Cultural Resistance

Interview with Robert Wyatt

From River to Pond

The legendary British music icon Robert Wyatt is a big supporter of Palestine. A few days ago he came down to London to promote For the Ghosts Within (Wyatt/ Stephen/Atzmon, Domino Records), a new album we produced together with violinist Ros Stephen. We had a lively chat about Palestine, music, cultural resistance and about the importance of the coming Jazza Festival.

For Robert Wyatt, music is where “people are introduced to each other”. “People were playing each other’s music long before they were mixing politically or socially” he says. Musicians can anticipate change. “In the deep south, white kids were listening to Black radio stations and Black kids listened to Country Music, long before these kids could share space or even meet”. Music has this unique capacity to cross the divide, to bring people together, to introduce harmony and yet, for some reason, not many musicians are brave enough to jump into the deep water. Not many musicians celebrate their ability to bring change about.1

In 2003 Robert invited me to the studio. He was recording Cuckooland at the time. He had in mind an instrumental version of Nizar Zreik’s tune, originally sung by the Palestinian singer, Amal Murkus. That day in the studio, I spent a good few frustrating hours with my clarinet trying to emulate Amal’s articulation, her sound, her personal take on micro-tonality, colour and dynamic. A few months later, when Cuckooland came out, I realised that somehow, that afternoon in the studio, I had managed to dissolve some boundaries. Robert’s attempt to bond an ex-Israeli with a Palestinian composition was indeed a success. I have been collaborating with Robert since then. This year we made an album together.

Robert Wyatt is a legend, a British musical icon. Over the years, he has formed his own language, he has brought to life a new and original sound. He is an incredible craftsman who has influenced generations of musicians all over the world. His production techniques are totally unique; he starts from scratch and builds his music layer by layer sometimes employing the most basic techniques. He manages to collate the bricks and mortar of lyricism, broken melodies, voice, drum snaps and wit into a lucid musical narrative that always sounds unlike anything else. His music is fresh and extraordinary, yet it is also simple and transparent. You somehow always see the light through Robert’s music and thoughts. I have been very lucky to be around and witness the way he bends notes into songs, words into poems, ideology into responsibility, love into beauty and beauty into meaning. But far more importantly, I had a chance to exchange ideas with the man. Last week I had the precious opportunity to discuss music, Palestine, Israel, cultural resistance, politics, the left and compassion with him.

“For the musicians who support the long suffering people of Palestine, silence is simply not an option” he says. In spite of Robert’s popularity in Israel, Robert is not exactly shy of telling the world what he thinks of Israeli policies. For so many decades, “the people of Palestine have been subjected, not just to humiliation, but also to a sadistic relish that can only be designed to destroy them”. But the Israelis have failed, he continues, because the Palestinian people are resilient. “The colonised is always more resilient than the colonisers realise.”

It is no secret that support of the Palestinian cause is on the verge of tipping into a mass movement, the tide has clearly changed in recent years, and yet, in spite of his criticism of Israel, Robert manages to maintain his universally compassionate attitude. He wants to see change, he also believes that such a change is attainable. With his well known, kind ‘Santa Claus’ giggle, he asks the Israelis “what are you scared of? These Palestinians are only other people like you.”

Such a simple statement summarises Robert’s world view. On planet Wyatt almost everything is magically simple but at the same time profound and compassionate. “My politics is clear”, he says, ‘I am an anti racist’. “The idea” he continues, “that some people believe others to be inferior is plain silly.” We, he maintains “are different yet equal.” Such a seemingly simple statement re-locates the political debate within ethical and universal discourse. We should celebrate our differences, yet it is the notion of equality that should stop us from doing so at the expense of each other. Robert is a jazzman and it is hardly a surprise that a jazz musician offers such a profound yet elementary insight. Jazz takes great delight in our differences yet it also yearns for equality. In the 1960’s jazz artists located themselves at the forefront of the civil rights movement. It is a natural progression that jazz artists should continue to champion the struggle for a better world.

Robert believes in ‘people’s power’ as opposed to the politician. Our elected politicians fail to stand for clear justice, he says. “It is humiliating for us as citizens to have such a morally cowardly governments.” And yet, “although politicians cannot initiate a serious change, they will respond to change once it happens amongst the people.” Palestine is a good example of this. We are currently witnessing a rapid expansion in the popular support of Palestinians and their rights. It seems as if everybody out there has decided to collectively “ come out of the closet” Roberts suggests. This movement cannot be explained in political terms, for the political establishment has nothing to do with it. I think Robert is correct here. The emerging mainstream solidarity with Palestine should be seen as the outcome of a general craving for justice, an outburst of collective ethical intuition.

I spoke to Robert about fear. I suggested to him that the ‘war against terror’, could also be grasped as a war against the terror within: a terror caused by the fear we inflict upon ourselves. We are tormented by the idea that others may be as vicious as we are or could be. Robert took this concept further and suggested that the types of fear he detects in our midst are largely the ‘threat of democracy’ and the ‘fear of the truth’. The threat of democracy can be understood as the sheer panic at being outnumbered. The fear of the truth is obviously fuelled by the tormenting thought that our lies risk exposure. Such an insight certainly helps us to understand Israel and its relentless efforts against the indigenous people of Palestine. It also explains Israel’s reluctance to cooperate with different international fact-finding missions. But Israel is not alone. Threat of democracy and truth is also a spot-on diagnosis of the dilemmas plaguing British politics. The UK obsession with immigration merely reflects the fear of being outnumbered. Furthermore, Britain’s continuous institutional failure to properly address the events and individuals that led us to the Iraq war is an indication of our intrinsic fear of truth.

I asked Robert, about his roots. I wondered whether he was afraid to be ‘outnumbered’. “I am English, this is what I am, this is what comes out of my mouth. However, I am not in a stagnated pond of culture, I came out of the pond into the river, which is composed of hundreds of ponds and a lot of fresh water is coming in. This is the place to be, this is the only place for me.” I understand exactly what Robert is referring to. My own journey has also been an expedition from a pond to the river and from there straight to the sea. However, unlike the salmon in Robert’s Maryan, I have no plans to turn around. The sea is the only place for me.

It has been said before that artists, rather than politicians, are there to provide us with a vision of a better world. When I listened to Robert singing What A Wonderful World I could easily touch the ‘blue for me and you’. I had to agree, it is indeed a wonderful world against all odds.

  • Jazza Music Festival 12 & 13 October 2010 @ THE SCALA275, Pentonville Road, London.
    1. To watch Robert speak about Palestine and music. []
    Gilad Atzmon, now living in London, was born in Israel and served in the Israeli military. He is the author of The Wandering Who and Being in Time and is one of the most accomplished jazz saxophonists in Europe. He can be reached via his website. Read other articles by Gilad, or visit Gilad's website.

    5 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. Ismail Zayid said on October 5th, 2010 at 1:04pm #

      Robert Wyatt and Gild Atzmon display a combination of beautiful music and humanitarian concern for justice, for which they deserve our praise. The Jazza festival, they are planning, is clear evidence of their eloquence and sincerity. The link to the Jazza Festival, above, demonstrates that.

    2. Rehmat said on October 5th, 2010 at 3:41pm #

      Gilad Atzmon prefer the Third Option (see video below): “It is an obvious fact that the Israelis do not belong to the region. The Jewish claim for Zion i.e. Palestine is beyond pathetic. It is in fact as ridiculous as a bunch of Italian settlers invading London’s Piccadilly Circus claiming their right to return to a land once occupied by their Roman forefathers. Obviously Italians would not get away with it, Zionists, on the other hand, have managed to fool the nations for more than a while.

      Most humanists seem to support the One State Solution, they are convinced that such a solution is fair and ethical. Again, I am rather perplexed here. As much as we accept that sharing the land is reasonable and ethical, it is completely foreign to Jewish ideology and Zionism in particular. Early Zionist immigrants were more than welcome to share the land with the Palestinian indigenous population. But they had a completely different plan in mind, they wanted a ‘Jews only State’. They eventually ethnically cleansed the Palestinians (1948), Those who managed to cling to the land were eventually locked behind walls and barbed wire. The One State Solution dismisses the Jewish ideology. As much as I myself tend to support the One State Solution, I am fully aware of the fact that such a solution may become possible only when the Israeli Jewish population gives up its supremacist ideology. Needless to say that when this happens, the Jews in Palestine would become Palestinian Jews: ordinary people of Jewish ethnic origin who happen to live on Palestinian land.

      Considering the latest Israeli barbarian military operations, bearing in mind the disastrous starvation in Gaza, learning about the serious threat to world peace imposed by repeated nuclear threats made by Israel against its neighboring States and Iran in particular, we should move the discourse one step further. We better look at the Helen Thomas’ solution.”

    3. hayate said on October 5th, 2010 at 7:16pm #

      Outrage after video shows female Palestinian prisoner humiliated

      Video clip showing Israeli soldier belly dancing close to a female Palestinian prisoner sparks outrage

      * By Nasouh Nazzal, Correspondent
      * Published: 15:00 October 5, 2010

      Ramallah: A video clip showing an Israeli soldier dancing in close proximity to a female Palestinian prisoner, who has been handcuffed and had her eyes bound, has sparked outrage amongst Palestinians and led to calls for the protection of prisoners rights.

      The clip, uploaded on YouTube, shows an Israeli soldier dancing in front of and harassing a Palestinian woman prisoner, to impress his fellow soldiers.

      Israeli Channel 10 aired the footage on TV, which has led the Internal Investigation Department to order an investigation into the incident.

      Qadoura Fares, who heads the Palestinian Prisoner Club told Gulf News that the video clip illustrates that the Israeli Army is lacking principles and a code of conduct.
      He added that despite efforts, nobody has managed to identify the woman.

      The Palestinian authorities are also making attempts, he said, to find the soldier responsible, but he did not hold out much hope of this happening and he emphasised that the Israeli army would likely be loathe to punish him.

      The incident has been reported to a number of international human rights organisations.

      Randa Siniora, the Executive Director of the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights says Palestinian women in general suffer just as much as their male countrymen and many are sexually harassed in prison. She points out that the Israeli Army takes advantage of their conservative attitudes.

      “The Israelis believe that the threat of physical harassment will subdue the women,” she said. “But Palestinian women remain focused on the struggle and they have become even more involved in the cause.”

      Although the Israeli Government investigates such incidents, she says, it does not punish the soldiers involved and yet it claims to be a democratic state.
      In the case of the video clip, she is sure the Israeli Army will accept no blame for the incident. “I fear only the negative attitude of conservative Palestinian society, although we are sure that this Israeli strategy has proved a failure,” she said.

      Meanwhile Eisa Qaraqe, the Palestinian Minister of Detainees’ Affairs, made reference to the fascist qualities of the Israeli army. “The Israeli Army is one of the most fascist armies in the world and the government of Israel is a government of pirates and gangsters,” he said.

      “The Israeli Army violates all humanitarian principles and codes of conduct, with Palestinian prisoners. This army should be tried and punished for their brutal and barbaric actions. I officially accuse Israel of being a state of criminals, which should be tried on an international level,” he said, adding that he hopes the entire world has seen the clip of the Israeli soldier belly dancing and harassing a Palestinian woman prisoner.

      How will this video affect Israel’s image in the international community? Do you think there be any accountability for this crime?

    4. mary said on October 6th, 2010 at 2:57am #

      They actully have it on ZBC too. One of the most repulsive things I have seen of a woman being humiliated. Immoral and inhumane.

      The usual stock phrases are used
      ‘Israel probes’
      ‘appears to show’
      ‘appears to move his body suggestively’

      FFS he does move his body suggestively.

    5. mary said on October 7th, 2010 at 4:24am #

      “I swear that I will be a loyal citizen to the state of Israel, as a Jewish and democratic state, and will uphold its laws.” !!!!!!!!!!!!

      Israel’s Netanyahu backs Jewish loyalty oath

      Mr Netanyahu has given his backing to the citizenship bill Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has re-introduced a controversial proposal to require naturalised citizens to take an oath of loyalty to the “Jewish and democratic” state.

      The proposal has angered Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up 20% of Israel’s population.

      Labour party ministers, who also oppose the bill, say they expect a new freeze on settlement building as a payoff.

      This is a key Palestinian demand in the current peace talks.