and “other abominable impieties and idolatories” were reviled in pulpit sermons and frequently punished by the authorities.
But when all is said and done, who doesn’t like a bit of drumming, piping and good old-fashioned impiety? I know I do. As the blues historian Alan Lomax points out, black churches in places like Mississippi spent years railing against blues music, denouncing it as the devil’s music (worldly and carnal), but that’s ... precisely why millions of people liked it.
I guess what I’m saying comes down to this. The devil really does have the best tunes and we should, well, just turn up the soundsystem and enjoy them. In Truffaut’s film the pianist Charlie (“Shar-lee”), played by real-life singer Charles Aznavour, is depressed and unhappy. But the music’s still great. Who can resist the scene where Boby Lapointe the barman rushes forward to sing a brilliantly odd song (see the video) to calm everyone’s nerves after two gunmen have stormed into the bar? As I think Truffaut was suggesting, we need far more music and far fewer guns ...
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