The following book review appears in the Winter 2008 issue of Jazz Notes, the quarterly journal of the Jazz Journalists Association (JJA), edited by yours truly.

Music in the Post-9/11 World
Jonathan Ritter and J. Martin Daughtry, eds.
Routledge, New York/London, 2007; 328 pp.; $24.95 paperback

Review by David R. Adler

In the liner notes to Up For It, written about a month before the start of the Iraq war, Keith Jarrett asked: “Why play music at all? What difference could it make?” Many involved in the arts expressed similar sentiments in the aftermath of 9/11. Lost lives, a marred Manhattan skyline, political disquiet and the prospect of ongoing war made art, and certainly the pleasure of entertainment, seem insignificant, even disrespectful. And yet the feeling gradually subsided, and the music never stopped.

This new essay collection, Music in the Post-9/11 World, meticulously reconstructs a period of time that can now seem like a blur. The foreword, by ethnomusicologist Gage Averill, sets out the mission: to explore “how music is implicated in conflict, justice, intercultural understanding, and peace” — or, more broadly, “to assess the richness of sound and music in the emotional life of humankind.” The contributors represent a range of academic disciplines: ethnomusicology, music theory, folklore, communications, American studies. None of the essays deal specifically with jazz, although one jazz journalist, the JJA’s Larry Blumenfeld, weighs in with “Exploding Myths in Morocco and Senegal: Sufis Making Music After 9/11,” an insightful account of the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music and the musical-political activity of Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour, who has done much to combat anti-Muslim stereotypes in the West.

Blumenfeld’s essay is found in part two of the book, which focuses on the climate outside the United States. Elsewhere in this section, co-editor Jonathan Ritter examines commemorative 9/11 songs in the pumpin style indigenous to Peru’s Fajardo region; John Holmes McDowell offers close readings of corridos, or Mexican ballads, relating to 9/11; James R. Grippo investigates the sha‘bi music of urban working-class Egypt; and Veronica Doubleday gives a fascinating report on the state of musical culture in Afghanistan. On the musicological level, every one of these essays is illuminating. On the political level, two of them have major weaknesses, typifying an uncritical indulgence of “the Other” often found on the academic left.

Part one, dealing with the music and mass media landscape in the U.S., includes James Deaville’s innovative analysis of TV news music — an inscrutable world of “stingers,” “bumpers” and “promo beds,” starkly reminding us that “music is unsurpassed in its ability to tap into the personal narratives of individual viewers” and promote government-sanctioned viewpoints. We also find Martin Scherzinger’s especially nuanced “Double Voices of Musical Censorship after 9/11”; Reebee Garofalo’s synoptic “Pop Goes to War, 2001-2004”; Kip Pegley and Susan Fast’s analysis of the 9/11 memorial concert “America: A Tribute to Heroes”; reflections on the politics of Bruce Springsteen and Darryl Worley, by Bryan Garman and Peter J. Schmelz, respectively; and thoughts on “Classical Music and Remembrance after 9/11” by Peter Tregear. What emerges is a picture of music in its various and overlapping social functions: salve for a wounded community, vehicle of inclusion and exclusion, protest against national policy, or belligerent defense of that policy.

Somehow, each of these essays has to contend with the aggressively unenlightened reign of George W. Bush, and there is much well-deserved criticism of pro-war country music jingoists such as Worley, Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood. But elsewhere, the forgiving treatment of Egyptian sha‘bi singer Sha‘ban ‘Abd al-Rahim and Mexican corridista Andrés Contreras makes for a striking contrast, and seems to indicate a broader political bias.

Grippo, in his discussion of al-Rahim, is willing to censure “Israel’s apartheid-like domination over the Palestinian people.” But when it comes to al-Rahim’s video-clip depicting a cartoon George W. Bush scrawling a large Star of David over a world map, or his lyric “O People, O Mankind, it wasn’t but a tower/and certainly its owners are the ones that made it fall,” Grippo is studiously neutral. “Controversial” and “brazen” is as far as he’ll go. Al-Rahim is a self-professed ignoramus on world affairs, but Grippo, in the end, lauds him as part of “a long line of sha‘bi singers who have used their craft to enlarge sociopolitical criticism….” The idea that anti-Semitism and 9/11 conspiracy theories are in fact stultifying sociopolitical criticism in countries like Egypt doesn’t enter the discussion.

Similarly, McDowell can’t summon an unkind word about corrido singer Andrés Contreras, who praises Osama bin Laden as “a valiant man” and regards the 9/11 attacks as just. To be fair, McDowell seeks to establish that Contreras’s “El Corrido de Osama bin Laden” fits comfortably within the corrido tradition, in which respect for the cunning Mexican outlaw trumps other moral considerations. But the Contreras song is one of five 9/11 corridos explored in McDowell’s essay. Three of them are, in McDowell’s estimation, “conformist,” in that they endorse “the official story” of 9/11. McDowell repeats the phrase “the official story” five times in his final two paragraphs. He defines it as “a world of black and white, of terrorists and victims — the Twin Towers are portrayed as beautiful (though fragile), the victims are innocents, the attackers cowardly, and the quest for vengeance is a natural and legitimate response by the injured party.”

Oddly, McDowell seems to prefer not only the inverted black-and-white Contreras narrative, with its “damned gringos” and heroic bin Laden, but also the “neutral” stance toward bin Laden expressed by another corridista, Rigoberto Cárdenas Chávez: “I am not God to judge you/but you must have your reasons.” While McDowell never praises the pro-bin Laden sentiments outright — like Grippo, he affects scholarly objectivity in describing them — he is enthused about the “counterhegemonic potential” of the corrido genre, its ability to “challenge the official story and propose a different understanding of our collective history.” Why a “counterhegemonic” understanding like Contreras’s is superior to the putative conformism of “the official story,” McDowell does not say. It’s supposed to be self-evident. In an intellectual environment where the easy appeal of the counterhegemonic is itself hegemonic, this makes perfect sense.

Larry Blumenfeld, in his essay on Sufism, rightly calls for “intelligent, open, and complex discussion of the issues at hand,” and there is much of it to be found in Music and the Post-9/11 World. However, the Grippo and McDowell entries raise questions about some of the tacit assumptions guiding the project. Gage Averill, in the foreword, throws the problem into relief with a refreshingly candid passage about his Vietnam-era “dalliance with the violent wing of the antiwar movement.” For a time, Averill “allowed [himself] to justify violence in the pursuit of political aims,” a habit of mind that struck him as “frighteningly current” during the 9/11 crisis:

The perpetrators of 9/11 and their sympathizers justified the violence because it ‘brought the war home’ to America, and they have argued that no one living in America is innocent — arguments that were familiar to me. I had once been complicit in a way of thinking that excused or rationalized the loss of innocent lives in the exercise of terror for political ends…. As I coped with my grief and shock following 9/11, I also had to deal with an unsettling sense of complicity and guilt, a failure of my humanism.

Introspection of this sort isn’t terribly common on the anti-imperialist left, and it doesn’t surface again in the book. Averill reminds us that critical thinking involves more than a dissection of “the comfortable capitalist matrix of U.S. hegemony,” in the words of co-editor J. Martin Daughtry. At some point the critique must turn inward, toward the comfortable matrix of the left’s own design.