Psychedelic Ballers: How a Baltic Minnow Took it to the Soviet Empire

The only combination better than music and politics is music and politics and sport.  So: what do the fall of the Soviet Union, Olympic basketball and the Grateful Dead have in common?

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics the United States failed to win gold in the men’s basketball for only the second time in Olympic history.  Appropriately, given the times and even the location, on the peninsula that saw one of The Cold War’s most tangible manifestations, the shock defeat was delivered at the hands of the Soviet Union.

The magnitude of the upset would have been more apparent though had it been known that four of the Soviets’ five starting players were from Lithuania.  From an empire with 285 million inhabitants, covering what is today 15 countries and over a fifth of the planet’s land mass, 80 per cent of those on court were from a country less than half a per cent the physical size of Russia and with a population smaller than that of Seattle, Cape Town or Melbourne.

Thus opens The Other Dream Team, a documentary on Lithuanian basketball I recently enjoyed, thanks to a (Lithuanian) friend’s recommendation.

Lithuania was forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940 and was the first former Soviet country to declare independence in 1990.  The half century of Soviet rule in Lithuania was harsh with “mass murder, deportations, collectivisation, forced atheism and unrelenting propaganda”.  Basketball was an unlikely locus for national identity and pride.  For that reason the win over the USA in Seoul was bittersweet, mostly bitter, achieved as it was in Soviet colours.

Separation from the Soviet Union was messy and painful.  As the first state to secede, Lithuania was subject to aggressive retribution from Moscow that saw 14 people killed.  Lithuania eventually triumphed in this David and Goliath battle and the Soviets finally recognised its independence in August 1991.   Just in time for the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Which is where The Grateful Dead come in.

Like other post-Soviet states, in the short term independence came with drastic state restructuring and economic difficulties for Lithuania.  The degree of these difficulties is a matter for debate I’m not qualified to weigh in to, but needless to say sport funding was not a priority.  Jerry Garcia and co. got wind of the Lithuanian team’s troubles, saw the synergies with their own philosophy of freedom (political and otherwise) and decided to help.  They provided the team with some funds and a to-be-infamous tie-dyed uniform.  I won’t ruin the ending of the film except to say that the last game the Lithuanians played at those Olympics was for a medal, against Russia and had a final margin of four points.

Lithuania’s 1992 Olympic basketball team, resplendent in tie-dye

The Grateful Dead are mostly thought of as a psychedelic band – as reflected by the tie-dye that marked their Lithuanian venture – but I personally prefer their folk-rock side.  My unoriginal favourite is ‘Box of Rain’, written and sung by bassist Phil Lesh for his dying Father.

The Grateful Dead ended with the heart-attack death of front man Garcia in 1995.  Today Lithuania is a parliamentary democracy and EU member with one of the fastest growing economies on that continent (despite being hit heavily by the global financial crisis).  Its men’s basketball team has qualified for every Olympics since Barcelona, three times to win a medal.  Their fans still wear tie-dye.

US State Department denies Bahrain Andrew W.K.’s positive partying power

In breaking news, the United States this week pulled funding for metal-dance hedonist extraordinaire Andrew W.K.’s visit to Bahrain.  I guess someone in the State Department gave him a google and decided he wasn’t the ideal cultural ambassador to a Middle Eastern city-state in the throes of sectarian tensions after all.


The Arab Spring has manifested in Bahrain in the form of sporadic Shia protests against the ruling Sunni minority.  The protests have been going on since early 2011 and are serious enough to get the Saudis involved.  The situation is ongoing: most recently the Bahraini government drew international condemnation for outlawing all gatherings (they were probably thinking of protests, not W.K.-style parties).

Mr W.K. has vowed to make the trip to Bahrain to spread the “positive power of partying” under his own steam.  Godspeed, and party on!

Political Music in Mongolia: from revolutionary to mundane

Unlike the recent democratic movements of other former communist states, Mongolia’s equivalent of the Rose Revolution (Georgia, 2003), the Orange Revolution (Ukraine, 2004) and the Tulip Revolution (Kyrgyzstan, 2005) had no catchy name.  It did however have a catchy song.

Mongolia’s first rock band, Soyol Erdene

The song, ‘Khonkhnii Duu’, or ‘The Sound/Ring of the Bell’, can still be heard regularly in Ulaanbaatar.  The first time I heard it was one afternoon during the national holiday Naadam. It was being played at a summer beer tent near my place.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed it if not for the young men on a hotel balcony next to my flat.  With tops off and fists full of vodka bottles they screamed along to the chorus at the top of their lungs (between hugging and fighting – it was a big day on the balcony).

Music behind the curtain

Unlike Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia was never officially part of the Soviet Union.  But in many respects it may as well have been.  In 1921 the Red Russians chucked out the White Russians who had in turn chucked out the Chinese.  The Bolsheviks installed a one party Soviet-style government in Ulaanbaatar, a move widely accepted by Mongolians as a much lesser evil than incorporation into the Chinese state.

For the next 70-odd years Mongolia was a single-party state, complete with Soviet purges and a strictly controlled economy and society.  The ruling Mongolian Revolutionary People’s Party (MPRP) controlled many parts of people’s daily lives and disallowed traditionally ‘Mongol’ things like Buddhist monasteries and mentioning Chinggis Khan.

Ulaanbaatar’s Beatles monument

They also controlled music.  Western music was off limits except to the most enterprising.  Listening to such music in the sixties and seventies was as such a subversive act.  The role of rock’n’roll in Mongolia’s eventual opening was recognised in 2008 by the erection of a Beatles statue in central Ulaanbaatar.  (For four years Ulaanbaatar had the unusual distinction of being the only city to have monuments to the two Lennons/Lenins, John and Vladimir.  The latter was removed a few weeks ago.)

In 1971 the MPRP recognised the potency of western music and decided to meet the demand for rock n roll by participating in one of the earlier efforts of manufacturing chart-toppers that now so dominates television airwaves.  The band they came up with was called Soyol Erdene (Cultural Jewel).  It was instructed to play traditional Mongolian songs on electric instruments.  The MPRP fed the band lyrics which tended to concern love, communism and Mongol-Soviet ties.  Surprisingly, they’re actually pretty listenable.

Soyol Erdene

Ironically there is now a definite trend among Mongolian rock banks of incorporating traditional Mongolian instruments and tropes into their songs.  Mongolians are rightly proud of their stunning musical heritage.  Throat singing is well known and completely out of this world, but the urtiin duu or long song is arguably even more spectacular.  It evokes the Mongolian landscape, its epic scale, beauty and potential for tragedy, ridiculously well.  Altan Urag (Golden Lineage) are one of the best known proponents of the fusion of western style rock and traditional Mongolian music, and they’re great.

Altan Urag

A long song. It’s probably about horses.

Ring that bell

But back to Mongolia’s primo political song, ‘Khonkhnii Duu’.  The bell that rings in the song wakes the narrator from a nightmare.  Mongolia awoke from its communist nightmare in March 1990 when three months of street demonstrations led the MPRP to stand down.  Elections were held that summer.

The version of the song below is a fairly cringe-worthy benefit-style number.  As well as outdated dance moves and awkward swaying it includes some nice pictures of the revolution and some of Mongolian music’s brighter lights.  The guy who gets the start of the second verse (the bored looking hipster) for instance is the lead singer of The Lemons.

The most amazing thing about ‘Khnonknii Duu’ is its continuing popularity.  Twenty years after the fact people are still making film clips of this song and reflecting on the monumental political change it represents.  Another hip-hop version of the track has over 180,000 views on YouTube.  Pretty impressive when you remember Mongolia only has around 3 million citizens.

As you would have seen if you clicked through to the hip-hop version of ‘Khonkhni Duu’, Mongolian hip-hop definitely tends toward the macho-gangsta end of the hip-hop spectrum.  Although many of its leading lights are quick to distance themselves from American hip-hop, the connection is clearly there.  Gee, Mongolia’s most popular rapper, regularly hits the foreign press as an example of the country’s xenophobia but last week he opened for American early nineties nostalgia act Onyx and called it “unforgettable and incomparable” (UB Post print edition).

2012 election

Mongolia’s latest elections were in June this year.  Campaigning was intense. Ulaanbaatar was plastered with party posters and TV was dominated by party advertising, replete with some pretty ordinary music.  The Democratic Party (DP – then opposition who won the election) even did a pretty uninspired update of ‘Khonkhnii Duu’.  If you are interested, you can click through to see the MPP’s* pop-video style ad or the DP’s ballads – one for the urban youth, an eight-and-a-half minute epic that tries to cover every base, with opera, rock and traditional music interludes, and one aimed at country voters.

Voter turnout in the June elections continued its downward trajectory to 65 percent. Given though that it started at around 96 percent perhaps that is just part of the normalisation process.  The relatively low turnout, along with the imprisonment of former President N.Enkhbayar, has led some to the belief that Mongolian democracy is in trouble. As I argued in this article on East Asia Forum, I take a more cautiously optimistic view.  The continued enthusiasm  for ‘Khonkhnii Duu’ – even among Mongolia’s hardcore rappers – is further reason for optimism.

*In keeping with the times, the MPRP dropped the ‘Revolutionary’ from their name a couple of years ago.  Shortly afterwards Enkhbayar defected and started his own MPRP.

Peter Garrett: Best of Both Worlds?

Note: there is probably nothing new in this post for Australian readers.

In my last post I hailed M.I.A. for the relative subtlety of her political message which was embedded in, but did not overpower, its medium.  Not all overtly political music is necessarily cringe-worthy though.  Case in point: the grand-daddies of hyper-political music in Australia, Midnight Oil.

Formed in Sydney in 1976, Midnight Oil hit the big time with their 1983 album 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1.  At least three of the songs from that album alone are etched on the Australian psyche: the anti-war anthem ‘Short Memory’, the subversive challenge to the bipartisan pillar of Australian foreign policy that was  ‘US Forces’ (the album was also the band’s first American release) and the pièce de résistance: ‘Power and the Passion’.

Despite the strength of their messages, the music is rarely drowned out.  Neither is it hand-clappy protest music.  It is harsh, direct and engaging.  The music moreover more than matches the content for radicalism.  ‘Power and the Passion’ is a perfect example.  How many other top ten hits contain both a drum solo and a brass outro?

The band’s other great album Diesel and Dust (1987) followed a six-week tour of remote Australia.  The album went platinum in the United States and seven-times platinum in Australia.  It contains the now iconic ‘Beds Are Burning’.  You don’t need me to offer an interpretation.

But Midnight Oil are not only interesting for this blog because their music was political.  Lead singer Peter Garrett is (at least from an Australian perspective) the musician politician.  He joined the left-er of Australia’s two major parties, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 2004, two years after Midnight Oil disbanded.  He was elected to the lower house that year and has been an MP ever since.

Garrett has always been a larger than life character, all limbs, bald head and that unique and much-ridiculed dance style.  In 1984 Garrett ran for the Senate as the lead on the Nuclear Disarmament Party ticket.  He polled respectably but failed to gain a seat because the ALP directed its preferences elsewhere.

Labor won government in 2007 and Garrett was rewarded with a Ministry and his dream portfolios of the environment and arts.  In early 2010 he was made the fall-guy (probably unfairly) for a failed home insulation subsidy scheme and stripped of parts of the environment portfolio.  Following the most recent election he was moved to the education portfolio and made a member of the Cabinet.

Garrett has been pretty upfront about the fact that he has had to moderate his views to be a viable member of the ALP.  He has been mocked by the other side of politics, parodied in the media and disowned by many fans.  You only have to look at the comments on some of these YouTube clips to see the deep dismay of many at what is perceived as one of the most dramatic instances of ‘selling out’ ever.  With the recent successes of the Green Party at the federal level – they are a junior partner in the current ruling coalition and hold the balance of power in the upper house – I wonder if he regrets the scale of his compromise back in 2004.  On current polls Labor will be dumped at the next federal election to be held some time before the end of 2013.

In 2009 the Oils reformed to play a concert to raise money for victims of the 2009 Black Saturday bush fires.  Before that televised stadium gig they played two warm up shows in Canberra.  I caught the second.  Apart from the novelty of seeing a Minister dancing maniacally, they were really, really good.  Garrett was clearly enjoying himself (see below clip) and commented on how much better it was than his day job.  The crowd was ecstatic (although crowds are always good in Canberra – we’re just so grateful when someone includes us!)  Thankfully they did not self-censor: ‘US Forces’ was a particular highlight.

Bangin on the Dashboard in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is in the news this week after an official stated the country would not provide support to female nationals hoping to compete in the impending London Olympic Games. The statement came just weeks after a Saudi prince claimed women could represent the country at the Games.

These controversies are the latest in what has become a series of mixed messages on issues to do with women emanating from Saudi Arabia over the last 12 or so months.  Last September the country’s King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz Al Saud announced that women would not only be able to vote, but also that they could run, in municipal elections.  He also announced that they would no longer be excluded from appointment to the country’s unicameral consultative council, the Majlis Ash-Shura (the King appoints the Shura’s 150 members).

In the same month, King Abdullah overturned a sentence of ten lashes given to a woman found guilty of driving.  Although quashing the sentence sent one message, the fact that there was a sentence in the first place was in itself a conflicting message: far from a routine occurrence, it was in fact the first time such a penalty had been given.  Officially, there is no law banning women from driving in Saudi Arabia.  Driving without a locally issued license is however illegal and such licenses are not issued to women.  As a result female drivers are routinely arrested (though not previously given court-ordered reprimands).

The Women to Drive movement was born in 1990 when dozens of women drove through the Saudi capital Riyadh to protest the ban.  The women were imprisoned for a day, some had their passports confiscated and some lost their jobs.

In 2011 the campaign was revived on Facebook.  The Facebook campaign called for women to begin driving on 17 June.  A number of women commenced driving before that date and at least three were consequently detained for short periods.  On 17 June somewhere between 30 and 50 women took to their steering wheels.  It is believed police were instructed against arresting women drivers that day.  There were however a number of arrests in the following weeks.

Described as a statement of solidarity with Women to Drive, M.I.A.’s song and video for ‘Bad Girls’ was released in January this year (a shortened version of the song had appeared previously on Vicki Leekx, a 2010 online mixtape).


The song and video are together an apt anthem for the movement, and they have certainly gained it more exposure.  Musically, Arabic motifs are prominent.  The lyrics are full of bravado, fatalism and car references.  M.I.A.’s vocal delivery is typically deadpan and threatening.

Filmed in Morocco, the video fetishises cars and puts women centre stage in the normally male domain of drag racing.  This is all set against a classically Arabian backdrop of desert and keffiyeh (Arabic male headdress).  The video appropriates referents of male power – cars, guns, aggressive sexuality – for women.  The video’s women are confident, but this is not the hyper-sexualised female confidence seen in so many other (particularly hip-hop) videos.

While the men are watching the women perform, their gaze is spectatorial rather than objectifying or controlling.  The men perform occasionally too – both as backup dancers and horsemen.  Although widely applauded for this empowerment via appropriation, M.I.A. has also been criticised for cultural appropriation and for falling into Arab stereotypes.

I love this song (and video) because 1) it is quality stuff, 2) it is really, really cool and 3) it is socially/politically powerful without banging anyone over the head or resorting preaching.  That a song (or anything else) can be culturally exciting (aka cool), enjoyable and have political/moral force is easy to forget.  All too often politically engaged artists sacrifice the quality of their medium when they want to convey a serious message.  Not only is that a shame on a creative level, but it is also ineffective from a political standpoint – people are rarely receptive to shrill sermonising.  M.I.A. reminds us how it’s done.

Indo Punks Unite!

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Kuta Rock City‘ by Superman is Dead and ‘Negara Dunia Ke 3‘ by Marjinal.

In December 2011 authorities in Indonesia’s Aceh province halted a charity concert called ‘Aceh for the Punk’.  Police apprehended dozens of suspected punks and detained them for just under a fortnight.  They were held, without charge, for ‘re-education purposes’.  Re-education included being forced to bathe and have their mohawks shaved off, and being subjected to religious lectures and mandatory prayers and marching.  There were also reports of beatings.

These events are not isolated.  They are part of an ongoing anti-punk campaign by Aceh’s semi-autonomous government.  Aceh enjoys significant political independence from Jakarta thanks to a 2005 peace agreement between the Indonesian government and the separatist group that spearheaded the decades-long Aceh insurgency, the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

Formerly a Sultanate, Aceh has long been known for its independent mindedness.  This rebellious nature is matched by a deep religious conservatism (in fact the latter motivated the former).  Even before the 2005 treaty Jakarta had made a number of concessions to Aceh, allowing it to institute local Islamic bylaws.  Today the province has shariah courts, shariah police and local shariah laws that can contradict national laws.

Punks around the world reacted with outrage to news of the crackdown in Aceh.  A YouTube search for ‘Aceh punks embassy’ brings up footage of demonstrations across Indonesia and at Indonesian embassies or consulates in Turkey, the UK and United States.  A Seattle-based punk label instituted a heart-warming mix-tape initiative.

Punk by its very definition is about the rejection of authority and conservative modes of life.  As in many other countries, it has been used in Indonesia to express opposition to prevailing political and societal forces.  Punk and other underground genres like metal became important in Indonesia in the 1990s after then President Soeharto and his New Order regime co-opted dangdut music, Indonesian pop music created and promoted as a deliberate response to the influx of western music from the mid 1960s.

Punk likely has additional currency among Indonesian youth precisely because it provokes extreme reactions such as those in Aceh last month.  It seems punk still has the power to shock in Indonesia, a power it has long since lost in the west.

Unfortunately I couldn’t find any Acehnese punk music, so the songs accompanying this post are by bands from Bali and Jakarta.

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