For those songs of freedom

The primordial yearning of the collective subconscious for freedom, in man and beast, is evident in birdsong and Vivaldi alike

Freedom of song sculpture

And here we are again on the eve of another Independence Day. To remind us all of the hard-earned freedom, the cornerstone of the collective’s progress. What song of freedom shall we sing in awe?

That said, music has helped freedom and freedom, in turn, has helped great music flourish no doubt. Talk about songs of freedom, and bypassing Bob Marley and the Wailers is simply not possible.

For the Marleys, up until now to Bob’s son Damian, reggae is religion and a way of life. Music finds itself in greater glory when the quest turns philosophical for the musician - a journey towards liberation from being and henceforth to individual freedom.

Just how many times would the Redemption Song have been performed until now? Definitely worth a thought.

This primordial yearning of the collective subconscious for freedom, in man and beast, is evidently apparent in the intricate arrangement of the birdsong of spring in nature and Vivaldi alike.

Yet, we go back to our songs, just as human as they are.

The magnetism of Vande Mataram, for instance, is unmatched. The Vande Mataram that we hear today was arranged as it is by the great Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, and much later performed by his disciple Pandit Omkarnath Thakur in Raga Kafi on All India Radio on August 15, 1947.

And the many versions that followed, Lata Mangeshkar’s rendition in Anand Math to Hemant Kumar’s tune to A R Rahman’s modern take reverberate in reverence of the great riches that bind this land.

The rebellious Faiz Ahmed Faiz would pen the historic Hum Dekhenge and Iqbal Bano would sing it to perfection. Mirza Ghalib would wander into the lyrical wild recesses of the romantic soul, later to be immortalised in the sensual voice of Jagjit Singh.

From the grunge of Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse, Winehouse being arguably the greatest of all soul performers of our time, the instinctive wanting to break free from the clutches, (in Freddie Mercury too), is inherent in every song that can be viewed as an essential song of freedom.

But even before that, the ethereal nature of music had found its place in the saint mystics of the land and the great musicians who helped sustain the tradition - from the verses of Kabir, Ganjshakar or Baba Farid, Sultan Bahu, Bulleh Shah and so on, and in breathtaking performers like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

In the mystic traditions, especially of the erstwhile Punjab, music that liberates the self, freeing it from the earthly traps and temptation, became the core idea. The mysterious power of music to evoke the spiritual was a path to salvation. Great many sufi saints and poets flourished in the middle ages and beyond. Such music freed religious traditions from conservative rigidity.

In the United States, the blues helped narrate and document the struggle of the African-Americans, always overlooked, even today to a great extent. From Mavis Staples to Bob Dylan, musicians there keep the fight against oppression alive. Though Dylan’s genius was celebrated with a Pulitzer and Nobel, others such as Louis Armstrong in the past to the now-critically acclaimed Briton Benjamin Clementine, never managed to draw rightful mainstream attention.

The meteoric rise of Michael Jackson perhaps was a swan song for music and freedom. That songs that celebrate freedom can never be repressed, though the powers that be may imprison the individual, was apparent anyhow.

Just like ‘Out of Africa’ we spread and populated the face of the earth, music too travelled far and wide strengthening social identities and documenting in ballads the struggles of various peoples. Blues, the foundation of all great music to have come of mankind, is that true cry for freedom.

Today, perhaps Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World sums up all that is beautiful about a song of freedom. On a higher note, Nina Simone’s Sinnerman too would arrive with a bang sooner. Simone to Winehouse has been an incredible journey for women in music.

The emerging trend of hip-hop becoming popular, taking cue from greats like Tupac Shakur and Eminem is undoubtedly another go at breaking the shackles, feeble as it may sound. Vernacular hip-hop if you like. In musically diverse settings as well, from the likes of The Jam, The Style Council and The Clash to the Arctic Monkeys, it’s still an unending search for freedom.

Back in the East, the Qawwals of Punjab, Bauls of Bengal and the Manganiars of Rajasthan are a testimony to music playing a greater role in keeping communities together and safeguarding their freedom of identity, or so it did some time ago. The syncretism that this brings forth as a result, is a cultural gift indeed.

So much was the power of the Hindustani school of music, that essentially it evolved from a blend of foreign and Indian traditions, and penetrated deep into the south of the sub-continent, producing legends like Kumar Gandharva, Bhimsen Joshi, Gangubai Hangal and Kishori Amonkar. What more could be a better celebration of freedom?

The one great thing about a song of freedom, however, is that it is universal at the first listen. Even if one doesn’t clearly grab the lyric, it electrifies the listener, creating a milieu so eclectic that it is a world in itself with no boundaries.

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