Marching to a different drum

As a CD of female voices from the 'axis of evil' is released, Michael Church asks: where have all the protest songs gone?

With Bruce Springsteen, REM and The Dixie Chicks leading the Vote for Change tour, musicians in America are at last joining the anti-Bush crusade. But where are the anti-war records? CDs champion- ing resistance to the Bush-Blair line are remarkably thin on the ground. Peace Not War has just brought out a second volume, whose contributions are largely from grassroots musicians rather than stars, but that's about it. So a big welcome this week for a compilation with the intriguing title
Lullabies from the Axis of Evil.

With Bruce Springsteen, REM and The Dixie Chicks leading the Vote for Change tour, musicians in America are at last joining the anti-Bush crusade. But where are the anti-war records? CDs champion- ing resistance to the Bush-Blair line are remarkably thin on the ground. Peace Not War has just brought out a second volume, whose contributions are largely from grassroots musicians rather than stars, but that's about it. So a big welcome this week for a compilation with the intriguing title Lullabies from the Axis of Evil.

When its Norwegian producer Erik Hillestad is asked about its genesis, his reply comes quick as a flash: "It started with Mr Bush's 'axis of evil' speech." The idea is as it says on the packet: lullabies not only from Bush's demon trio of Iran, Iraq and North Korea, but also from Palestine, Afghanistan, Syria and Cuba.

"Media coverage of these countries focuses on conflict and the deeds of their rulers," he says, "but every country has a spiritual and cultural life. I decided to focus on lullabies because that form is the exact opposite to the rhetoric which usually predominates." This rhetoric, he adds, is almost exclusively pumped out by men, hence his decision to redress the balance by recording only lullabies sung by women. "And a lullaby doesn't calm only the child it's being sung to; it also calms the person who sings it. It's the absolute antithesis to war."

But Hillestad's record is unusual in that it isn't simply a collection of field recordings with indigenous backing: each track begins with a local singer, whose voice segues into the voice of a Western singer delivering a translation. "I wanted to marry the 'axis of evil' voices to Western voices, because I didn't want any language barriers."

Since he recorded the Axis singers a cappella in their homes, he also had to choose their instrumental backing. "I wanted to put them into a popular musical form, to make the record suitable for radio." He roped in the composer and multi-instrumentalist Knut Reiersrud, who brought in additional players on clarinet, keyboards, percussion and bass. "Knut found the rhythmic element in each of the a cappella songs and made it sound as though the original singers were conducting a band that they had actually never heard."

Hillestad's choice of Western singers was astute: alongside The Communards' Sarah Jane Morris, representing Britain, are the young Uzbek star Sevara Nazarkhan and Mexico's Lila Downs, whose melding with the Afghan singer Kulsoom Syed Ghulam is virtually seamless.

Getting Western singers was not easy. Hillestad lost count of the number of artists who either declined outright, or simply did not reply. "A lot of the singers in America and Britain wanted nothing to do with it. Some of their managements even refused to pass on my request. They felt it was politically and commercially dangerous."

Radio listeners in Britain have their own superior variation on this theme, in the form of the Axis of Evil trilogy that Andy Kershaw has created for Radio 3, and which - thanks to the BBC's internet archive - is now on tap for all. Kershaw too was fired by Bush's "axis of evil" speech: having made documentaries in North Korea and Iraq - and having met with nothing but kindness there - he too felt impelled to use music to redress the political balance.

"Music for me has always been a device for getting under a country's skin," he says. "If you come into a place whose inhabitants have been demonised, and who are therefore understandably suspicious of outsiders, if you go in and show enthusiasm for their music, doors fly open."

They flew open for him with surprising rapidity in North Korea and Iraq, and though the Iranian government weren't too happy - and disliked the eventual results - doors flew open there too, thanks to the corruption endemic in every layer of Iranian society. Always on the look-out for what he calls "that rustle in the undergrowth when someone says 'psst!' and starts confiding in you", Kershaw was able to record interviews with clandestine Kurdish musicians, with rap musicians whose music was banned, and with bourgeois mothers in Tehran whose sons were hosting illegal parties.

But Kershaw is also distinct- ly unimpressed by the low level of militancy displayed by Western musicians. "Bruce Springsteen may have put his head over the political parapet for the first time in his life, but I've been very disappointed by musicians' general response to the Bush-Blair Iraq situation. The new CD from Peace Not War is really good stuff, but most of the people on it are not well known. Where are the major players?"

'Lullabies from the Axis of Evil' is out on Monday on Hot records

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