Sonic Weapons of Mass Destruction
The viral video released this week by the Taliban trumpeting their victory in the five-for-one prisoner exchange that will bring Bowe Bergdahl back to the US to face the court of public opinion begins and ends with solo singing. This format alone shares its structure with both a movie and a religious service: title and credit sequences as against prelude and postlude.
Many might have thought this framing soundtrack in the Taliban’s latest propaganda film as simply setting the mood and imparting the message for the action to follow: ardent song in Pashto, the language of the Taliban, made more fervent by the strength of the voice and the yearning intensity of the skillful ornamentation of the hymn-like melody. To the ears of the anti-terror warriors this is the sound of fanaticism, especially as the Taliban producers give the singing a sanctifying halo of studio reverb. Current events will echo in eternity.
The flashy—some might say tawdry—credit effects are hardly sophisticated by the standards of modern filmmaker, but nonetheless show the influence of, for example, the film industry of Peshawar in Pakistan, a robust film culture known in this globalized age as Pashtowood or, more often, Pollywood. This affinity is seen in the kaleidoscopic gimmicks multiplying Taliban fighters and in the echo-chamber vocals. As a visual document the video demonstrates the Taliban’s interest in polishing their product, even if with cheap-looking stunts like PowerPoint spinning photos. They are aware that the facts cannot simply be presented. Preaching and propaganda are all about interpretation: this will be a sermon in sight and sound.
Propaganda films have always relied heavily on music to inspire patriotism and hero-worship. Listen, for example, to the opening strains of John Huston’s harrowing Battle of San Pietro from 1945 and try to suppress the surge of reverence and resolve that wells up inside you. The score by Russian-born Dmitri Tiomkin of High Noon fame is filled with portentous grandeur marrying the military and the religious. The music makes clear even before any battle footage has ripped across the screen that the Allies are on the right side. However real the acts of heroism depicted, the title music of sweeping strings, urgent snare drum, indomitable bass line, grappling counterpoint, and brass volleys is myth in the making. Even the performing groups deployed—the Air Force Orchestra, the Mormon and St. Brendan’s Boys Choir—reflect the facts on the screen as much as the facts on the ground: the movie will portray the forces of good against the forces of evil.
While the Taliban’s Bergdahl video shares its propagandistic purpose with Huston’s masterful documentary, it might seem to many to be desperately outgunned sonically. The massed Hollywood musical forces hugely outnumber the lone singer, and this in turn suggests a crucial difference between the soundtracks of the two films: while the holy infuses the profane in Huston’s movie, the Taliban wants their video’s song to be heard as purely sacred. This much is clear from the credit admonition in Pashto translated in the English transcript available from McClatchy DC: : “This video is presented by the cultural department of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Broadcasting this video with instrumental music is not permitted.” Directly after we read this the chanting starts.
Rather than the usual warnings against piracy one gets with Hollywood movies—after all, the Taliban wants to fan the wildfire spread of their latest product—they are most worried about the desecration of their video, a holy chronicle of ongoing religious war. Mash this up and the Taliban will mash you up. This, too, separates Tiomkin’s score from the Taliban’s religious melodies. Whereas the former is music, the latter constitutes instead a special category of ritual practice supposedly purified of all musical sensuality.
Still, most secularized viewers of the video would reflexively think of the singing as “music.” Author of the first English-language history of music, Charles Burney formulated a definition of music that most in the “West” would accept: “the art of pleasing by the succession and combination of agreeable sounds.” Not all can agree on what makes for musical pleasure, from the unction of Palestrina to the astringency of Webern to the hip-grinding grooves of James Brown. Heard over your home stereo, on your ear buds, or even in the concert hall, music is by now a form of recreation. Its benefits can range from uplift to distraction, but as Burney argued, music is ultimately a dispensable luxury.
For the Taliban it is an abomination. Recall that back in 2001, when the Taliban still ruled in Afghanistan, they banned all music, an evil distinct from the kind of singing that opens the Bergdahl video. That a stricture against musical violation opens the Bergdahl video is a testament to just how much harmful potential the Taliban hears in music, that terrible sonic weapon of mass destruction.
The aesthetic dissonance between these pious anti-musical sentiments and the ardent beauty of the Bergdahl video’s Pashtun chanting, whose melodic outline traces a path shared with the West’s Dorian mode used in Gregorian chant and 1950s American jazz, was unwittingly reflected in American responses: dozens of English-language websites circulated an analysis of the video describing the chanting “as oddly high-quality singing”—as if it were a surprise that the fiercely religious Taliban could enlist an excellent vocalist to their cause. For a bunch of militants who make war on music they sure can sing.
After showing the handover of Bergdahl to the Americans in their Blackhawk helicopter, the video closes with a return of the chanting when the five Taliban prisoners are reunited with their comrades along a highway in the sands of Qatar. The male voice—never would it be female—is heard again in all its reverberant glory to welcome the heroes back to the arms of their fellow fighters and into God’s. The melody has a lot in common with Pop Goes the Weasel—perhaps a final taunting message for the Americans.
In their long motorcade of SUVs with darkened glass windows, the Taliban cavalcade paradoxically brought to mind American movie moguls heading across the desert from LA to Las Vegas. Watching these fully-loaded rigs gather on the endless shoulder made me wonder if they were equipped with state-of-the-art sound systems, but somehow I doubt you’ll hear and feel their throbbing sub-woofers when you pull alongside them at a Doha intersection. Whatever the case, the Taliban movie brigade has scored a global hit with their latest blockbuster in which singing is not music to American ears.