A Montreal Serai look at the Music of Protest

Neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and basically anyone with an opinion still throw out many theories as to why it is that music actually exists. Some claim music’s evolution has a kinship with the evolution of language, and others say music is a bunch of “auditory cheesecake” in evolutionary terms (ok – it was Steven Pinker). Whatever its origins, music stubbornly persists throughout all cultures and manages consistently to grip the emotional fibre of our imaginations.

Royal Mile Protest
Royal Mile Protest. By Devon Bucanan. Image used under Creative Commons license. Attribution, Noncommercial, Share Alike.

Furthermore, amongst the many forms of artistic protest that exist, music of protest takes the cake (or the cheesecake as it may be). Wherever there is unrest, there is music to decry injustice. Poignant imagery (both sonic and visual) can convey a message; Billie Holiday and Abel Meeropol achieve this combination masterfully in the song Strange Fruit. On the other extreme, co-opting pop culture and turning it on its head can also send a strong message; protestors in Egypt performing the Harlem Shake recently used this tactic in an absurdist way, while the collaboration between Das Racist and Ottawa’s A Tribe Called Red in the song Indians from All Directions uses lyrical wordplay and clever sampling towards this goal:


On the topic of co-opting – other artists protest big business’s co-opting of musical hipness and reach for its own nefarious gains. Montreal’s own Godspeed You! Black Emperor, upon winning this year’s Polaris Music Prize, lamented (amongst other things) that “holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do”. Their official statement goes on to say that they will be donating the prize money “to try to set up a program so that prisoners in [Quebec] have musical instruments if they need them”.

In this 50th anniversary of the height  of the civil rights movement in North America and its accompanying soundtrack, Montreal Serai has decided to put out an issue on the Music of Protest – and what an exciting issue it is.  Paul Serralheiro gives us a glimpse into the Montreal improvisational scene with the notion that “in this world the artist lives in a de facto state of rebellion”. Fittingly, Stefan Cristoff, a stalwart of both community activism and improvisational music, contributes a musical piece providing insight into how he “explore[s] the emotional and spiritual aspects of political action”.  If you want to find out about a more confrontational brand of musical activism, namely flutes in your face, trumpets aimed at tyranny, and percussion against pepper-spray, Simon Van Vliet’s Serai piece is a must-read. He gives us a passionate yet informative view (chalked full of multimedia delights) of marching bands for revolution. Serai’s own Rana Bose conducts a ping-ponging interview with Norman Nawrocki, a Montreal activist and musical fixture, about his personal history and motivations. Despite goading from Bose, Nawrocki informs us that he has actually “never hit anyone with [his] violin. It’s too precious an instrument.”  With an historical perspective, Mara Gray gives us her reflection on the “jazz voice” of poet Langston Hughes. In her piece she tells us that in “the poetry of Langston Hughes the subject, the language, the voices and the form are overdetermined by black idiom and the rhythmic patterns of the call-and- response of the sermon, the blues, the polyphonic instrumentation of Jazz. ” David Austin’s new book Fear of a Black Nation, which looks at the politics of race in Quebec and Canada, is reviewed by Rosalind Hampton. At one point she states that “the continuing relevance of such critical structural and systemic analyses of race and nationalism today could hardly be more starkly evident” – in referring to Quebec’s current political climate. Two pieces take us to protest music off this continent. Jayanta Guha interviews Surojit Chatterjee about the recent revival of Bengali folk music and Chaterjee’s own hand in its creation and dissemination. Chatterjee states that actually “folk culture is embedded in [the Bengal] system.” Mirella Bontempo takes us on a rollicking ride through fascism, anarchy and Italian protest songs. In talking about songs of resistance she tells us that “[once] in a while melody marries protest songs because, let’s face it, very few protest songs are catchy and they must be in their nature to be popularly embraced.” Rounding out this issue’s theme Marie Boti runs down the documentaries that Productions Multi-Monde has produced on the topic of music of protest.

Also in this issue, Ana Maria Pavela reviews La porcelaine de Chine by Marie-Léontine Tsibinda . Pavela tells us that Tsibinda stays true to herself and her principles and speaks of Africa, women, men, and children, bruised and tired of a war that doesn’t end. Serai’s own Nilambri Ghai reviews two books. The first is Jaspreet Singh’s Helium. She states the following

Helium is a bold, hard-hitting book that swings from fact to fiction against a backdrop of rheology, the science of deformation and flow of ‘complex materials’ such as blood, volcanic lava and clays – materials with ‘memory’, that “carry within them deep traces of unresolved past.”

In reviewing Arlene Chan’s The Chinese in Toronto from 1878: From Outside to Inside the Circle, Ghai informs us that “Arlene Chan’s book is a historic gem chronicling the remarkable journey of Chinese Canadians, and their success in moving from exclusion and systemic marginalization to taking on powerful positions in the governance and economic growth of Canada’s largest and most diverse, city, Toronto”.

Current events included on the site include Veena Gokhale’s interview with award winning, Indo-Canadian playwright and actress Anusree Roy whose work has come to Montreal for the first time in a production with Teesri Duniya Theatre. Ana Maria Pavela reports from the 42nd Festival du nouveau cinema and Maya Khankhoje does the same from the Montreal International Black Film Festival.

Also – check back in with this issue over the next little while as we have an interview with Montreal musician Chris Velan recounting his experiences working with Sierra Leone’s Refugee Allstars, an interview with Les Zimmis Grands (a Montreal, multi-lingual choir, which sings songs of protest from around the world), as well poetry and other goodies all in the pipeline. Enjoy!