The Imperial War Museum in London has a season called Culture Under Attack – “a season of exhibitions and events that explore how conflict threatens those things the help make our lives worth living”. This is in three parts – What Remains, exploring why cultural heritage is attacked during war, Art In Exile, about how art was evacuated during the Second World War, and Rebel Sounds, “an immersive exhibition that uncovers how people have used music to resist, rebel and speak out against war and oppression”.
This is a small exhibit, and it was the Rebel Sounds section that I was initially interested in. I’m not sure I’d call it immersive (unless immersive means putting headphones on) but the four cases are similar inasmuch as the people involved were potentially risking their lives to continue playing, broadcasting, distributing or listening to music. There are four studies – Jazz and Swing in Nazi Germany, Good Vibrations records in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, Radio B92 in Belgrade in Serbia during the war in the Eighties, and a band formed in Mali in 2012 called Songhoy Blues, when Mali was subject to Sharia law. I knew about the Nazi ban on Swing (mainly because of the film Swing Kids!) and I knew the Good Vibrations story.
Radio B92 and Songhoy Blues were both new to me. Apart from being constantly shut down by an authoritarian and violent dictatorship, at one point B92 were told they could only broadcast music (no talking) so they just played Public Enemy’s Fight The Power on repeat. The guitarist from Songhoy Blues (Songhoy describes the bands ethnicity, members of the Songhai people) moved from Timbuktu to Bamako, and describes having to hide his guitar under the seat on the bus in case it got him arrested. I guess we all believe we’re capable of acts of bravery, but I never really considered carrying my guitar on a bus as brave. Equally, I never went to a gig where there was a lookout in case the Gestapo and Hitler Youth arrived.
Other highlights were learning about the quarry in Wiltshire where they hid artworks during the Second World War in the Art In Exile part, and a bit of a lesson in the What Remains rooms – basically, a series of pictures of rubble where beautiful buildings used to be, but no less moving for that.
But Culture Under Attack isn’t just these few rooms, it’s also concerts and presentations and live things. You can find out more here. (On the general point of the IWM, it’s a really good place. They have proper, thoughtful exhibits, and it’s all free. So go, I recommend it).
Like all good exhibits, it didn’t tell me everything I wanted to know, and I’ve since researched more on Songhoy Blues and B92, and the quarry in Wiltshire. I’m currently busy making Agitprop music, but am I really willing to risk injury or death in order to make a political point, even when I’m clearly morally right? Not sure, to be honest. You’d hope so, but let’s also hope I never have to find out.
A final word from B92 – “Don’t trust anyone, not even us”