CD Review: Unsongs by Moddi

Unsongs by Moddi

Unsongs by Moddi - Credit: Archant

Banned but not forgotten...

(Propeller Recordings)

We may laugh at the choice of songs which have been randomly banned by Radio One – tracks like Frankie’s Relax, Ebeneezer Goode by The Shaman, George Michael’s I Want Your Sex and God Save The Queen from the Sex Pistols – but at the end of the day we live in a relatively free country, and it wasn’t difficult to enjoy these tracks regardless of a decision made by a faceless BBC bureaucrat not to give them any airplay.

But what about those songs which spoke out against oppressive political regimes, which questioned governments and challenged the existing establishment? What about those songs which by writing and performing them, musicians risked their freedom and even their lives?

That is the crux of this project by Norwegian songwriter and storyteller Moddi, a collection of songs that have, at one stage, all been banned, with the attempts to suppress them ranging from something as mild as airplay censorship or in more extreme cases as brutal as murder.

The album had its origins in Moddi’s decision to cancel a Tel Aviv concert in January 2014 to protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestinina territories, at which point he was introduced to a song about an Israeli officer who refused to lead his forces into Beirut during the 1982 Lebanon War.

After making his own version of the track, Eli Geva, he began searching for other suppressed songs which still have power long after the cause or event which prompted their creation, whether he agreed with the song’s message or not.

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Whittling down a list of more than 400 songs to the 12 featured here, he wasn’t against changing the melody or arrangement for his version, as long as the cause of the song’s original ban remained intact.

So the Quran remains quoted in the chorus of Mahmoud Darwish’s Oh My Father I Am Joseph, but almost everything else is different. Similarly Pussy Riot’s Punk Prayer, a song which saw the Russian feminist activists imprisoned after its performance, is stripped right back to its melody, but maintains the subversive lyrics.

More famous inclusions are Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and Army Dreamers by Kate Bush, but there are also songs which resulted in the deaths of their composers. The sheer diversity of material included here shouldn’t work, but somehow it does, thanks largely to Moddi’s respect and understanding of the original source material, and his determination to bring these largely unknown songs to a wider audience.

Moddi’s folk-pop performance takes nothing away from the power of these works of music, offering a simplicity and charm which allows for his own personal interpretation while also refusing to shy away from the statements at the heart of each piece.

A remarkable achievement which will hopefully educate as much as it entertains.