Austin Dacey – Rock the Theocrats

September 26, 2011

This coming October, in Kabul, Afghanistan—on a date, and in a location, that remain undisclosed—there will be a rock concert that’s billed as the world’s “first stealth music festival.”

It will feature rock, heavy metal, and funk from Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Iran.

Why “stealth”? In some of these countries, music is equivalent to political and religious subversion. Which is precisely why those of us who care about liberal democracy and secularism need to also care, deeply indeed, about music—and ensuring it gets out.

This week, Point of Inquiry spoke to an adviser of the Kabul event, as well as a longtime freethinker, and musician—Austin Dacey. He’s head of the Impossible Music Sessions, which describes itself as featuring “the artists who cannot appear and the music that is banned in their homelands.”

The purpose of the organization is to bring together musicians, producers, and audiences across cultures, space, and genres to share musical expression-and, enlarge its political potential.

Austin also happens to be a philosopher, author, and human rights activist. His books include The Secular Conscience and, due out next year, The Future of Blasphemy.

Links Mentioned in this Episode

This is point of inquiry for Monday, September 26, 2011. 

Welcomes a point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney. Point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. This coming October in Kabul, Afghanistan. On a date or dates and in a location that I don’t know and certainly cannot disclose. There’s gonna be a rock concert that’s billed as the world’s first stealth music festival. It will feature rock, heavy metal and funk. From Afghanistan is Becca Starn, Pakistan, Iran and other countries. Why stealth in some of these countries, music is equivalent to political and religious subversion. And that’s precisely why those of us who care about secularism, about liberal democracy, need to also care about music and ensuring that it gets out. This week, Point Inquiry spoke to an organizer of the Kaboul event, as well as a longtime free thinker and a musician, Austin Dacey. He’s the head of the Impossible Music Sessions, which describes itself as featuring the artists who cannot appear and the music that is banned in their homelands. The purpose of the organization is to bring together musicians, producers and audiences across cultures, across space, across genres to share in musical expression. And at the same time, to enlarge its political potential. In addition to doing this, Austin also happens to be a philosopher and author and full disclosure, an old friend of mine. His books include The Secular Conscience and due out next year, The Future of Blasphemy. 

Austin Dacey, welcome to Point of Inquiry. 

Thanks, Chris, for having me. 

Well, I couldn’t resist. You’re an old friend of mine and I’ve watched your steps. Maybe you’ve watched some of mine. And that’s what I think is so great about having you, is because we actually were in a secular humanist rock band together called the House Judiciary Committee more than 10 years ago. And so I’m thrilled to find you coming back to this ground and advancing both music and secularism at the same time with the impossible music sessions. It’s what you were always meant to do. So tell us more about this project and how you got into it. 

Well, thanks, Chris. It’s very kind. Actually, the band that we were in may have been the the best argument for censorship. 


There’s there’s music around the world that that deserves to be onstage. But because of political, cultural or religious barriers and risks is all but impossible. 

And yet music will not be silenced. So singers, musicians and composers find ways to continue making it despite the risks, quite literally laying their own bodies on the line for sound. The Impossible Music Sessions is an effort to honor these musicians at risk by bringing to the stage in New York City the music of those who cannot appear. We we stage their nonappearance to showcase their work and to raise public awareness about the conditions of musical freedom in their home countries. So what we do is we connect the musicians at risk with others in North America who can appear these other musicians, collaborate with them, learn some of their music, and then interpret it live onstage as the as the censored artists participates via phone or or Skype Internet hookup. This is undertaken with inspiration and assistance from from Free Muse, the World Forum on Music, Freedom and Censorship. And so it’s it’s an attempt to bring band music to the stage in New York. 

Well, if somebody didn’t invent this, I’m glad that you did. Someone else would. This is brilliant. What are the motives? I mean, why do people if we can just go abroad for a second? Why do people want to suppress music? I mean, is a big question. It’s also, you know, a recurrent theme in history. But how do you tackle it? 

Well, music has always been threatening to those in power because music doesn’t listen to power. Anyone who wants to impress all human practices into the service of some higher good, some one truth, one God, one way, one story, be that the harmonious society in a Confucian tradition, a revolutionary utopia in the Marxist tradition or the kingdom of heaven in the monotheistic tradition. And so so music has always been a challenge because music presents goods and values and stories and truths that don’t fit into the one. It’s a kind of rebellion of the of the many against the one. So, you know, contrary to Longfellow music as the universal language, I see music as much as well as a great divider. The revolt of the many against the one. 

But there’s also sort of like more conformist music and less conformist music, right? Even the people who want to suppress somebodies music have their own that they love. Right. 

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, even the Taliban’s campaign against music in Afghanistan, the most flagrant example of music censorship in which almost a thousand C.D. shops and musical instruments were were targeted and bombed and burned, musicians were assassinated. Even the Taliban has their own music. In fact, as I learned from a friend of mine, an exiled Pashtoon musician from the Northwest Frontier Province in Pakistan who fled death threats by the Taliban. The Taliban sing a chant, these religious hymns extolling the greatness of the Taliban. They’re recorded and distributed on cassette tapes. 

They just happen to be awful and they on the on the unaccompanied singing is drenched in reverb. They actually use auto tune now and then. 

Most funny, according to my friend here in Baja, is that the tunes that the Taliban use as the settings for these religious hymns are actually ripped off from popular secular Pashtoon songs. 

So they’re they’re not even original. So as far as the ethnomusicologist John Bailey said, the Taliban’s war against music was at the same time a war for bad music. 

Lovely. So, you know, the Taliban, Milli Vanilli is. I think that’s right. 

Well, look, you have better music than that to share with us. And that’s a real privilege to be able to actually listen to some of the music that you’re helping to get out there. And so I guess now we’re going to hear a first one. So I’m going to ask you to tell us what it is that we’re about to hear. And then are really cool. Producer Adam Isaac is going get to play a clip. I know he’s been waiting to do this. But first, cue it up for us. 

We are going to hear the title track from an E.P. recorded in a basement in Karaj, Iran. It’s by a group called The Plastic Wave, which features a female lead singer. And so they were effectively illegal in their home country. All three members of the plastic wave have served time in prison for their musical activities. And this is reaction. 


I can see which one is. When I lose. So I can be. 

Day to day, Bloomberg muttering, I can smell. James. 

So tell us a little more about what we just heard. 

I’ll just quote some of Barrales words. They are coming to my home. They will burn my thoughts. But we still live on this land. We haven’t ever thought of despair. This is the plastic wave singing about their situation. They were the first group that was a part of the Impossible Music Sessions project in March 2010. We connected with them with a group in Brooklyn called Cruel Black Dove who learned this song and two others and and and performed it. Wow. While morale. And one of her bandmates side participated via Skype. They had been attempting to get into well, actually on the strength of this home recorded MP three, they made it into the South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, a coveted placement even for American band. But they were unable to get artists visas from the U.S. to travel to play that show when they presented themselves to the consulate in Dubai. They were denied for the perfectly catch 22 reason that they couldn’t demonstrate a record of professional activities as musicians in Iran. Of course, the reason they couldn’t. Was that it is illegal for a woman to sing in front of a mixed gender audience in the country. And so they couldn’t possibly have shown any official work as musicians in Iran. 

Well, it makes me that much more glad that we’ve gotten to put them out here a little bit. This does raise you know, it’s hard to avoid the question of of Islam. Is it a unique problem area when it comes to musical freedom? I mean, is it different to rock the Kasbah than to rock the chapel and some kind of way? 

Islam does not explicitly forbid music. And in fact, it is a part of Islamic tradition. 

One of my favorite musics is the quali devotional music of South Asia, which combines kind of into sunny rhythms and and and melodies with this ecstatic virtuoso vocalizing on on sacred texts. Even the pitched recitation of the Koran for devotional purposes or touch reads, as it’s called, is. I would submit a kind of music. There’s nothing in the Koran which forbids music, although there is a verse cautioning against diverting talk or idle talk that leads one to stray from the way of God. And Islamic theologians beginning in the ninth century began to apply this Koranic prohibition against music. At that time, there was a a book called The Book of Descent. Sure of instruments of diversion. The 14th century thinker. Even Tiemann took a hard line on music and wanted most forms prohibited not just in religious services, but in the broader society. Not because religion would lead us to idleness, but rather because it was so potent, it was so powerful that it would seduce us away. The music lovers is guilty not of endurance, but of betrayal, of giving his or her passionate heart to something other than God. But the same worries about music do arise in the Christian tradition. The early church fathers banned all musical instruments from worship services. We think of the pipe organ as synonymous with sacred sound. But in fact, it was introduced into the Christian services against a bitter opposition for many theological conservatives in the 11th and 12th century. But even St. Augustine spilled a lot of ink on music. As with his erections, he’s suspicious of music because he can’t control it because he loves it so much. In fact, there’s a wonderful section of the confessions where he meditates on The Dubuis, which is a lengthy passage. A melisma on the last syllable of the word Alleluia sung before the gospel reading during the Catholic mass. And he worries that his his transport has his jubilation. Exaltation at the sound is too great for at that point. There’s no sacred text to meditate on, he says. I realize that when they are sung, these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle in me a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung. And so he worries that his emotional response is being generated not by the text and its meaning, but by the the intrinsic beauty of the sound itself. 

Again, the many versus the one escosa of seditious that in some ways defeats Saint Augustine too, isn’t it? But, you know, I mean, I think it’s like you just react. 

I mean, it’s amazing that you’ve also clearly done your homework about the intellectual side of this. First of all, and it’s great to hear the history of the cultures and how they how they and the religious traditions, how they react to music. But it seems to me it’s less Christian Islam thing than it’s sort of, you know, authoritarian adults trying to keep control kind of thing. And if religion is their means of doing it, I mean, fine. You know, we had this in the United States in the 80s. We had the Parents Music Resource Center, and you probably remember them trying to slap labels on albums. And Frank Zappa stood up and testified before Congress and he accused them of trying to treat this is my favorite quote ever. They’re trying to treat dandruff by decapitation. 

Sure. But just imagine if if those groups had actually wrested control over the reins of power and they actually could impose the death penalty for. 

Musical blasphemy or musical apostasy or simply being a woman and singing at the same time. So the impulse is sound everywhere. You’re right. 

But its means of expression cannot be morally equated. 

But, you know, even Plato and in his plan for the ideal city state, the Republic lays out a very, very detailed plan for the control of music. And these are for for reasons similar to those identified by Augustine and even Timea. And that is this still mysterious power of music to move the soul. He actually analyzes particular musical modes or are what we would call scales and notes that each one has the capacity to call forth certain certain virtues and traits of character from people. The Ionian mode, something close to our major scale, he thought was was too soft and soothing and effeminate to be appropriate to the martial men of the of the city state. And so he preferred the Dorian mode. Something like our natural minor scale, because as we all know, that will make you courageous and and self-discipline. 

So music is a threat wherever wherever someone in power wants to bring together all the goods of human life under one overarching narrative, under one good. 

Well, that makes me just wonder what Plato would think of the next track, because it’s a heavy metal songs to tell it. Tell us a little more about the next one that you’ve made available for us to hear. 

This is message from Baghdad by across a counter, which has been heralded as the first heavy metal band out of Iraq. They are now in the U.S. and actually had a chance to sit with them here in New York just a few days ago. 

This is from their 2010 E.P. entitled Only the Dead See the End of the War. 

So, wow, just listening to that, I was sinking into thrash mode from my, like football player, a youth and wanting to almost do Beavis and Butthead style comedy after that. But I won’t. I know that the story of this band is is gravely serious. And to tell us a little bit more about them. 

Well, they’re they’re making music in a in a combat zone. And as one rocker from the region said in a recent report from from Free Muse, we make heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal. 

After the fall of Saddam, they became targets of threats by Islamic extremists. 

And in 2006, their rehearsal studio was actually blown up along with all their instruments. And so they eventually wanting to continue making music. 

But seeing that they might well die trying to do it there. They fled to Syria and eventually, with the help of Vice magazine and vice records here in Brooklyn, actually made it to the U.S.. And I had a chance to share a stage with them, not not on guitar, but on the mike. They were at a gathering in. 

In Bushwick, Brooklyn, a few days ago, in recognition of and solidarity with the the world’s first stealth rock music festival, which is coming up on an unknown disclosed date at an undisclosed location in Kabul, Afghanistan. And there across a county is supporting this, although they can’t be there. But among the acts, Afghan rock heavy metal indie whose back funk and bands from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, our friends morale, formerly of the plastic wave. We’ll be taking the stage somewhere in Kabul. Towards the towards the beginning of October, the exact location and time is going to be announced. Only 24 hours in advance. For security reasons. 

Tell us where people can can find that information. I mean, I guess I’ll have to keep clicking in and waiting, but. 

That’s right. But they can they can. Google Sound Central, the modern Asian Music Festival. 

Well, sounds like another great thing is something that will catch a lot of attention when it does happen even. We don’t know precisely when yet. Let me ask a different question that’s been lingering in the background in my mind here. Can we have a lot of people getting in the way of musicians being able to just do what they want to do and realize themselves musically? It isn’t just religion. So do you have, you know, secular regimes that are also interfering, repressing artists? 

Absolutely. Free music, which is a kind of human rights group. 

Reporters Without Borders for musicians and composers has documented violations of the human right to freedom of musical expression in close to 200 countries. Some of them might surprise you. Even in ostensibly secular democratic Poland, there’s a singer who’s on trial. 

There are problems with Turkish folk music in in that country. There are tens of millions of Christians who worship in unregistered Protestants or so-called house churches in China whose Christian devotional music is effectively illegal blasts impossible. Music session that we hosted featured a political hip hop M.C. from Cuba whose lyrics are deemed counter-revolutionary by the regime and is therefore banned from state controlled media. So it’s it’s not just religion. And even where, as in the case of Iran, there are religious roots. This is often intertwined with issues of national, nationalistic and cultural identity. So it’s often considered not just on Islamic behavior, but also Western or counter revolutionary and and not befitting the authentic cultural identity of an Iranian or of a Cuban. 

When this happens, when somebody wants to basically squash music in some way, how much do you get? I’m just hypothesizing here, knowing the sort of, you know, how people argue a bit. I mean, how much do you get? Pseudo-Science Pseudo arguments like the claim that listening to this music will make people, you know, sort of commit crimes or make them go crazy, make them engage in any social behavior like that kind of thing. We got that those kind of insinuations in the United States during the whole labeling thing. 

Those arguments are popular everywhere and everywhere where they don’t work. They’re here. You know, across account of face charges of Satanism. 

And this is often the charge that’s brought against heavy metal acts, in particular in Arab majority societies. So, yeah, it’s the thought that that this music that certain certain beats certain timbre of guitar playing, perhaps, perhaps singing in English or being too aggressive to anti-social, that, you know, these will lead inexorably to to to to decay, beginning with drinking alcohol and. 

And girls and boys being able to talk to each other in public, which again just shows this is really just, you know, the authoritarian mindset. Oh, my God, the world’s going to hell in a handbasket. We’ve got to get the kids back under control before they really, you know, drive us off the cliff, which means that, you know, I think this is the theme we’re circling around. 

Music is ultimately a seditious force. It’s just, you know, flipping the bird to authority. And that’s always going to be in some way. 

The Italian modernist composer and activist Ferruccio Busoni said that music was born free and and to regain freedom is its destiny. It is. It is it is a subversive activity. 

Well, how do we make it even more subversive? How we make you even more powerful? Tell our listeners how how they can help out. 

Well, they can certainly support my project, but there are many, many worthy projects I would encourage people to go to Free Muse dot org to learn more and become a member. 

They should certainly support the stealth music festival in Kabul, which we hope will become an annual occasion. But more than that, they should seek out these these bands who are making music that deserves to be on stage deserves to be heard. And they should buy that music, first of all, if they can. And if they can’t, then they should demand and find ways to hear it. 

These these musicians are offering up their voices, their very bodies. And the least we could do is to lend them our ears. 

Well, on that note, Orson Dacey, I want to thank you for a really rich and an eye opening and just wonderful episode of Point of Inquiry, your opening. 

Absolute joking. My pleasure. 

Owen, remind our listeners that to learn more about Orson Desai’s project, you can visit Impossible Music. Org where you can watch videos of cross-cultural music collaboration’s and you can find out about upcoming sessions. 

Hey, this is Adam Isaac, producer of the show, and I wanted to let you know that the Center for Inquiry, in partnership with the State University of New York at Buffalo, is proud to offer our unique science in the public master’s degree program. It’s available entirely online. The goal of the science and the public program is not only to provide educators, journalists, social scientists and opinion makers with the latest findings and techniques in the field of scientific and technological literacy, but also to explore the broader implications of having a scientific outlook. The main themes of the program can be summed up in the following questions. What is science? How does the public engage with science? And how does the scientific outlook intersect with our basic beliefs and values? If this sounds interesting for more information or to learn how to apply for the program, please visit. Center for Inquiry. Dot net slash education. 

I want to thank you for listening to this musically infused episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved in a discussion about Awesome Desai’s work in the impossible music sessions. Please visit our online forums by going to Center for Inquiry, dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on this show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry dot org. 

Whatever inquiry is produced by Atomizing and AMR’s New York, our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Whelan, this show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney. 

Chris Mooney