Jazza for Gaza with Robert Wyatt

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A Converstation with Robert Wyatt
About Cultural Resistance
by Gilad Atzmon
From Pond to River
For Robert Wyatt,music is where “people are introduced to each other”. “People wereplaying each other’s music long before they were mixing politically orsocially” he says. Musicians can anticipate change. “In the deep south,white kids were listening to Black radio stations and Black kidslistened to Country Music, long before these kids could share space oreven meet”. Music has this unique capacity to cross the divide, to bringpeople together, to introduce harmony and yet, for some reason, not many musicians are brave enough to jump into the deep water. Not many musicians celebrate their ability to bring change about. 
The legendary British music icon Robert Wyatt is a big supporterof Palestine. A few days ago he came down  to London to promote For the Ghosts Within (Wyatt/ Stephen/Atzmon, Domino Records),a new album we produced together with violinist Ros Stephen.  We had alively chat about Palestine, music, cultural resistance and about theimportance of the  coming Jazza Festival.

In 2003 Robert invited me to the studio. He was recording Cuckooland at the time. Hehad in mind an instrumental version of Nizar Zreik’s tune, originallysung by the Palestinian singer, Amal Murkus. That day in the studio, Ispent a good few frustrating hours with my clarinet trying to emulateAmal’s articulation, her sound, her personal take on micro-tonality,colour and dynamic. A few months later, when Cuckooland came out, Irealised that somehow, that afternoon in the studio, I had managed todissolve some boundaries. Robert’s attempt to bond an ex-Israeli with aPalestinian composition was indeed a success. I have beencollaborating with Robert since then. This year we made an albumtogether.

Robert Wyatt is alegend, a British musical icon.  Over the years, he has formed his ownlanguage, he has brought to life a new and original sound. He is anincredible craftsman who has influenced generations of musicians allover the world. His production techniques are totally unique; he startsfrom scratch and builds his music layer by layer sometimes employing themost basic techniques.  He manages to collate the bricks and mortar oflyricism, broken melodies, voice, drum snaps and wit into a lucidmusical narrative that always sounds unlike anything else. His music isfresh and extraordinary, yet it is also simple and transparent. Yousomehow always see the light through Robert’s music and thoughts.  Ihave been very lucky to be around and witness the way  hebends notes into songs, words into poems, ideology into responsibility,love into beauty and beauty into meaning. But far more importantly, Ihad a chance to exchange ideas with the man. Last week I had theprecious opportunity to discuss music, Palestine, Israel, culturalresistance, politics, the left and compassion with him. 

“For the musicianswho support the long suffering people of Palestine, silence issimply not an option” he says.  In spite of Robert’s popularity inIsrael, Robert is not exactly shy of telling the world what he thinks ofIsraeli policies. For so many decades, “the people of Palestine havebeen subjected, not just to humiliation, but also to a sadistic relishthat can only be designed to destroy them”. But the Israelis havefailed, he continues, because the Palestinian people are resilient. “Thecolonised is always more resilient than the colonisers realise.” 

It is no secretthat support of the Palestinian cause is on the verge of tipping into amass movement, the tide has clearly changed in recent years, and yet, inspite of his criticism of Israel, Robert manages to maintain hisuniversally compassionate attitude.  He wants to see change, he alsobelieves that such a change is attainable. With his well known, kind‘Santa Claus’ giggle, he asks the Israelis “what are you scared of?These Palestinians are only other people like you.”

Such a simplestatement summarises Robert’s world view. On planet Wyatt almosteverything is magically simple but at the same time profound andcompassionate.  “My politics is clear”, he says,  ‘I am an anti racist’.“The idea” he continues, “that some people believe others to beinferior is plain silly.” We, he maintains “are different yet equal.”Such a seemingly simple statement re-locates the political debate withinethical and universal discourse.  We should celebrate our differences,yet it is the notion of equality that should stop us from doing so atthe expense of each other.  Robert is a jazzman and it is hardly asurprise that a jazz musician offers such a profound yet elementaryinsight.  Jazz takes great delight in our differences yet it also yearnsfor equality. In the 1960’s jazz artists located themselves at theforefront of the civil rights movement. It is a natural progression thatjazz artists should continue to champion the struggle for a betterworld.

Robert believes in‘people’s power’ as opposed to the politician. Our electedpoliticians fail to stand for clear justice, he says. “It is humiliatingfor us as citizens to have such a morally cowardly governments.” Andyet, “although politicians cannot initiate a serious change, they willrespond to change once it happens amongst the people.” Palestine is agood example of this. We are currently witnessing a rapid expansion inthe popular support of Palestinians and their rights.  It seems as ifeverybody out there has decided to collectively “ come out of thecloset” Roberts suggests. This movement cannot be explained in politicalterms, for the political establishment has nothing to do with it. Ithink Robert is correct here. The emerging mainstream solidarity withPalestine should be seen as the outcome of a general craving forjustice,  an outburst of collective ethical intuition.

I spoke to Robertabout fear. I suggested to him that the ‘war against terror’, could alsobe grasped as a war against the terror within: a terror caused  by thefear we inflict upon ourselves. We are tormented by the idea that othersmay be as vicious as we are or could be.  Robert took this conceptfurther and suggested that the types of fear he detects in our midstare largely the ‘threat of democracy’ and the ‘fear of the truth’. Thethreat of democracy can be understood as the sheer panic at beingoutnumbered. The fear of the truth is obviously fuelled by thetormenting thought that our lies risk exposure. Such an insightcertainly helps us to understand Israel and its relentless effortsagainst the indigenous people of Palestine. It also explains Israel’sreluctance to cooperate with different international fact-findingmissions. But Israel is not alone. Threat of democracy and truth is alsoa spot-on diagnosis of the dilemmas plaguing British politics. The UKobsession with immigration merely reflects the fear of beingoutnumbered. Furthermore, Britain’s continuous institutional failure toproperly address the events and individuals that led us to the Iraq waris an indication of our intrinsic fear of truth.

I asked Robert,about his roots. I wondered whether he was afraid to be ‘outnumbered’. “I am English, this is what I am, this is what comes out of my mouth.However, I am not in a stagnated pond of culture, I came out of the pondinto the river, which is composed of hundreds of ponds and a lot offresh water is coming in.  This is the place to be, this is the onlyplace for me.” I understand exactly what Robert is referring to. My ownjourney has also been an expedition from a pond to the river and fromthere straight to the sea. However, unlike the salmon in Robert’sMaryan, I  have no plans to turn around. The sea is the only place forme.

It has been saidbefore that artists, rather than politicians, are there to provide uswith a vision of a better world.  When I listened to Robert singing WhatA Wonderful World I could easily touch the ‘blue for me and you’. Ihad to agree, it is indeed a wonderful world against all odds.

To listen and pre order For the Ghosts Within

Jazza Music Festival 12 & 13 October 2010

@ THE SCALA275 Pentonville Road, LondonTo learn more about Jazza Festival


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