A Loud Voice Never Dies: Songs Across Time and Place

Urok Shirhan

Artwork: Sarah Saroufim - The Right to Tenderness

“هاي السنة سنة، مو مثل كل سنة”
عزيز علي —

“Hay el sana sana, mu mithil kul sana”
— Aziz Ali

This year is a year, unlike every year. These words could have referred to the bizarre year that 2020 has been, but they were written over sixty years ago. Iraqi singer and “monologuist” Aziz Ali recorded Hay Elsana Sana (This Year is a Year) in early 1958.[1] The monologue, a form of musical satire, aired on Radio Baghdad several months before the 14 July Revolution. Its lyrics express both hope and despair, wishing for ‘this year’ to be different from the ones before, for future generations to live “without corruption and the corrupt” and during which, perhaps, “we will sing our finest songs.”[2] Led by the nationalist general Abd al-Karim Qasim, the revolution successfully removed the Hashemite monarchy in Iraq from power and turned the country into a republic. Abd al-Karim Qasim became Iraq’s Prime Minister.

Throughout his career in the 1930s and ’40s, the authorities regularly imprisoned Aziz Ali for his fiery monologues. He was outspoken in his criticism of the British colonialists and their Arab supporters[3], and became famous for his elegant and satirical tongue-in-cheek commentary on the political order and the rampant corruption and censorship in society, art, and culture.[4] 

The Iraqi Baathist Party staged their first military coup in February 1963, executing PM Abd al-Karim Qasim. Although they remained in power for a mere nine months, the events and aftermath of the ’63 coup were bloody and violent, resulting in the killings of thousands, among them hundreds of intellectuals. At the time, the Iraqi Communist Party was the only party in Iraq’s political arena that was concerned with the freedom and protection of art and culture. The Baathists equated artists and intellectuals with Communists, and executed people accordingly.[5]

After their ousting in November 1963 and a few years of relative calm and restoration of political and cultural freedom in Iraq, the Baathists seized power again — this time for the long haul — through their second coup d’état of 17 July 1968. In an attempt to repair their vicious reputation since ’63 and uphold a democratic image, they employed a ‘softer’ approach at the beginning of their renewed reign. In practice, they used bribes and extortions for a few months before they resorted to their usual kidnappings, torture tactics and executions.[6]

While Baathists exerted their power to make their opponents ‘disappear’ by any means necessary, it did not lessen their paranoia and fear of Communism, which remained palpable across the republic. Naturally, they prohibited the broadcasting of Aziz Ali’s provocative monologues once more. In addition to banning political songs, writings, and artworks that were openly critical of the government, the Baathists went as far as to censor musical and artistic productions that did not harbor any political goals. Among those was a popular song by singer Maeda Nazhat, released around 1961, whose title The Girl in the Red Dress, was reason enough to ban it.[7]

She left her father’s house,

She’s going to her neighbor’s house,

She passed me without saying hello,

Maybe the pretty one is mad at me.

Talaa Min Beit Abuha, Nazem Alghazali [8]
Baghdad, 1959

The year is 1974 and the song is E Depois do Adeus (And After The Farewell) by Paulo de Carvalho.[9] The occasion is the Portuguese submission for the annual European Song Contest, held in Brighton on 6 April. The lyrics are written from the perspective of a man with a broken heart, who ponders the nature of love itself: “The sea doesn’t bring me your voice; In silence, my love, in sadness at last.” It was the same edition of the contest that launched the spectacular career of Swedish pop-band ABBA, with their song Waterloo winning first place. Portugal came in last. But it wasn’t the song’s final goodbye, as E Depois do Adeus would find its resonance elsewhere.

A little over two weeks later, the love ballad was broadcast on Portuguese radio as a secret signal, marking the start of a military coup that would overthrow Marcelo Caetano’s right-wing government. The coup was instigated by the Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas; MFA), an organization made up of politically left-leaning officers in the Portuguese Armed Forces[10]E Depois do Adeus alerted rebel captains and soldiers to begin the coup. The second signal followed a few hours later when the radio played Grândola Vila Morena by Zeca Afonso[11], an influential political folk musician whose songs were banned from the radio under the dictatorship. The role of this second message was to signal that the operation was going according to plan.

What became known as the Carnation Revolution succeeded in ushering Portugal’s transition to democracy and led to the liberation of its colonized territories in Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Príncipe and Mozambique, all within a year.[12] This was possibly the first time in history that a revolution was ignited by a love song.

She left her father’s house,

She’s going to the protest,

She left, she wants freedom,

She left to topple the regime.

Taala Min Beit Abuha, Feminist March [13]
Beirut, 2019

The year is 2019. It is a Monday afternoon. Four days into the 17 October revolution in Beirut, seven days into the Revolution in Santiago, Chile, and four days before the uprisings erupt in Baghdad. I am walking between hundreds, possibly thousands of predominantly young protesters. We are slowly marching from Martyrs’ Square towards Riad El Solh Square. Everyone is singing and chanting at the top of their lungs. Most of the chants are led by a single voice amplified by a powered megaphone through loudspeakers, which are mounted on top of a moving car. The crowds repeat the chants. The march and the car-turned-mobile sound system eventually stop as they arrive at their destination in the centre of the square, surrounded by people as far as my eyes could see. The person holding the microphone utters a phrase in Arabic that still gives me pause, even a year later:

A loud voice never dies.

The crowd repeats the sentence. The speaker mumbles through the microphone and taunts the crowd: “I can barely hear you!” Then repeats, yelling this time: “A Loud Voice Never Dies!” and it works — the crowd is louder. Pleased with the volume levels, the speaker continues the chant (rhyming in Arabic): “And the Revolution is in central Beirut!”. We all respond; our voices growing louder still. Astonished and excited, I check to make sure I recorded everything on my phone.

The year is 2011; it’s September in Zuccotti Park, New York City. A single voice speaks loudly. Each sentence is repeated in unison by the first group of people, seemingly close by, followed by another group of people, who are further away.

Mic check!
(mic check; mic check)

We amplify each other’s voices!
(we amplify each other’s voices; we amplify each other’s voices)

No matter what’s said!
(no matter what’s said; no matter what’s said)

So we can hear one another!
(so we can hear one another; so we can hear one another)

But also!
(but also; but also)

We use this human mic,
(we use this human mic; we use this human mic)

Because the police won’t let us,
(because the police won’t let us; because the police won’t let us))

Use any kind of instruments!
(use any kind of instruments; use any kind of instruments)

The Occupy Movement introduced the use of the Human Microphone — also known as the People’s Mic — as a practical tool to amplify a person’s speech during the daily General Assembly meetings, since protesters did not have permission to use electric amplification in the form of powered microphones and loudspeakers.

The Human Microphone is a form of amplification that does more than turn up the volume to render speech audible. For the device to work, words must be embodied by everyone present, even if the content conflicts with their views. Not only is it a handy tool for analogue amplification, but also an instrument for exercising a radical form of empathy: embodying, echoing, and loudly rehearsing words that are not your own. As for the person speaking, they would hear their own words reverberate through a multitude of voices.

The year is 2020. In the Netherlands, where I am based, the national health association’s current guidelines include a ban on collective shouting and singing. If social distancing measures can be enforced, collective whispering would be allowed during a concert or a soccer match. But you can’t sing out loud.[14] 

Faced with the daunting prospect of muted chants, suppressed cheers, and hushed audiences, I wonder if there is a point for a group to gather in person if they can’t hear others or make themselves heard. Could this “noise cancellation” defeat a collective presence altogether? 

The Human Mic would likely be prohibited under current health guidelines. We are not allowed to amplify each other since it requires loudness and physical embodiment to work. The Mic also offers anonymity by blurring sole authorship: the singular voice cannot be singled out from the collective one. To the contrary, today’s restrictions on loudness aim to isolate voices, keeping them separate, singular, and distant from one another.

In our formerly busy and noisy cities, mass silence was often used as a form of protest. Silent marches, sit-ins, or mournful moments of silence were forms of dissidence. When loudness is the “norm,” silence becomes a powerful tool. But what happens when silence is the status quo?
How does a collective voice sound?

Guevara is dead,

Guevara is dead,

The latest news on the radios,

In the churches,

In the mosques,

In the allies,

On the streets,

In the cafés and in the bars,

Guevara is dead.

The year is 1967, and Che Guevara is dead. The poem, Guevara is Dead, was written by the late Egyptian vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and sung by composer Sheikh Imam.[15] It remains a powerful and rather devastating example of Global South alliance enacted through speech and song. To hear it is to feel the weight of the news of the iconic revolutionary’s killing, as if it happened yesterday. The song evokes so powerfully the immensity of the catastrophe and the insurmountable loss.

Santiago, composed and sung by Iraqi singer Jaafar Hassan, is another mournful cry. Following a string of fascist murders in 1973, which targeted teacher and singer Victor Jara, as well as writer and poet Pablo Neruda along with countless other intellectuals, Iraqi communists organized several political and cultural events as well as protests in solidarity with their Chilean comrades. One of the most prominent events was the Baghdad Week of Solidarity with Chile, which took place in early October 1973 at the Association of Artists in Baghdad. The week-long event included art exhibitions, theatre, poetry, live music and song.[16]

Iraqi Kurdish political singer, composer and musical arranger Jaafar Hassan had been a member of the Iraqi Communist Party (ICP) since the early 1970s. Together with his sister Elham Hassan and Kawkab Hamza, he formed a band called Al Ruwwad. During the Week of Solidarity, they performed Santiago; Chile Passes As A Star Through Our Skies, and the internationalist anthem Don’t Ask Me For My Address:

Don’t ask me for my address
My address is in the whole world

Never ever ask me
My home is everywhere

No no no no, don’t ask me!

My father in Moscow is a peasant
My brother is a workshop labourer

My comrade died in Chicago
A professor who stopped teaching

The lyrics also refer to comrades in Palestine; Vietnam; Paris; Angola; Lebanon; Indochina; and others. The upbeat anthem was hugely popular at the concert, with thousands “chanting the refrain in a roaring voice” — so much so that once the song ended, the audience continued chanting and “repeated the song almost in its entirety”. Starkly contrasting this festive mood, but equally resonant, was Santiago, lamenting the tragedy of the Left in Chile.

The Baghdad Week of Solidarity with Chile created a big stir, being one of the first public communist cultural events of this magnitude in Iraq since the political and social defeats of the 1960s. The Week’s events reverberated in Baghdad to such an extent that it prompted the Baathist authorities and security apparatuses to impose “a set of measures against the participating artists so that the event’s profound emotional and ideological effects would not be repeated.”[17]

Up until that point, Jaafar Hassan worked as a teacher and coordinator of the school’s music activities. Unsurprisingly, he was fired soon after his participation in the Week of Solidarity. In the following years, he worked as an editor at Tareeq Alshaab, the ICP’s newspaper. Between 1974 and ’78, he was imprisoned numerous times by the Baathists, typically after his musical performances or when his songs gained prominence among the public. In 1978, as the political situation in Iraq escalated, he was forced into exile, settling in the newly established socialist state of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, or South Yemen. There, he founded a new band called Asheed (formally: Asheed Music Ensemble for Political Song), the central ensemble of the Yemeni Democratic Socialist Youth Union. Hassan remained in Yemen for decades before eventually returning to Iraq in the mid-2000s.

The year is 2017, and it’s the beginning of summer. My friend Santiago is visiting from Spain, so we meet up in Amsterdam for coffee. We attend a performance by an acquaintance, drink a glass or two of dry white wine and embark on an endless conversation. A few days later, I casually mention my friend’s name in passing to my mother. She instantly burst into song:

Santiago, blood on the streets,

Santiago, blood in the factories,

Blood in the homes, and above the ship masts,

Santiago, blood in the stations.

My parents had participated in the Week of Solidarity with Chile. They may have mentioned it to me before but it was the first time I heard about it through song. I asked them to tell me more about what they remembered, and wondered — as I often do — about what happened to this form of vocal allyship, sounding across distances.

Perhaps it was images alienating us from each other all along.

This year is not over. The global lockdown did not separate us from each other. It created a physical barrier between us and our immediate surroundings, but only to draw us ever closer to one another. We are momentarily unified in sound, in electromagnetic waves, and in the written word. Images from elsewhere are just that: from elsewhere. They emphasize their difference and distinctness, challenging the embodiment of the here and now. Images impose themselves. They compete with each other for your attention. Sound, however, is more easily integrated into our daily lives — more readily embodied, no matter where we are and what we may see before us.

Was it images that had been alienating us from each other all along? Alienating localities from one another? Maybe we came to depend on their instant availability, trusting their capacity to inform us. But the Baghdad-Santiago allyship of the 1970s did not need such a constant stream of images. Nor did it necessitate perpetual travel for comrades to be close to one another. Could it be that we have been traveling in circles around each other all this time?

Until we can sing together again, let us rehearse each others’ songs. Perhaps we can invent new ones, simultaneously, with delay, played back, echoed. Whispered, or hummed; melodies resonating through our headphones and loudspeakers. May we learn each others’ songs by heart, and resound the refrains through our bodies. Like ventriloquists, we amplify each others’ voices and resistances. Our voices are not ours alone. They are vessels for others. When we rehearse, practice, and enact a song, our singular voice becomes a collective one. When we speak, we speak as many. In any case, we are already plural. We amplify one another, no matter what.

A loud voice never dies.

A Loud Voice Never Dies, is part of an ongoing series of written and sonic essays that look into political songs, sounds and voices.

Earlier works in this series are Against Voices (2020), published as part of The Contemporary Journal’s Sonic Continuum issue, and Lovesong Revolution (2020) published as part of The City Talks Back: Assembly_01. This research has been supported in part by BAK, basis voor actuele kunst in Utrecht, where Shirhan was a 2019/2020 Research Fellow, and by Theatrum Mundi and Onassis Stegi in Athens.

The author wishes to thank Reem Shadid and Radio Al Hara for the invitation to develop and broadcast segments of the research in its early stages (you can listen to the episode in Arabic here). With special thanks to Nebal Shamki and Qassim Alsaedy for their continuous streams of critical references, untold stories and repressed histories.

[1] Aziz Ali – “Hay Elsana Sana” (1958)  عزيز علي – هاي السنة سنة. www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4FYA_twYhE

[2] Al-Allawi, Hassan. Aziz Ali: The Satirical Melody. (Baghdad, 1967), pp. 142-144.
عزيز علي اللحن الساخر –  حسن العلوي

[3] Holes, Clive.“The Iraqi ‘monologist’: ‘Aziz ‘Ali (1911-1995)” in Casini, L., La Spisa P. & Suriano, A.R. (eds.) The Languages of Arabic Literature: Un Omaggio A Lidia BettiniQuaderni di Studi Arabi, N.S. 9, 2014, pp. 229–237. 

[4] Al-Hattab, Jawad. “Aziz Ali: Iraqi artist who called for the ‘Arab Spring’ 70 years ago” in Al Arabiya, 12 April 2013.

[5] Tripp, Charles. A History of Iraq. Cambridge University Press (New York, 2000) p. 171.

[6] Makiya, Kanan. Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq. University of California Press (Berkley, 1989) pp. 58–63.

[7] Maeda Nazhat – “Ya Umm El Fustan El Ahmar” (1961) يا أم الفستان الأحمر – مائدة نزهت.

[8] Nazem Al-Ghazali – “Tala Min Beit Abuha” (1959) طالعة من بيت أبوها – ناظم الغزالي

[9] Paulo de Carvalho – “E Depois do Adeus” (1974)

[10] “Portugal: The Carnation Revolution”, This Week, Thames Television Productions, 1974.

[11] Zeca Afonso – “Grândola Vila Morena” (1971)

[12] “Portugal had been the first European power to establish a colony in Africa when it captured Ceuta in 1415 and now it was one of the last to leave.” See also: www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Portuguese_Colonial_War

[13] Feminist March Beirut, Lebanon – “Tala Min Beit Abuha” (October 2019) طالعة من بيت أبوها – مسيرة نسويه، بيروت

[14] Beekman, Bas. “Voetbalfan mag bij goal ‘hoera’ fluisteren” in De Volkskrant, 25 June 2020

[15] Sheikh Imam – “Guevara is Dead” الشيخ إمام – جيفارا مات Poem by Ahmad Fouad Negm (1967)

[16] Abdul Ameer, Ali. “Jaafar Hassan’s Guitar” in Elaph, 2 September 2006. “غيتار جعفر حسن” .علي عبد الأمير 

[17] Ibid., my translation.