Moddi (Pål Moddi Knutsen) released his album “Unsongs” mid-September, an album much more than just entertainment. This is a collection of illegal songs; lyrics that for different reasons have been banned or silenced around the world. Moddi has interpreted, translated, put music to and recorded new versions of the songs, and the result is both powerful and heart breaking.
It all began when Moddi, because of the political climate, decided to cancel a gig in Israel, a decision he struggled with both before and afterwards. Disillusioned and disappointed he struggled to find the road forwards in music. But four days later, the Norwegian folk-singer Birgitte Grimstad contacted him and told him about “Eli Geva”, her song about the young Israeli officer who refused to lead his troops into Beirut. She had been warned against singing it when performing in Israel in 1982, and the Norwegian ambassador even told her that he’d have to leave the room if it was performed in Jerusalem. This was the beginning of a new direction for Moddi. Where previously he had only written songs about himself, he now looked outwards, far beyond his own feelings, experiences and location. Which other songs or artists had had the same thing happen to them?
These are busy days for the Norwegian artist, who’s in the middle of the album tour. We met a cheerful Moddi for a chat in London last week, just hours before his concert at the St. Giles in-the-fields church. He had never dreamed that his little project, initially meant as a side project, was going to become such a big thing. He thought that if he was lucky he would find a couple of songs of the same caliber as “Eli Geva”. And at the beginning, that did seem to be the situation, with Tibetan monk chants and East German songs as the result. But as he kept digging, he quickly realised he had to change his own perception of censorship.
“It didn’t only have to be about those who’ve been taken, those who’ve been put in prison. That’s a very inefficient way to censor music, you’ll only create more attention”. He explains that if you’re popular to begin with, you’ll be a saint if you get killed. Which makes it an incredibly bad way of censoring music. Moddi soon understood that the methods that actually do work are the silent ones. The ones you don’t get to hear about, the ones you never google, and the ones that just don’t make great stories. They’re just removed. When he went through all this new material, it turned out to be not hundreds, but thousands of songs that were fitting for the project. And so it became an album with twelve songs instead of two, but Moddi says it could easily have been twelve albums with twelve songs. That’s how much material he stumbled across.
A lot of the songs on this album are still highly relevant, and many of the areas the songs come from are still torn apart by war, dictatorships and governments with complete control. Moddi says he quickly understood that he’d have to be quiet about what he was doing, so as not to get into trouble with people who could stop him before he’d even managed to get started properly. But thanks to the internet and his international fans, help came from unexpected places. “In the beginning, it was fans who tipped me off”, he says. “20-30 year olds from all over the world who had knowledge of where I could search and who I could ask. They’re also the ones who’ve helped me translate the songs, understand the cultural context, getting all the little details, and who’ve helped me make the videos.”
He says that his fans have been working as points of contact, as interpreters, as guides in the different countries and places, and as video producers. However, he’s not too worried about reactions from the countries that the songs come from: “They have to stick to international rules. I wasn’t afraid when we went to Vietnam to interview Việt Khang even though it was illegal, and without the police’s blessing”.
Việt Khang was arrested and imprisoned for four years after writing the song “Where is my Vietnam?”, where he criticises the corruption in the country. When Moddi interviewed him, it happened in a bedroom with no windows, since he was put straight into house arrest after being released from prison. Still, he was one of the artists who has been the most positive about the project, and was eager to help when they asked him for an interview. “We had to sneak in, and put the memory cards in our socks on the way out”, Moddi recalls.
Through this project, Moddi lends a voice to those who can’t speak for themselves, and he says he’s since been contacted by people from Vietnam who had never heard of neither Việt Khang nor his story. “It’s illegal to spread his songs in Vietnam, but not mine. I’m a Westerner – and in their eyes a pretty innocent pop artist, so this way they get his story from Norway, and they’re very grateful for that”.
Still, some obstacles have showed up as a result of the project. Touring in some of the countries that are represented on the album might be difficult, or even impossible. Moddi says a concert has been planned in Lebanon in January, as well as a massive tour in the northern parts of Norway. There, he’ll be bringing a Sami artist to every gig: “To take the Sami song back”.
Other places however, are remote dreams right now. He explains that he has played a lot of gigs in Russia before, but doesn’t know if that will be possible from now on. The whole album sprouted from an Israel boycott, and he’s not at all sure what to do about that now either. After all, he does have a song which very clearly takes a political stand.Norwegian artists are very fortunate when it comes to having the freedom to say what you want, mean what you want, and express what you want in their music.
That doesn’t mean that Norway also has a kind of censorship. But instead of banning songs, they’re being silenced. No playlisting, the songs won’t get mentioned in the media, and you don’t get to play festivals. Moddi himself has experienced this, particularly with this project. When they were making the video for Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer” at Kong Oscar II’s chapel in Grense Jacobselv near the Russian border, they were refused entry and had to make it on the church steps instead.
“We kind of expected not to be allowed to record a music video in Grense Jacobselv, even though I was 100% certain they would let us. I was completely convinced it was OK, but obviously it wasn’t. But I guess the fact that a church wants to remove a song which is explicitly anti-ecclesiastical, is pretty understandable”.
But there have been other obstacles both in Norway and England. Such as when they released Kate Bush’s “Army Dreamers” and were told from Norwegian radio show Kveldsåpent that it was ‘a lovely song, but the subject isn’t cosy enough’: “Everything needs to be so damn cosy all the time! And we didn’t play “Matter of Habit” at Lindmo [Norwegian TV show] for obvious reasons, it’s just too sharp”.
Moddi says it’s all the soft ways of censorship that have been the worst: “When we were on the BBC Breakfast Show on the release day, I was so so nervous. I was told that I could talk about anything – except war, violence, sex, drugs, religion, and the fact that the BBC has a censorship list”, he says shaking his head. “So there was basically one song left for us to talk about, and that was “Punk Prayer”.
Because being anti-Russia is completely fine?
“Yes! Even Eurovision Song Contest is per definition apolitical, unless it’s an anti-Putin/Russia song. So in essence, censorship isn’t actually moral or ethical guidelines, it’s all about power”.
Moddi says they last summer made two acoustic videos in Holland, a country very similar to Norway in terms of freedom of speech, problems and debates, but the videos never saw light of day, they were regarded as simply too political. “Everything needs to be entertainment and a break from what happens on the news, from the everyday, from terror and anxiety. It shouldn’t ever describe what we’re actually doing, describe reality”, he continues.
“THAT scares me. It scares me a lot more than the threat of not being let in to Russia, more than radical islamists threatening to kill me for covering a parody of Algeria’s national anthem. It scares me a lot more than being called antisemite or that people contact my loved ones like they did when I canceled the concert in Israel. That’s what scares me most of all. That both listeners and mainstream media seems to think that politics and music or art is two separate spheres which can’t be combined without it interfering with either the quality of the art or the political message. So what I’ve tried to do with this album, is to show that not only can art be political, but politics can be beautiful”.
“War on the other hand, THAT can be TV-entertainment. Like “Army Dreamers”… It’s mental, During the Gulf war, when it was being censored, bomb-planes were being equipped with cameras, and people were literally sat at home, in their houses in England, Norway or America, watching Iraq and Kuwait get bombed. Watching Iraqi soldiers get killed on TV, but singing about it was illegal! So art was censored, and war was turned into entertainment”.