March 3, 2011 / 10:31 AM / 6 years ago

Music Freedom Day salutes Arab demonstrators

ZURICH (Reuters Life!) - Musicians in the Middle East will pay tribute to the Arab uprising and commemorate the death of an Egyptian musician during the Cairo demonstrations as part of this year's international Music Freedom Day on Thursday.

Music Freedom Day, the brainchild of Freemuse, an independent organization advocating freedom of expression for music makers worldwide, is bringing together artists in over 20 countries to highlight the plight of colleagues around the globe who suffer censorship, imprisonment and even death.

"It may not be difficult to silence the individual musician but you can't really silence their songs," Freemuse co-founder Ole Reitov told Reuters by phone. "We've seen with many of the songs or singers that have had problems that although they may put the musicians in prison, their songs somehow survive."

The event kicked off with concerts in Mumbai and Kabul and ends with a session in New York and special broadcasting programs in Canada after events in Egypt and Lebanon paying tribute to Egyptian musician Ahmed Basiouni, who died on the fourth day of demonstrations in Cairo earlier this year.

Freemuse was founded in the late 1990s to document censorship in music, raise awareness of the problem and offer support to the musicians and their families.

"Artists all over the world would speak up for all kinds of things but they never spoke out about their own conditions, so we would have writers speaking out on behalf of Salman Rushdie but you never heard Bono or Youssou N'Dour or anyone else talking about all the repression that took place with some of their colleagues," Reitov said from his office in Copenhagen.

LISTEN TO THE BANNED

While huge organizations like Amnesty International campaign on behalf of political prisoners, Freemuse, which has just six full-time and part-time staff and struggles for funding, remains the only international organization dedicated to campaigning against music censorship.

"Coming across Freemuse was a real godsend for me at a time when I really needed somebody for support," Deeyah, a singer and composer born in Norway to Muslim parents of Pakistani origin, told Reuters by phone from her current home in Atlanta.

Deeyah, who has become a vehement campaigner for freedom of expression through music and other human rights issues, said the organization helped her when she was experiencing problems because of her choice of profession and background.

"Music is a fundamental part of all our cultures, our history and our identity. It's not just light entertainment that doesn't need protection," Deeyah said. "It is in many countries the only way for people to express themselves or even rebel."

Deeyah last year produced a CD, "Listen To The Banned," featuring many of the artists Freemuse has helped over the years, including Cameroon's Lapiro De Mbanga, whose songs like "Constitution Constipee" (Constipated Constitution) have landed him in jail for almost three years.

De Mbanga will spend Music Freedom Day in court in Cameroon in relation to his current imprisonment, while cultural activists and musicians in Cameroon meet to discuss issues of music censorship in the country.

"His own analysis was that our help kept him alive in prison," said Reitov.

Elsewhere in Africa, 2,000 composers in Zimbabwe will demand state radio stop playing their music because they haven't received royalties for four or five years. Some of these musicians will hold a concert in the evening, including rapper Comrade Fatso, an outspoken critic of President Robert Mugabe.

"The wonderful thing about Music Freedom Day to me is that people locally have taken total ownership of the idea. There's no way we either wish to or could control it," Reitov said.

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