Eurovision—that televisual song pageant where pop, camp, and geopolitics annually collide—started last week. This year’s competition is hosted in Tel Aviv, and continues a recent trend in the competition in which geopolitical controversy threatens to overshadow pop spectacle. Activists accuse the Israeli government of exploiting Eurovision as part of a longstanding government PR strategy of “pinkwashing”: championing Israel as a bastion of LGBT+ tolerance in order to muddle perceptions of its violent and dehumanizing policies towards Palestinians. The BDS movement mobilized a campaign to boycott Eurovision. Reigning Eurovision champion Netta Barzilai, echoing many pro-Israel voices (as well as celebrities concerned about “subverting the spirit of the contest”), referred to the boycott efforts as “spreading darkness.”
While this year’s competition opened already mired in contention, I’m going to listen back to the controversial winning song of the 2016 contest, whose media frenzy peaked in its aftermath. That year’s champion, a pop singer of Crimean Tatar heritage who goes by the mononym Jamala, represented Ukraine with a song called “1944.” Just two years before, Crimea had been annexed from Ukraine by Russia following a dubious referendum. Some Crimean Tatars—the predominantly Sunni-Muslim Turkic-language minority group of Crimea—fled to mainland Ukraine following the Russian annexation, viewing the Ukrainian state as the lesser threat; many of those that stayed continue to endure a deteriorating human rights climate (though there are some Crimean Tatars who have bought into—and who reap benefits from—the new Russian administration of the peninsula.)
Jamala’s very presence in the contest inevitably evoked the hot geopolitics of the moment. Her victory angered many Russians, and the subject of Eurovision became fodder for conspiracy theories as well as a target of disinformation campaigns waged online and in Russian-influenced media in Ukraine. In much of the Western European and North American media, the song was breathlessly interpreted as an assertion of indigenous rights and a rebuke to the perceived cultural genocide enacted against Crimean Tatars by Russian state power.
In the wake of her victory, many commentators described Jamala as giving voice not only to the repressed group of Crimean Tatar indigenes living in the Russian-annexed territory of Crimea, but to threatened indigenous populations around the world (for better or worse). But indeed, it was not only her metaphorical voice but the sound of vocal anguish that intensified the song’s effectiveness in the contest and made it relevant well beyond the specific geopolitical bog shared by Crimean Tatars, Ukrainians, and Russians. Specifically, the timbre, breath, and dynamic force of Jamala’s voice communicated this anguish—particularly during the virtuosic non-lexical—wordless—bridge of the song. Despite her expertly controlled vocal performance during the dramatic bridge, Jamala’s voice muddies the boundaries of singing and crying, of wailing from despair and yelling in defiant anger. To pilfer from J.L. Austin’s famous formulation, what made Jamala’s performative utterance felicitous to some and infelicitous to others was as much the sound of her voice as the words that she uttered. Put simply, on the bridge of “1944,” Jamala offers a lesson in how to do things with sound.
Some background: the world’s longest-running televised spectacle of song competition, the Eurovision Song Contest began in 1956 with the peaceful mandate of bringing greater harmony (sorry not sorry) to post-war Europe. Competitors—singers elected to represent a country with a single, three-minute song each—and voters come from the member countries of the European Broadcasting Union. The EBU is not geographically restricted to Europe. Currently, some fifty countries send contestants, including states such as Israel (last year’s winner), Azerbaijan, and Australia. Many of the rules that govern Eurovision have changed in its 62-year history, including restrictions governing which language singers may use. Today, it is common to hear a majority of songs with at least some text sung in English, including verses of “1944.” Some rules, though, have been immutable, including the following: songs must have words (although the words need not be sensical). All vocal sounds must be performed live, including background vocals. Voters, be they professional juries or the public—who can vote today by telephone, SMS, or app—cannot vote for their own nation’s competitor (though unproven conspiracy theories about fans crossing national borders in order to vote in defiance of this rule have, at times, flourished.) Finally, reaching back to its founding mandate defining Eurovision as a “non-political event,” songs are not permitted to contain political (or commercial) messages.
Both the title and lyrics of Jamala’s “1944” refer to the year that Crimean Tatars were brutally deported from Crimea under Stalinist edict. Indicted wholesale as “enemies of the Soviet people,” the NKVD rounded up the entire population of Crimean Tatars—estimated to be some 200,000 people—packed them into cattle cars, and transported them thousands of miles away, mostly to Uzbekistan and other regions of Central Asia. The Soviet regime cast this as a “humanitarian resettlement” intended to bring Crimean Tatars closer to other Muslim, Turkic-language populations. However, Crimean Tatars, who estimate that up to two-thirds of their population perished before arriving in Central Asia, consider this a genocidal act. They were not given the right to return to Crimea until the late 1980s. So, through clear reference to a twentieth-century political trauma with consequences that stretch into the present, “1944” was not the feel-good fluff of classic Eurovision.
Jamala’s performance of “1944” at Eurovision was also atypical in that it largely eschewed pizzazz and bombast. Little skin was shown, there were no open flames, no smoke machines befogged the scene. Instead, Jamala stood, mostly still and center stage, encircled by spotlight. Large projections of flowers framed the stage for the first two minutes of the song, as she sang verses (in English) and a chorus in (Crimean Tartar) that utilized lyrics from a well-known twentieth-century Crimean Tatar protest song called Ey, Güzel Qirim (Oh, My Beautiful Crimea). The groove of the song is spare and rather slow, and the singer’s voice meanders within a fairly narrow range on both verse and chorus.
But then comes the vocalise on the bridge: two minutes and fifteen seconds into the Eurovision performance, the song’s chilled-out but propulsive motion stops, leaving only a faint synthesizer drone. In the sudden quiet, Jamala mimes the act of rocking an infant. Beginning in the middle of her range, she elaborates a melismatic wail that recalls the snaking modal melody of the traditional Crimean Tatar song Arafat Daği. The bridge consists of two phrases interrupted by a forceful and nervous inhalation of breath. Her breath is loud and intentional, calling attention to the complex ornaments that she has already executed, and preparing us for more ornaments to come.
Over the course of eight seconds, Jamala’s voice soars upwards, increasing steadily in volume and intensifying timbrally from a more relaxed vocal sound to an anguished belt. At the apex of the bridge, the Eurovision camera soars above the stage just as the singer looks into the camera’s eye. Meanwhile, the screens framing the stage explode into visuals that suggest a phoenix rising from the ash. The crowd erupts into applause.
Other renditions of “1944” deliver a similar emotional payoff at the climax of the bridge. In the dystopian narrative of Jamala’s official music video, a tornado whips free, setting a field of immobilized human figures into chaotic motion (minute 2:35). In a reality TV song contest called Holos Kraïny (the Ukrainian Voice), a young singer’s powerful elaboration of the bridge propels a coach out of her seat as she wipes tears from her eyes (minute 3:42). In other covers, the bridge is too difficult to attempt: one British busker leaves the “amazing vocal bit in the middle” to “the good people of Ukraine to sing along.”
Timbrally and gesturally, I also hear the resonance between the plangent sound of the duduk—a double-reed wind instrument associated most closely with Armenia, and often called upon to perform in commemorations of the 1915 Armenian genocide—and Jamala’s voice on the vocalise. According to Jamala (who generously responded to my questions via email through her PR person), this was not intentional. But the prominence of the instrument in the arrangement, the lightly nasal quality that her voice adopts in the bridge, and the glottalized movements she uses between pitches suggest that this connection might have been audible to listeners. After all, the opening melodic gesture of “1944” is sounded by a duduk, and it re-enters spectacularly just after the peak of the bridge, where it doubles Jamala’s vocal line as it cascades downwards from the high note. Through sonic entanglement with the duduk, Jamala here communicates anguish on another register, without translation into words.
The performance of sonic anguish through the voice might be understood, in Greg Urban’s terms, as a “meta-affect.” Jamala delivers the emotion of anguish but also fosters sociality by interpellating listeners into the shared emotional state of communal grieving. I paraphrase from Urban’s well-known analysis of “ritual wailing” to argue that Jamala, through this performance of vocal anguish, makes both intelligible and acceptable the public sentiment of grief. This utterance of grief is a statement of “separation and loss that is canonically associated with death” (392) that included the Eurovision audience as co-participants in the experience of grieving, of experiencing anguish over loss. A popular fan reaction video by “Jake’s Face Reacts,” posted to YouTube, and the hundreds of comments responding to it, attest to this experience of co-participation in the experience of grief. Furthermore, the power of this meta-affect is almost certainly heightened through normative gendered associations with performative anguish. Lauren Ninoshvili (2012) identifies this in the “expressive labor” of mourning mothers’ wailing in the Republic of Georgia, while Farzaneh Hemmasi (2017) has recently elucidated how the voice of the exiled Iranian diva Googoosh became iconic of the suffering, feminized, victimized nation of Iran.
The sociologist of music Simon Frith once wrote that “in songs, words are the sign of the voice” (97). To put it in slightly banal terms, songs, as we generally define them, include words uttered by human voices. (Or if they don’t have words uttered by voices, this becomes the notable feature of the song, c.f. Mendelssohn Songs Without Words, Pete Drake’s talking guitar, Georgian vocable polyphony). But non-lexical vocalities also function as a sign of the voice, and, as scholars such as Ana Maria Ochoa (2014) and Jennifer Stoever (2016) have argued, expand our capacity to recover more complex personhoods from the subjugated vocalities of the past. In fact, often the most communicative, feelingful parts of songs occur during un-texted vocalizations. As generations of scholars have argued, timbre means a lot—Nina Eidsheim’s The Race of Sound: Listening, Timbre, and Vocality in African American Music (Duke University Press: 2019) presents a very recent example—and it is often overlooked when we take the key attributes of Western Art Music as our sole formal parameters for analysis: melody, rhythm, harmony, form. So as we watch the parade of aspiring Eurovision champions duke it out in the pop pageant of geopolitics, let’s attune ourselves to the vocal colors, the timbral gestures, the ululations and the growls, to the panoply of visual and auditory stimuli demanding our attention and, more important (depending on where we live), our vote.
Featured Image: “Jamala” by Flickr User Andrei Maximov, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Maria Sonevytsky is Assistant Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her first book, Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine, will be out in October 2019 with Wesleyan University Press.
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By July of 2009 dozens of pitch-black videos began to appear on YouTube. Documenting ambient noise, in some cases narration and, most prominent of all, impromptu collective outcries of “Allah-o-Akbar,” these videos resonate with an urgent gusto, punctuated with an eerie sense of desperation through faint echoic reverberations. By the level of desperation audible in every voice, at once dulcet and melancholic in tone, there is a distinct sense that Allah very well may be called forth. While most of these videos received scant attention, one entitled “Inja Kojast”](translated as “Where is this Place”) received over 174,000 hits (as of writing).
It was dubbed with English, Spanish, and Japanese subtitles, was sampled by a music producer (“Tehran’s Roof Tops _Remix”) and also played a prominent role in the 2010 French film Fleur du Mal. What is enabled, invoked, and signified by the layering of these multiple and disparate incantations? What is affectively evoked in the widespread circulation of these chants by YouTube and in Fleur du Mal? Why was this video circulated so widely and deemed so affectively resonant by disparate audiences?
Due to the fact that the Iranian government had barred entry to representatives of foreign media and systematically jailed Iranian journalists accused of being hostile to the regime, the disputed 2009 Iranian elections and ensuing protests were largely reported on by a new breed of “citizen journalists”. Filling in the information vacuum, citizen journalists tweeted and uploaded to the Internet raw video footage of protest marches and confrontations with Basiji militiamen by day – and the voices of dissent performed on Iran’s many rooftops by night. Donning the cloak of darkness, residents of Iran’s major cities climbed to the rooftops of their buildings to chant “Allah-o-Akbar” in numbers – a brief reprieve from the violent suppression of their street protests by Basiji militiamen.
As Negar Mottahedeh has written in her online essay “Allah-o-Akhbar”: “The cry of “Allah-o-Akbar” was the defining sound of the 1978 protests against the Shah of Iran, during a revolution that toppled the Pahlavi monarchy and established the Islamic Republic of Iran.” This earlier revolutionary context is represented in the video for “Allah o Akbar, Khomeini Rahbar”, which hailed a politically diverse citizenry to stand behind this “rahbar” or new “leader.” The chanting of “Allah-o-Akbar” was further exploited as a nationalistic call-to-arms during the Iran-Iraq war in the music video for the anthemic “Allahu Akbar Iran, Iran.” The chant’s versatility and instrumentality in this immediate post-revolutionary period is due not only to its capacity to appeal to the pious and patriotic backers of the newly formed Islamic Republic but also because of its power as a performative political rallying cry. Mottahedeh’s essay title employs a pun: the addition of ‘h’ to the word “Akbar” in transliteration changes the word to “Akhbar” or news. Although she does not elaborate on this, her title suggests that this chant is itself a form of citizen journalism, a broadcast calling forth the revolutionary spirit that Iranians pride themselves for always having at the ready. But what kind of journal is “Allah-o-Akbar”? Is it a call to arms, a rallying cry, a collective sound of suffering or all of the above?
Despite its pious provenance and deployment as the paradigmatic cry of the revolutionary uprising against the Shah, the Islamic Republic currently led by Ali Khamenei and Mahmood Ahmadinejad–which was inaugurated by these earlier revolutionary calls–has interpreted the post-2009 chanting of “Allah-o-Akbar” as blasphemous and an affront to their authority. Journalist Jalal Hosseini argues that this is due in part to the fact that opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi called upon his supporters to remember the revolutionary history of this performative chant in an open letter, stating “Let’s not abandon the green colour which is a symbol of spirituality, freedom and religious mentality and moderateness and the Allah O Akbar slogan that tells us of revolutionary roots.”
As Hosseini has written, “In a religious state, where religion is present in every aspect of life, Iran’s protestors have managed to turn religion against their government…Allah-o Akbar is perhaps the single most symbolic phrase in the Muslim world, yet Iran’s current rulers, who themselves employed this slogan in their struggle against the Pahlavi regime in the 1979 Revolution, did not tolerate the protesters’ cries of Allah-o-Akbar after the 2009 presidential election. Allah-o Akbar has essentially become a forbidden phrase.” Hosseini goes on to quote numerous Tehranis who testify to their disparate intentions behind the chanting, highlighting the ambivalence inherent to the slogan, which makes it available to Iranians of many stripes, and, as he argues, allows the calls to resonate even beyond the nation by appealing to other Muslims globally. But the widespread circulation of these videos and their popular impact on global YouTube audiences also suggests that the chanting has had an impact on non-Muslims as well.
Susan Moeller, who penned a Huffington Post piece right around the time of “Inja Kojast’s” semi-viral circulation, argues that this most recent phase of the chant’s resignification has helped to win Americans over to the protesting Iranian’s cause, writing, “watching Americans are learning to reframe the meaning of ‘Allah O Akbar’ and re-imagine the people of Iran. The pictures from Tehran are showing that Iranians are not monolithic in their beliefs.” Moeller suggests that this collective chanting has somehow cut through the status quo Islamophobic representations of a fundamentalist Iran to create an affective and empathetic pathway through which Americans can “re-imagine the people.” Moeller’s argument echoes the sentiment of the comments written on the YouTube page for “Inja Kojast,” comments like “This breaks my heart!” left by Annabanana23663 or “I have listened to this so many times already that you would think I would have moved on BUT I continue to listen and will continue to listen for there is truth in that voice of pain. And only by embracing pain can we love truth. And truth not only will set us free but without truth we cannot be free. Go you beautiful Persians. The people of the USA love you for your defiance” (by YouTube viewer HulkSmashPunyHumans).
Not only were YouTube users impacted by “Inja Kojast” but the video’s representation of Iran’s rooftop chants inspired the narrative arc of French filmmaker David Dusa’s Fleur du Mal (Flowers of Evil, 2010), a film that explores the precarity and instability of Iran after the 2009 elections. Through a chanting scene in which the two main characters, Gecko (Rachid Youcef) and Anahita (Alice Belaïdi), vociferously call out “Allah-o-Akbar” on the edge of a rooftop in the avowedly anti-Islamic nation of France, they thumb their noses at both nation-states at once while also sealing their romantic bond. Perhaps in an ironic play on Khomeini’s exile in the same city, the beautiful, educated and upwardly mobile Anahita is incubated in Paris for a time while the political instability following the 2009 elections settles down. Completely obsessed with the post-election struggles that she and her friends were actively engaging in on the streets of Tehran, she daily follows every new tweet and YouTube video. She bides her time in Paris by convincing Gecko, the bellhop at her swanky hotel, to give her a tour of the city and the two soon become lovers.
Despite the somber context of the film’s main narrative preoccupations with Iran’s botched 2009 elections, this plot point, I argue, enables the cathexis of an Orientalist drive that is shared by Western audiences: a drive to consummate the desire for the feminized Muslim woman seen to have suffered under the despotic rule of Muslim masculinity. It is this same desire that gets sublimated in a consumption of feminized Muslim suffering which has led to a reductive popular reading of “Inja Kojast” that eclipses the ambivalence of and disparate intentions behind the chanting it documents. In particular, it is through the cries of the narrator’s own female sounding voice that “watching Americans are learning to…re-imagine the people of Iran” as finally available to and eligible for their empathy, attention and yearning.
Fleur du Mal weaves narrative scenes with YouTube footage of Iranian post-election street protests and, in one scene, an image of Neda Agha Soltan’s assassination. Viewed over 1,200,000 times (as of this writing), there has been a wide-scale promotion through documentary films, video diaries, songs and various other imagery of what has been called Neda’s martyrdom for Iran’s “green revolution”. This representation of a feminized Iranian suffering at the hands of an Islamic fundamentalist Iranian masculinity has become a privileged symbol for Iran’s Green Movement outside of Iran. This has enabled an affective attachment to be made which has, quoting Moeller yet again, enabled Americans to “re-imagine the people of Iran.” This time, somewhat counter to Moeller’s claim, it is not only “pictures” that are functioning to transform perceptions of Iranians; sound operates as a critical conduit to an interiority characterized by pain and suffering that has particular appeal.
I argue that the suffering sounds of “Inja Kojast” resonate within what I have elsewhere termed an “aural imaginary” through which Americans and the West “re-imagine[s] the people of Iran.” Through the suffering sounds of an anonymous feminine-sounding voice–reflecting upon and poetically translating the suffering sounds of a nation’s nightly chanting of “Allah-O-Akbar”– a direct link has been made to the feminized victim of Islam.
As US-backed Israeli war-drums are beaten, and as conspiracy theories regarding Iran’s hand in the recent spike in oil prices resuscitate decades-long antagonisms, we must be mindful of the multi-sensorial cooptations of empathetic and affective attachment that have constructed feminized suffering as justification for military intervention and the instrumentalization of sound in support of this. The old Orientalist desire for a feminized opening through which to re-imagine and know the radical other that is Iran has been found through a new gateway: aurality.
Featured Image: “Iran 06” courtesy of Flickr User Chong Head
Roshanak Kheshti is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies and affiliate faculty in the Critical Gender Studies Program at the University of California, San Diego. She is currently completing a manuscript entitled “Modernity’s Ear: The Aural Imaginary and the World Music Culture Industry,” which theorizeshow an other to the listening self is racialized and gendered within the world music listening event. She has published in American Quarterly, Feminist Studies, Hypatia and Parallax.