An almost inaudible battle is taking place in Mali, but if we cover our ears to the sound of intolerance it will grow until it deafens us.
FADE IN, FADE OUT
…hardly notice how it started, it was as if it had always been there, the ticking of a clock, or the hum of a fridge. It had arrived stealthily, like an underlying doubt, and although it would be almost impossible to pinpoint now, there must have been a starting point, a beginning, a moment in time when the silence was broken.
Broken? No, silence is not a piece of fragile glass to be shattered by piercing notes. Silence is a bar on a pentagram; it is music’s perfect partner.
Let us say then, that there came a time when the sound grew loud enough to be heard. It nagged at our daily lives, invaded our dreams, eventually imposing itself on us totally as it moved
into deafening noise.
‘Hey, Joel, hey, how’s it going?’
Marcus slapped him on the back and gave him a half hug. Joel had expected this, it was part of the obligatory bonhomie; good vibes were part of the protocol. But he knew it was not really meant, not this time. Marcus smiled, but looked at Joel suspiciously, as if he had already scented the purpose of his visit.
‘Fine, just fine. You look like a happy man!’
Joel prodded his companion’s stomach.
‘Least I got my hair!’
A supposedly friendly banter that did nothing to ease the atmosphere. Joel picked up a miniature guitar from Marcus’ desk. It gave him something to do with his hands, like a bad actor. From behind Marcus a poster of B.B. King, lost in his personal world of blues, ignored them both.
‘So what brings you here, my friend?’
Asked casually, but dangled as if it were bait.
‘I need to talk to Carl. Is he in?’
A deflected answer. Not a good sign.
‘He’s upstairs in the soundtrack studio. He’s got a lot on his agenda. Anything I can do for you?’
Far too transparent. Joel sidestepped.
‘You could give me your sister’s number.’
‘She gave up her number a long time ago.’
The attempted humour, the pretend intimacy was falling flat on its face. Time to move on.
‘I have to speak to Carl now. It’s important. Could you let him know I’m here?’
It was a request, but at the same time an order, and coming from Joel, coordinator of the Cultural department, it was also a veiled threat. There was no point in trying to delay him or probe him further.
At a perfectly illuminated canteen table sat a beautiful blonde girl with the eloquent gestures of a professional actress. Her companions had been chosen to supply contrast: an Afro American boy adorned with gadgetry, an Asian girl with jet black hair brushed over one shoulder, a red haired youth with an incipient beard, like a junior lumberjack. They pretended to eat and drink and gossip idly. The camera swung gently across identical groups of students towards the entrance to the campus canteen. A dark boy walked in, hands stuffed into his jeans pockets, an enigmatic look on his face. The camera panned back to the girl, who twitched nervously, communicating her uneasiness through her well-studied though overacted facial movements.
Carl stopped the sequence and set it back to the beginning.
‘That’s the scene. Now I have to add the background music, the soundtrack.’
Out of habit he spoke clearly, stressing each syllable, facing Aisha directly so that she could read his lips if necessary. He was unsure if her operation had been a success or not, and to what degree she could now pick up the sound of his voice. The implant had a little green light that blinked on and off from time to time, but he did not know if this was significant or not. From where Aisha sat she could see the light reflected in the wide screen.
‘Music is still difficult for me to hear correctly. It sounds metallic. Since the implant I can hear more, much more, but the sounds have changed. Your voice sounds different. I suppose I’ll get used to it.’
The studio was a small room, full of mixing desks and monitors. There was a smell of old carpet and new plastic. Carl sat in the big chair, the one with wheels. Aisha sat on the assistant’s chair, aluminum, sticky fake leather upholstery, no more than a metre from Carl.
‘Do they check the equalization when you go for checkups?’
‘Uh huh, but it still sounds odd.’
‘But you can hear much better, I mean much more?’
‘Oh yes, it’s fantastic, really fantastic. Thanks to all of you.’
Carl blushed and turned back to the screen; he hadn’t been fishing for gratitude. She was referring t the fact that the musicians, organized via the studio, had staged a number of charity gigs so that she could have her implant operation. She would be eternally grateful, which meant Carl would feel eternally uncomfortable.
He decided to try her out. With his back to her he started to explain.
‘What I do now will colour the scene, give the impression I want. Well, what the director wants. If I choose a certain type of music, the scene takes on a different air.’
He swiveled to face her. She nodded. But had she heard him? She realized she was being tested, and answered accordingly.
‘I see what you mean, though I may not be able to pick up the soundtrack too well.’
She still spoke in her slightly swollen way, as if she had something in her mouth, but she no longer shouted, he noticed.
‘Well let’s see. First, I am going to make it a romance. She has been waiting for her loved one to arrive. When he does, she is thrown into a whirl. Love will conquer all.’
‘At least at the movies.’
‘OK, here goes. Take one.’
Violins, tinkling piano, a harp somewhere in the distance. The boy enters, her heart swells, riding on the waves of emotional music. It must be love!
‘Very pretty. I didn’t get it all, as I said, it sounds very metallic, but I can hear it, I can feel the atmosphere.’
‘Great! You’ll get used to it, more and more as time goes by, you’ll see. But that’s excellent. Now let’s change the whole idea. A horror story. She is safe with her friends, hoping to god that her worst nightmare won’t turn up. But then, oh no! It’s him! Fear, panic, terror! Ready?’
Erratic sounds against a backdrop of tense, slightly discordant strings, off beat and dramatic bass sounds. A crescendo of harsh, frenzied orchestration accompanied by a piercing high note as the dark boy enters.
‘Wow, how it changes the whole concept of the scene, eh? From love to fear, just by changing the music score, Incredible.’
‘And that’s what we do, amongst other things like recording the bands and stuff. We also do adverts and jingles. Video game sounds lately. Anything to do with the world of music.’
Aisha toyed with a miniature antenna that she could connect to a base plaque just above her ear. She was about to give thanks again when Marcus appeared at the door.
‘Hi Aisha. How’s it going. You picking it all up now?’
‘Most of it. It still sounds a bit metallic, but I suppose that with time…
Marcus cut short the niceties by his look of concern. Carl and Aisha fell silent waiting for an explanation.
‘Joel’s downstairs. Wants to see you now. Won’t take no for an answer. I don’t like it.’
‘Send him up.’
Aisha saw her cue.
‘Well, I’ll be off now. Thanks so much for…’
‘No, Aisha, just a minute if you don’t mind. Are you in a hurry?’
Which meant, not necessarily, not if you need me. Are you sure?
‘Just for a few minutes. If you don’t mind?’
‘No, no, that’s fine.’
‘Tell him to come on up’.
The first to arrive had come in peace, as political refugees. They were brothers, and all they sought was a safe haven and a little compassion. Later came their armed colleagues, rebels fighting the good fight. They presented themselves as the oppressed, the misunderstood, and called for collaboration. Insidiously they began to take control of the area, at first attempting to persuade the locals to follow their example through fine words and acts of charity. When they saw that the change in the community was too slow, they began to employ a strategy of subtle coercion. Gradually the local populace began to realize that they had lost control of their destinies, that the once welcome rebels had turned into their new rulers. Too late they looked up from their tables and saw that the enemy had been invited to enter.
Joel could be seen through the glass door, his form slowly rising from the stairs like an introductory note. He was confident and very calm, at least in appearance. He said nothing, just a smile for Carl, an acknowledging nod for Aisha. He walked over to a mixing desk and leant against it nonchalantly, trading comfort for pose. There was a rhythm too, probably very simple in its basic form, but with accents and backbeats that were difficult to catch for the uninitiated.
Aisha insisted; she ought to go now. Carl ignored her silent pleas and turned all his attention to Joel.
Neither man spoke, as if it were a contest and the first one to start a conversation would lose. Joel toyed with the knobs on the control desk; Carl, still sitting, waited expectantly for his visitor to begin. The false friendliness that had reigned downstairs was blaringly absent in the studio. At last Joel said
‘We had some great times together, eh? Some great times.’
He waited, but Carl did not reply.
‘But that was a long time ago, Carl, a long, long time ago, and things change, things are changing.’
He broke into a nasal tone and sang the Bob Dylan truism ‘oh the times they are a-changing’. Carl threw a look at Aisha who was swaying nervously from one foot to another, sensing the tension and begging to be left out of it. But she was as much a part of it as everyone.
‘What do you want here, Joel? Have you come back to remember when we were friends?’
Straight to the heart. Joel winced theatrically, but also possibly too he was reeling a little, he hadn’t expected such bluntness, such open animosity. He stood up straight, pulling himself up to his full height, which was considerable, as if by so doing he could assert himself better.
‘OK, Carl. ‘
He sniffed, pulled at his sleeves, and began to recite the purpose of his mission. He looked hurt, as if he would have preferred a different manner, but as they had insisted, they would now receive the full, unabridged official version. He gave the impression as he spoke that, due to their cold reception, he was now obliged to withdraw any help he may have been able to offer. So be it.
‘The Committee has decided you have two days to clear out. They will take the building for other cultural uses. Any instrument discovered after that date will be publicly destroyed along with all technical material. No exceptions, no prorogues. Two days, no more.’
‘Thank you for the warning.’
Joel remained erect, unshaken by Carl’s attempted sarcasm. There was another silence.
‘Do you remember Aisha? She is Paolo’s daughter, you know, Paolo, the keyboard player?’
Joel once more acknowledged her presence by a slight inclination of the head.
‘She had hearing problems, was born almost totally deaf. But with a little help we managed to organize a number of concerts and pay for an implant. Pure technology. Look.’
Joel knew Carl too well to be pulled in; he knew the ground was being prepared for a speech, for a lesson. Well he too had lessons to teach.
‘The Committee has decreed that music can only be employed under their cultural guidance. Any other music, of any kind, is to be considered the trumpet of the devil.’
A provocation. But Carl would not be thrown off track.
She was being used as evidence.
‘It is the collective that counts, not the individual.’
Said like that it sounded like an insult. Aisha had not undergone delicate surgery to hear this.
‘I must be off now. If you don’t mind?’
She left them to it.
‘The collective versus the individual. Are we still dragging up that false dichotomy? How can you believe such nonsense, Joel? You’re a musician!’
‘I am no longer.’
‘You are a musician, like it or not. You can’t just walk away from half of your life. The collective, the collective. What is a collective but a group of individuals? In a band the singer cares for his or her part, playing with the rhythms, the silences, trying to communicate…
‘Look, I haven’t come here to listen to all this…’
‘but she needs the band, needs the drummer, the bass player, the…’
‘There is no point in going through all this again, Carl, I did not…’
‘Because what you are doing is exclusion. You are cutting out those who do not agree with you, you want a monotonous world with one voice, but you know…’
‘Look, Carl, we have been together for a long time, I just want to warn you, that’s all…’
‘Music opens its arms to new instruments, new sounds. It is fusion, not confusion. That’s why it is the only universal language.. .’
‘The devil’s trumpet!’
‘Then don’t listen, don’t play, don’t go to concerts, cover your children’s ears! But do not silence the rest of us, damn you!’
At some stage Carl had stood up and confronted Joel. Now they stared at each other with passion and mistrust in the long pause before the final note.
When the militia broke in most of the instruments and mixing desks had gone, hastily loaded onto trucks and driven at full speed to the border. What remained, some old drums, mike stands, some out dated pieces of technology or parts too heavy to remove, were dragged into the street and burnt.
The erratic crackling and hissing sounds that accompanied the column of black smoke could not be interpreted as either music or silence.
It was pure cacophony.