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A conversation with Robert Wyatt on Cultural Resistance

Robert WyattFrom Pond to River

The legendary British music icon Robert Wyatt is a big supporter of 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 a lively chat about Palestine, music, cultural resistance and about the importance of the  coming Jazza Festival.

For Robert Wyatt, music is where “people are introduced to each other”. “People were playing each other’s music long before they were mixing politically or socially” he says. Musicians can anticipate change. “In the deep south, white kids were listening to Black radio stations and Black kids listened to Country Music, long before these kids could share space or even meet”. Music has this unique capacity to cross the divide, to bring people 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.

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

Robert Wyatt is a legend, a British musical icon.  Over the years, he has formed his own language, he has brought to life a new and original sound. He is an incredible craftsman who has influenced generations of musicians all over the world. His production techniques are totally unique; he starts from scratch and builds his music layer by layer sometimes employing the most basic techniques.  He manages to collate the bricks and mortar of lyricism, broken melodies, voice, drum snaps and wit into a lucid musical narrative that always sounds unlike anything else. His music is fresh and extraordinary, yet it is also simple and transparent. You somehow always see the light through Robert’s music and thoughts.  I have been very lucky to be around and witness the way  he bends notes into songs, words into poems, ideology into responsibility, love into beauty and beauty into meaning. But far more importantly, I had a chance to exchange ideas with the man. Last week I had the precious opportunity to discuss music, Palestine, Israel, cultural resistance, politics, the left and compassion with him. 

“For the musicians who support the long suffering people of Palestine, silence is simply not an option” he says.  In spite of Robert’s popularity in Israel, Robert is not exactly shy of telling the world what he thinks of Israeli policies. For so many decades, “the people of Palestine have been subjected, not just to humiliation, but also to a sadistic relish that can only be designed to destroy them”. But the Israelis have failed, he continues, because the Palestinian people are resilient. “The colonised is always more resilient than the colonisers realise.” 

It is no secret that support of the Palestinian cause is on the verge of tipping into a mass movement, the tide has clearly changed in recent years, and yet, in spite of his criticism of Israel, Robert manages to maintain his universally compassionate attitude.  He wants to see change, he also believes 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 simple statement summarises Robert’s world view. On planet Wyatt almost everything is magically simple but at the same time profound and compassionate.  “My politics is clear”, he says,  ‘I am an anti racist’. “The idea” he continues, “that some people believe others to be inferior is plain silly.” We, he maintains “are different yet equal.” Such a seemingly simple statement re-locates the political debate within ethical and universal discourse.  We should celebrate our differences, yet it is the notion of equality that should stop us from doing so at the expense of each other.  Robert is a jazzman and it is hardly a surprise that a jazz musician offers such a profound yet elementary insight.  Jazz takes great delight in our differences yet it also yearns for equality. In the 1960’s jazz artists located themselves at the forefront of the civil rights movement. It is a natural progression that jazz artists should continue to champion the struggle for a better world.

Robert believes in ‘people’s power’ as opposed to the politician. Our elected politicians fail to stand for clear justice, he says. “It is humiliating for us as citizens to have such a morally cowardly governments.” And yet, “although politicians cannot initiate a serious change, they will respond to change once it happens amongst the people.” Palestine is a good example of this. We are currently witnessing a rapid expansion in the popular support of Palestinians and their rights.  It seems as if everybody out there has decided to collectively “ come out of the closet” Roberts suggests. This movement cannot be explained in political terms, for the political establishment has nothing to do with it. I think Robert is correct here. The emerging mainstream solidarity with Palestine should be seen as the outcome of a general craving for justice,  an outburst of collective ethical intuition.

I spoke to Robert about fear. I suggested to him that the ‘war against terror’, could also be grasped as a war against the terror within: a terror caused  by the fear we inflict upon ourselves. We are tormented by the idea that others may be as vicious as we are or could be.  Robert took this concept further and suggested that the types of fear he detects in our midst are largely the ‘threat of democracy’ and the ‘fear of the truth’. The threat of democracy can be understood as the sheer panic at being outnumbered. The fear of the truth is obviously fuelled by the tormenting thought that our lies risk exposure. Such an insight certainly helps us to understand Israel and its relentless efforts against the indigenous people of Palestine. It also explains Israel’s reluctance to cooperate with different international fact-finding missions. But Israel is not alone. Threat of democracy and truth is also a spot-on diagnosis of the dilemmas plaguing British politics. The UK obsession with immigration merely reflects the fear of being outnumbered. Furthermore, Britain’s continuous institutional failure to properly address the events and individuals that led us to the Iraq war is 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 pond into the river, which is composed of hundreds of ponds and a lot of fresh water is coming in.  This is the place to be, this is the only place for me.” I understand exactly what Robert is referring to. My own journey has also been an expedition from a pond to the river and from there straight to the sea. However, unlike the salmon in Robert’s Maryan, I  have no plans to turn around. The sea is the only place for me.

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

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