Sierra Leone: elections and Frank Ocean

Sierra Leone is today holding Presidential and legislative elections.  There are nine Presidential candidates, including the incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma.  Sierra Leone is struggling to alleviate poverty in the wake of its brutal, diamond-fueled civil war which ended a decade ago.

While policy issues such as health (which Koroma is judged to have done well on) and employment (on which he has failed to make headway) have played a role in the lead up to the election, there are also significant ethnic loyalties at play.  Despite that, there has been little violence during the campaign period, and if the country can pull of a peaceful election that is seen to be fair it will be a significant achievement: this is Sierra Leone’s third election since the end of the war and history shows that new democracies are particularly vulnerable during their first twenty years.

In keeping with the theme of tenuous links this blog is pretty much built on, today’s elections seem good enough reason to post Frank Ocean’s song ‘Sierra Leone’.


I’ve just discovered Frank Ocean. He is a very timely reminder of how good R&B can be. He follows the path of Prince and Andre 3000: the songs are smooth, intelligent, often odd and almost always about sex.  ‘Sierra Leone’ is no exception on any of these counts.

While ‘Sierra Leone’ is apolitical, Frank Ocean did make a big political statement this year when he came out as bisexual.  This was considered a big deal because of the macho hip-hop world he inhabits.  Ocean’s music is not really hip-hop but he collaborates with many hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z and Kanye West.  His coming out was then something akin to an elite rugby or Australian rules football player coming out – the latter still has not happened, even among retirees (to my knowledge).

Below is the amazing ‘Pyramids’, a ten-minute epic with three distinct movements (including a closing guitar solo).  Elements of the production grate for me personally (such as the computerisation of his voice in parts) but it really doesn’t matter, it is just so good.



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.

Fortnightlyish review: Iranian pop, Tunisian hip-hop and one very silly Trade Minister

This 4th of July was about much more than America, but I do like some of the songs highlighted by PopMatters in their 4 July list (of course) of American punk protest songs.


News: Atonal Australian Politics, It’s a Dance Off and Jazz in Kyrgystan

The incredibly divisive price/tax on carbon (dioxide) came into effect in Australia on July 1.  Over the last 12 or so months the opposition Liberal party has been running a pretty successful scare campaign against the measure, which once enjoyed bi-partisan and broad public support.  The governing Labor party was in turn hoping to turn that negativity upon itself by highlighting its absurdity when the world didn’t end with the policy’s commencement.  This is all by way of explanation for why the Australian public was subjected to the horrific spectacle of Trade Minister Craig Emerson singing Skyhooks this week.  What Emerson (and presumably Labor-party strategists) failed to consider was the fact that the public would not be impressed  by a an attempt to discredit cynical political stunts with a cynical (and poorly executed) political stunt.

In other news, Malaysia and Indonesia are squaring off over ownership of the Tor-tor folk dance, with two people arrested outside Malaysia’s embassy in Jakarta.  The Jakarta Globe reports that the dispute has been escalated to Foreign Minister-level talks.

The Washington Times has an article on the flourishing jazz scene in Kyrgystan.  All ‘western’ music was banned under Soviet Rule in Kyrgystan, but for reasons left unexplained, jazz was particularly reviled.

Opinion: Simone Felice, Excentrik and Sociopolitical analysis via mp3

The Australian‘s Denis Atkins loves Simone Felice.  I’m not a huge fan of the production – ‘uplifting’ piano and handclapping is rarely a good thing – but otherwise reckon ‘New York Times’ is a great song.  I guess it’s about how it’s better to stay anonymous and out of the cynical big city and its newspapers.

Rebel Frequencies has an excellent piece on Palestinian-American musician Excentrik.  I highly recommend checking out the article and the track below.

Dusted has a review of the compilation Rangarang: Pre-revolutionary Iranian Pop.  Perhaps Googoosha (refer previous post) took some inspiration from Iran’s Googoosh, who is a million times better, by the way.  The reviewer praises the music but is critical of the motives of the label.

I don’t think the Dusted reviewer would like this article from The Atlantic which does the old get-to-know-the-real-country X-through-its-underground-music routine with Tunisia and hip-hop.


We’re about to go on Naadam holidays here in Mongolia, so expect it to be quiet (well, quieter than usual) around here for a bit.

Fortnightly(ish) Review: Hip-hop in Mali, Nepal, Springsteen and Uzbek Elite Pop

Mali: coup, secession, food crisis and hip-hop

Mali is in the midst of great political turmoil.  In March a military junta ousted the President, suspended the 1992 constitution and took control of the country, which had been due for Presidential elections in April.  The government’s mishandling of the Tuareg rebellion in the country’s north was cited as the motivating factor for the coup (I wrote about that rebellion in an earlier post).

Following the coup Tuareg rebels, namely the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), declared an independent Azawad covering a broad swathe of the country’s north, including Timbuktu.  To further compound matters Islamist group Ansar Dine has made a counter-claim to stewardship of Azawad, and central Mali is part of the Sahel, a region facing a severe food shortage.

So seemingly out of nowhere (although not to all), Mali has been transformed from a bastion of west African democratic consolidation into “the Afghanistan of West Africa”.  Well, at the very least it faces directionless military rule and possible bifurcation.  Some young Malians have expressed their frustration with their country’s politics, both pre- and post-coup, through hip-hop as detailed in this article on Bridges From Bamako.  The article makes the interesting observation that hip-hop crews in Mali are fulfilling the role traditionally ascribed to civil society, the latter having been co-opted by the political elite.  This is surely the case in a number of other countries too.

What is happening in Mali is compelling, particularly when you’re sitting in a country which is also 20-odd years into democratic rule and subject to endemic corruption, and is about to hold a parliamentary election.  Mali’s Presidential election, which was to have taken place in April, was initially postponed  to May.  It has now been put off until 2017, along with parliamentary elections which were originally scheduled for this July.

What’s a country like Nepal doing with politicians like these?

Just under a month ago Nepal’s protracted constitution writing process collapsed.  I wrote a fairly detailed article about it on South Asia Masala so I won’t harp on about it here.  All I will say is that things are not looking any rosier now than they did a month ago.  This week the hardline faction of the ruling Maoists finally made good on its threat to split from the party.  The newly formed Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (it has dropped the ‘Unified’ from the original Maoist party’s name) rejects parliamentarianism and will not rule out a people’s revolt or a return to all out war.  Meanwhile, as Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai toddled off to the UN’s environmental gab-fest in Brazil, his government was censured by the Electoral Commission for making changes to key police personnel despite its caretaker status, and accused of curbing press freedom for demoting a state TV executive for televising opposition protests.

Amrit Gurung, lead singer of Nepathaya, a band I blogged about when I was still living in Nepal, has added his voice to the debate in a couple of articles in the Nepali Times.  In the first, published a few days before the Constituent Assembly expired, he added his view to the debate over whether or not Nepal’s states should be defined on the basis of ethnicity.  Gurung made the case in favour of ethnic inclusiveness, stating he is Nepali before he is Gurung or any other identity.  He reiterated that position in his latest article published this week.

Who Da Boss?

In a recent article The Guardian argues that Bruce Springsteen is the last protest singer (at least in stadiums), taking a swing at Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Coldplay, U2 and Glastonbury in the process.  The author also sort of has a go at Neil Young and Bob Dylan.  I think.  And Jarvis Cocker and Sting, he says, have chosen the wrong issues to protest.  Personally I don’t think all musicians need to foist their politics on their fans.  In fact most time I think it’s preferable they don’t.

The article’s survey of stadium rockers is far from exhaustive: why mention Aerosmith and Bon Jovi, but not Pearl Jam for example?  Another politically engaged musician is Ry Cooder, who is preparing to release a uber-political album in the lead-up to America’s November Presidential elections.  The video below contains some of one song from the album, the excellent ‘Mutt Romney Blues’, about Mitt Romney strapping his dog to the roof of his car on a 12 hour drive.


Central Asia has a new pop princess: GooGoosha, aka Gulnara Karimova, daughter of Uzbek dictator Islam Karimova.  Unsurprisingly, the music is terrible.

Islamists via A Tribe Called Quest

Soundtrack for this post: ‘Jazz (We’ve Got)‘, Steve Biko (Stir it Up) and ‘8 Million Stories‘ by A Tribe Called Quest.

Islamists have made the news for very different reasons over the last week.  Broadly speaking, Islamism can be taken to mean the promotion of Islam as a political, not just religious, system.  Islam is seen as governing every aspect of human life: the personal is political.  Such groups generally promote the institutionalisation of shariah law.  Some also propound pan-Islamic ideals such as the resurrection of the caliphate.  There are many, many variants, from moderates to jihadis.  Unfortunately in the west there is a tendency to associate the term with the latter most of the time, obscuring the pluralism of Islamism and the reasonable perspectives of some who fall under its rubric.

I don’t know much about Islamist music (if there is any), or even Islamic music (my loss, no doubt).  So accompanying this post is one of my favourite groups with Muslim members (tenuous, I know): A Tribe Called Quest.  A Tribe Called Quest fall under the broad category of hip-hop.  They don’t however have a lot in common with the present-day artists that spring instantly to mind with that tag.  You could consider them hip-hop moderates.  Their songs don’t deal with gang violence, they aren’t known for displaying overt markers of affluence (read bling) and their videos don’t feature scantily clad gyraters.  Instead their beats are low-tempo, their rhymes smooth and laid back and their lyrics sensitive.  They even throw in shout outs to Muhammad (or maybe they’re to member DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad).

Results in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections came out this week.  It was good news for the grand daddies of the modern Islamist movement, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  Their political party offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), won 213 of the 498 seats contested.  Another Islamist party – the Salafist Al-Nour party – came in second with 123 seats.

Victory for the Muslim Brotherhood in these elections was widely predicted (Al-Nour’s success came as something more of a surprise).  Before Mubarak’s downfall the Brotherhood was illegal and its candidates had to stand as independents.  In the June 2010 polls those independents did not win a single seat.  Official turnout for those elections was said to be 14 percent; analysts believe it was as low as 10 percent.  The current elections, held over seven weeks, had a turnout of around 60 percent.

The relationship between Islamism and democracy is a fascinating one, and it will be interesting to see whether democratic legitmisation ‘normalises’ the Brotherhood, or whether they ‘Islamise’ Egypt’s burgeoning democracy (or both).  The first session of the new parliament was held on Monday and it was an entertaining start.  While members of the public danced on the street outside to celebrate their first freely (although the degree of freedom is disputed) elected government in over six decades, things got increasingly unruly inside with lawmakers attempting to pledge allegiance to the revolution or to Islamic Law rather than to Egypt, a bitter dispute over the election of the speaker and a lot of yelling.

One final point of interest is that, unlike previous Islamists elected into power (think Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon), the United States is taking some very tentative steps toward engagement with the Brotherhood.

It was revealed last week that things did not go as planned for a shadowy group of Bangladeshi Islamists whose plan to depose the elected government was foiled.  Up to 16 serving and retired military officers were involved in the coup attempt.  All but one has been detained.  Two of those arrested have said they have links with Hizb-ut-Tahrir, an international pan-Islamic organisation banned in Bangladesh by the current government in 2009.

Islam is the state religion in Bangladesh but the current government made a controversial amendment to the constitution last year re-establishing secularism as one of the four pillars of the state.  While the state’s success fending off the threat was bad for the plotters, it isn’t exactly good for the Awami League government which comes off looking besieged (a similar attempt was made in 2009).  The fact the threat came from the military is particularly concerning. Analysts believe radical Islamism in the Bangladeshi armed forces is widespread and growing.

The ever more prolific Boko Haram struck again in an ugly series of bomb attacks and armed assaults in the city of Kano in Nigeria’s (largely Muslim) north last Friday.  Over 200 people were killed in the attacks which appeared to target police.  Two days later the group bombed two empty churches and a police station further south and attempted to rob a bank.  Two days later again Boko Haram reportedly attacked another police station, this time with hand weapons and grenades.

It turns out the name Boko Haram is not a nod to prog rock but translates to “Western education is forbidden”.  Some believe the group has links to transnational Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda or Somalia’s al-Shabaab.  Others think its gripes are less ideological or pan-Islamic and more local and economic.  It is difficult to know because the group does not have stated demands.  It has been suggested that beyond a small group of hardcore Islamists in the group’s northern heartland, the name Boko Haram is used by any number of diverse groups, including criminals, for a variety of ends.

Boko Haram is not even Nigeria’s biggest problem at the moment (that honour probably goes to the tussle over petrol subsidies).  And no one is yet talking about the prospect of Islamist forces taking over Nigeria.  But Boko Haram is at the very least a scary manifestation of the divisive identity politics that continue to weigh the country – a country that is Africa’s most populous and that has incredible economic potential – down.

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