The Kazimier, ISIS and the destruction of the arts in the name of prophets and profits

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ISIS burning instruments in Mali

ISIS burning instruments in Mali

As Malian musicians face a complete clamp down on their artistry, Getintothis’ Chris Burgess draws unlikely parallels with the current plight on the UK’s arts community.

Last month saw the world premiere of They Will Have to Kill Us First, a stark and mesmerising documentary on the plight of Malian musicians forced to flee their homes, shown at SXSW.

The film, directed by Johanna Schwartz, details the terrifying Al-Qaeda uprising in northern Mali following the fall of neighbouring Libya’s leader Muammar Gaddafi, and the effect that the jihadist rebels have had on the country.

The Taliban, Al-Qaeda and their much more horrifying splinter group The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have now placed an outright ban on music in parts of Mali, Libya, SomaliaAfghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iraq, forcing many respected and celebrated artists underground.

Mali, in particular, is home to many musicians and bands who have become household names in the West – such as the atmospheric blues band Tinariwen, the afro-pop duo Amadou & Mariam and the late multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Touré. It also is home to the excellent desert-punk band Songhoy Blues, whose music has been entirely driven by their enforced dislocation from the north to the south of the country.

The country’s much-acclaimed Festival in the Desert, traditionally a showcase for Tuareg music as well as bands from across the world, has also been forced out of the country by the Islamic rebel groups. It is now staged in neighbouring Burkina Faso.

Speaking to The Guardian, Mohamed Aly “Manny” Ansar, the festival’s director, said that he felt the militias had enforced their ban to “impose their authority, so there’s nothing to threaten them”, adding that “they’re using concepts of Islam that are 14 centuries old and have never been applied…as if they took a computer and wiped the hard drive, and then imposed their ideas instead”.

Musicians (many of whom are Muslim themselves) found themselves facing death threats from armed militants, music venues were closed down and instruments were set on fire. Young people in the north of the country found themselves stopped from listening to music, with their televisions smashed for watching music shows.

Even in areas that the Islamic rebel groups do not control, such as the capital Bamako where music is not banned, musicians are finding themselves unable to work. Clubs have been closed and public concerts have been called off. A tribute concert to the late Kélétigui Diabaté, a legendary balafon player, was cancelled.

There have been bold displays of musical unity against the Islamic rebels however, the singer Fatoumata Diawara releasing the song Peace, backed with an incredible 13 musicians and 29 singers, including the guitarist Djelimady Tounkara and Ivory Coast reggae artist Tiken Jah Fakoly.

The banning of music isn’t new to the region. In 2006, the Somalian Radio Jowhar, the station named after its home town, 90 kilometres north of Mogadishu, was shut down after broadcasting love songs. The enforcers of the ban were the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), another jihadist Islamic group.

An Islamic official, Sheik Mohammed Mohamoud Abdirahman, called the station “un-Islamic” adding that “we cannot have a radio station playing evil music as we are trying to promote Sharia law across Somalia.”

Anyone violating the music ban, he said, could be arrested, fined and flogged.

The ICU were eventually forced out of the area by the Somali National Army, assisted by troops from the African Union Mission to Somalia, and the radio station began to play music again.

Just last week it was reported that ISIS had started forcing extensive restrictions on the people of Raqqa, in the northeast of Syria, a city torn to shreds by militant forces, where beheadings are now sadly commonplace.

Music has again been banned under Sharia law, along with smoking and skinny jeans, and the full face veil was imposed, all “in line with Islamic morality” according to statements from the Islamic State.

ISIS stated that they had “banned music and songs in cars, at parties, in shops and in public, as well as photographs of people in shop windows”, adding that “whoever violates these rules will subject themselves to the necessary Sharia punishment.

Songs and music are forbidden in Islam, as they prevent one from the remembrance of God and the Koran and are a temptation and corruption of the heart” the statement concluded.

In February this year, ISIS took sledgehammers and drills to priceless antique monuments, sculptures and buildings in Iraq, destroying the country’s heritage in the ancient cities of Mosul, Hatra and Nimrud, among others. Such wilful cultural destruction rightly provoked outcry worldwide.

All of this was in the back of our minds when we heard the sad news that the Kazimier is to close.

Just to be clear: No, we’re not comparing the closure of the music venue with any of the violent, horrific acts that have occurred in Mali, SyriaIraq or elsewhere.

Also to be clear: We’re certainly not comparing Liverpool City Council or the Elliot Development Group behind the Wolstenholme Square redevelopment to ISIS or any other terrorist group.

To be totally clear: No-one is saying the closure of the Kazimier is on par with anything like the scale of the banning of music by Islamic militants.

However, there are some comparisons that can be made between the underlying ideologies in play here.

Redevelopment has seen closures to Madame Jojos and the 12 Bar Club in London and The Roadhouse in Manchester, along with Mello Mello in Liverpool. Many more small and mid-size venues have also closed, or face the same fate.

Even the original Cavern, a place that would easily have made millions in tourism money, was turned into a car park by British Rail and a council unconcerned about musical history.

Redevelopment and gentrification are always classed as inevitable and ‘a good thing’ – and in general they are. Improving areas of the city that aren’t up to scratch or need help is indeed a worthwhile endeavour.

Rampant consumerism and commercialisation, however, are not always ‘a good thing’, especially when it comes at the expense of any city’s artistic community.

We’re not naïve enough to think that these things should last forever, but the timing seems extremely poor, as the Kazimier has been central to a huge recent upsurge in the city’s music scene. It’s even more frustrating given Mello Mello’s recent closure and the shutting down of The Lomax (albeit for different reasons).

The most disappointing thing here seems to be a growing sense of apathy towards these closures, with the usual response being “Why does Liverpool need more flats?” posted on Facebook and Twitter.

No other action is taken, just a shrug of the shoulders or at most an online petition that people sign out of a sense of duty, without honestly believing that it will change anything. There’s a sense of helplessness and air of inevitable defeat, as we all bow down to the faceless landlords and property developers.

But why? As the city’s developers strive towards mediocrity, producing cheap glass and steel buildings with very little character, why shouldn’t we fight back to keep hold of what makes us happy?

It’s our city – we live here and we vote for the council leaders. It’s a cliché but it’s true – they work for us. Tell them which you’d prefer, a world-class music and arts venue – the envy of many other cities – or yet another half empty block of flats above another Costa Coffee and TGI Friday’s?

It remains to be seen how viable the developer’s plans are to build a new space for Cream and whatever offshoot of the Kazimier decides to set up, and many questions are seemingly still unanswered. Are there any safeguards in place for the new venues to protect them against noise complaints, for example?

Will the residents, many of whom will be international students, really put up with the drunken late-night antics of Medication goers? Will the place become just a Concert Square clone, full of dead-eyed bouncers watching over gangs of lads shouting at each other?

Ultimately though. it doesn’t matter whether or not the city centre needs more flats, the demand to build them is obviously there and the council views filling that demand more important than safeguarding the Kazimier’s unique building and brand of music and arts.

Yes, the Kazimier is far from the city’s only venue, and the music scene will undoubtedly survive without it, but it’s been at the heart of the city’s renaissance for the past seven years. Its importance to the city cannot be stressed enough.

The Baltic Triangle, home to Threshold, has an emerging set of artistic venues, such as the magnificent 24 Kitchen Street, and seems the natural successor as the spiritual home of the city’s music and arts scene – but it too faces the threat of development and gentrification, the area becoming increasingly attractive to property developers looking to capitalise on its trendy reputation.

Yes we want the city to move forward and do well, but evolution is very different to bland homogenisation, just as the Kazimier as a building is very different to the Slug and Lettuce.

While radical Islam is overt and shocking in its move to destroy that which it believes to be at odds with their beliefs, modern capitalism is much more surreptitious in its domination – yet at times no less destructive to the arts, especially those which do not generate revenue.

Either way, art and community is threatened with destruction – either in the name of the prophets or the profits. We also, as a society, do not feel threatened by capitalism and big business. But we should at least be concerned.

The Kazimier will live on in spirit, as new venues spring up elsewhere and existing ones continue to flourish, and the music scene will continue – of course it will. If Manny Ansar can resurrect a desert festival outlawed by ISIS, then we’re sure bands will find other places to play than the Kaz.

But we should also be very, very protective of our city’s music and arts. Regardless of whichever party or coalition are in power after the general election, the country (and the council) face more cuts. We can guarantee these won’t be made to the big businesses that provide their funding, and whose boards their MPs will eventually join.

Music and the arts, as always, will fight back. We should all do our best to help it.

The Kazimier to shut on New Year’s Day 2016 and Cream to be redeveloped – read the full story here.

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  1. A well written article on the activities of ISIS and its reported impact on music and the arts. It goes on to parallel the repeated liquidation of our cultural assets in Liverpool like Mello Mello, Kazimier, etc. A bit of a shock tactic but let’s run with it.
    I have been in Liverpool and involved in its music scene since the late 80s and would agree that there has been a constant “churn” in music venues. Factors influencing this churn have been: bad management, changes in taste, falling audiences, death and fire. But the most comment factor has been property development.
    On the good side, The Everyman, The Playhouse, The Royal Court, The Empire, The Unity, The Bluecoat and The Philhamonic Hall are still there. However, just like The Everyman’s lost fringe basement venue – the Third Room – smaller venues are much more fragile. To my late 80s, early 90s music generation. Erics and The Cavern have been reborn in a sideways sort of way, but permanently dead are Macmillans (Macs), The Flying Picket, Rudies, Le Bateau, Crawford Art Centre and a few more that 25 years of beer has erased from my memory.
    I think the issue here is fragility vs growth. The current economic system requires growth and return for investors. This means that there are drivers that will create competition in the market for premises. The Philharmonic is too “iconic” to redevelop out of existence. But small venues will always be more fragile as they are often at the mercy of a landlord and a lease.
    If more money can be made by a few like-minded people by changing the use of a building from a venue to flats or a cafe or a new-build mixed development with high status anchor tenants, then that’s what will happen. The cultural capital element (the good stuff in my book) will only occupy the minds of a tiny group of activists, the cultural elite, the after-the-event commentators and in the digital ink of the Local Enterprise Partnership’s positioning statements and glossy brochures……. and tourist guides.
    It’s harder to put numbers into spreadsheets to demonstrate the first and second order benefits in cash terms of smaller cultural establishments on an individual basis. It’s relatively easy to do a business plan for the commercial redevelopment of an old building. Social media campaigns can evidence the scale of public resistance to some developments but the city planners will always fall down behind the barricades of planning and commercial law. The developers are by nature the established players and have the money and the lawyers.
    This issue has been debated in Local government since I can remember and you don’t have to look very far to find out how much public money was ploughed into Ropewalks (Bold Street, Wood Street, Fleet Street, Seel Streel, Colquitt Street, Slater Street and Duke Street) in the 1990s to create a safe haven for cultural industries sector and to protect them from the ravages of “gentrification”. A similar strategy underpinned the creation of the Baltic Triangle. But, as soon as you rely on private sector property owners, very few will honour this in the longer term. There are a few notable property owners in Liverpool who do favour the arts and cultural sector, but they are in the minority – even in the so called cultural quarters.
    Serious law changes to protect cultural venues will come up against hundreds of years of laws and precedents that will favour the landlords. In my mind the solution at the moment is to own your premises or become a lease-driven nomad. The Baltic Triangle looks our best opportunity yet, but that’s what they said about Ropewalks isn’t it!