Music and Mission – Bob Dylan to Nanda Malani

By Dr Ruwan M Jayatunge

(March 05, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) Music is a social force and unquestionably a powerful form of expression. Many elements of human existence are touched by music. Song has accompanied social movements, social justice and human freedom. Music can deeply affect the way that people think. Therefore, musicians can direct society with their musical ability, passion and sincerity.

Among the singers with a genuine passion for positive social stream, Bob Dylan plays a major role. American singer-songwriter and musician Bob Dylan made a deep impact in 1960 s and his songs became the anthems for the civil right and anti Vietnam War movement. He was called "master poet, caustic social critic and intrepid, guiding spirit of the counterculture generation"

Beside Bob Dylan, another female icon that emerged in 60 s was Joan Baez. As a musician and a singer Joan Baez stood for the ideals that she believed were correct. She protested at misleading government propaganda that clouded the nuclear proliferation, War on Vietnam and attacking of the Civil Right activists as Communist conspirators. Her song Birmingham Sunday was dedicated to the four little African American girls who were killed in the 1963 bombing of a Black Church by the KKK (Ku Klux Klan). Joan Baez pioneered to establish the US branch of Amnesty International that brought awareness on human right violations in the United States. In 2003, she performed in San Francisco to protest against the US invasion of Iraq.

Although the world is not fully aware of the music and mission of Vladimir Vysotsky who began performing in the 1960s, in the USSR was a talented as well as an outspoken artist. He was quite critical of the errors of the Communist Regime. He highlighted bureaucracy that ruled the system, criticized the unfair privileges of the elite and objected to repression. He could be called the Russian Bob Dylan. Although he was the living soul and conscience, of his time, his songs were forbidden to be played and his poems went unpublished. Vysotsky’s songs were more profound and carried the message of love and truth. He openly fought against the hypocrisy and double standards. He was the voice of the silent generation of the Soviet Union. Today Vysotsky is considered as a cultural icon and a musician with true a conscience.

Among the singers who stood by the people, Victor Jara was exceptional. Victor Jara made an extremely important influence on the music and culture of Chile becoming the best-known and most influential musical figures of Latin America. The songs of Victor Jara were filled with his thoughts on love for the simple people of Chile. Many of his songs attacked injustices in society and the dictatorship that crushed human rights. His songs became the hope for the oppressed people of Chile. Jara renounced money and comfortable lavish living that he could have achieved via his musical talents. He stood and sang for the people. For his candid stand, Jara paid heavily. He was arrested and murdered during the 1973 Chilean coup, which was led by Augusto Pinochet. Although Jara is dead, he is still remembered by the millions of people around the world.

Like Victor Jara the Jamaican singer, Bob Marley almost experienced death when he faced an assassination attempt for his politically influential music. Bob Marley was a symbol of freedom for people who faced oppression and racial distress. Marley preached his music message of equality, anti racism, and freedom from oppression through an elegant Reggie rhythm. His music and profound wisdom created songs with deep philosophical sense. His stunning song on enslaved African soldiers who used to fight against Native Americans - Buffalo Soldiers became a worldwide hit that brought black identity. Marley described the ways in which racial inequality can lead to war in his song -War. The Redemption Song that was performed by Bob Marley spoke of slavery and oppression in Jamaica. In the Redemption Song he used an enriched phrase - "Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds, have no fear for atomic energy, cause none of them can stop the time. The music and mission of Bob Marley was strongly and truly affiliated to the interest of the people.

When one talks about protest songs that enlighten the public about human freedom and injustice around them, some songs of the renowned Sri Lankan vocalists Nanda Malani can be mentioned. For instance, her song Rana Derane questions soldiers who fight people who call for justice. In this song, she pleads with the soldiers not to raise their weapons against these freedom fighters.

Nanda Malani sang the popular song Me Sinhala Upage Ratai (This is our Sinhala County) which was hailed by the nationalists. When the Sri Lankan society absorbed multiculturalism, she denounced her own song and refused to perform it in public. In the early eighties, her songs were critical of the Open Economy that was introduced by President J.R Jayawardana in 1977. When Premadsa regime violated human rights, she became the voice of the people. The young rebels of the South in 1980s embraced her protest songs. According to some classified reports, ultra left wing youth faced executions singing her protest songs especially the song Yadamin Banda that glorified revolutionary activities. Hence, Nanda Malini made a reflective impact on people.

However, she was unable to give leadership and make her music a powerful social force that could be a strong voice for social justice since she did not believe in what she sang. Her music was dependent on the people’s request. When they appealed for nationalism, she fulfilled the request with songs like Me Sinhala Apage Ratai. When the trend changed, she refused to perform it. When the trend was anti open economic system, her music changed accordingly despite the fact that she enjoyed the benefits of the market economy wildly selling her music albums.

In the beginning of the terrorist activities in the North, the Jayawardana regime was reluctant to take stern measures. He preached Ghandian Avihinsa concepts and condemned the war actions of King Dutugamunu. Jayawardana was criticized by the public heavily . In this disputed times Nanda Malani released her song Mugurak Avasi Thana (when a club required, take a club to your hand) that gained immense popularity. The reaction of the President Jayawardana was drastically changed. He appointed Brigadier Tissa Weeratunga “to eradicate” terrorism in the North within 6 months. But the conflict aggravated and the rest became history.

Her song Yadamin Banda speaks of bravery and self-sacrifice when fighting the social injustice. However the Journalist and the film critic Gunasiri Silva narrated the reactions of Nanda Malani and Professor Sunil Ariyaratne soon after the assassination of Wijaya Kumaratunge in the book ‘Pihatu Pena’. According to Gunasiri Silva Nanda Malani and Professor Sunil Ariyaratne avoided him when he wanted to get a newspaper comment on Wijaya’s brutal killing. As Gunasiri Silva states Nanda Malani did not even answer his calls.

Nanda Malani could have been the symbol of freedom and social justice in Sri Lanka and she could have accomplished a worthwhile mission in music like Dylan, Joan Baez and other outstanding charismatic singers who spoke against injustice with intellect, responsibility and without double standards. Unfortunately, Nanda Malani missed that excellent opportunity.