16 May 2023

The revolution is the song

Revolutions and songs go together, it seems. Song can call forth revolution. Art can do that. Not often though. More typical is for revolutionary fervour to inspire song.

We see this in political upheavals, even those that are only in their revolutionary infancy and sometimes those that are named revolutionary but are most certainly not in rehearsal, rhetoric, strategy or action.  

Artists, well not all of them, feel compelled to contribute in the way that best can. With their art. Not all of them identify with the particular rush of revolutionary blood of course. There’s a bit of herd instinct at times. And at times, there are bucks in ‘being heard’ depending of course on whose interests are truly being served, depending on who the puppet master or puppet mistress is.

There is a song. Almost always. Indeed they often are part of a revolution long before someone makes the relevant announcement or the overpowering voice of agitation clearly indicates that things can no longer remain the same.

You find ‘revolution’ in folk music, folk stories, folk dance and other forms of folk art. They simply tell the world that the existing social, economic and political order is just not right, that its flaws and injustices haven’t gone unnoticed. They put the status quo on notice. They are, then, revolutionary, for they express disenchantment and indignation and in doing so call for the recognition of commonalities in subjugation. That’s one step away from necessary conversations that need to take place as a precondition to organising collective action.

The tendency however is to see ‘song’ as some kind of useful appendage to ‘revolution.’ Songs that color, perfume and lend textures to 'revolution.' Sons that even dress it well.

Ahmed Sékou Touré, the first president of independent Guinea who served from 1958 until his death in 1984 had an interesting thought on revolutions, songs and revolutionary songs, quoted in  Osei Amoah's ‘A Political Dictionary of Black Quotations’:

‘To take part in the African revolution it is not enough to write a revolutionary song: you must fashion the revolution with the people. And if you fashion it with the people, the songs will come by themselves.’

Now Sékou Touré has been called all kinds of names by the Western Media. Dictator. Tyrant. Murderer. Could be true, but he was also right when he said the following:

'When you are praised by the colonists, it means that you are bad for your people. When they say you are bad, it means that you are good for your people. The day they say I'm good that'll mean I betrayed you.’

It could be clever gaelavijjaava of course, but considering the track record of, say, the United States of America, a lot can be read from who they praise and who they vilify.

We can of course ignore who said it; the thought need not be discarded. What he has said, essentially, is to consider the revolution as a song, a people’s song, fashioned with the people.

How do you do it though? Well, there’s another Sékou Touré quote:

‘We should go down to the grassroots of our culture, not to remain there, not to be isolated there, but to draw strength and substance there from, and with whatever additional sources of strength and material we acquire, proceed to set up a new form of society raised to the level of human progress.’

Here’s an exercise that may be useful. Think of moments that are considered revolutionary, movements you would consider to be revolutionary. Was the revolution a song or were there songs that frilled the agitation, protests, storming of the barricades etc.? Did the revolutionaries go down to the grassroots of culture to draw strength and substance or was all of that ignored as irrelevant?

Did they gather the voices of the people and compose a song or did they write some lyrics, add melodies and sing it to the people? Did they ask ‘who are you?’ Did they say ‘hello’? Or did they say ‘I know what’s best for you?’ Did they, then, presume the right to impose on people their version of the people’s reality? Would that be ‘revolutionary’? Would that be ‘a song’?

Somewhere, in this very moment, there’s a sigh and there’s a smile, there’s indignation and resolve, there’s a lived reality that is abhorred and a tomorrow towards which people are ready to march. That’s a song. A revolutionary song. It is being sung as I write and as you will read. 

There’s music. Can you hear it? It’s the revolution. Do you see it? 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins

The day I won a Pulitzer


Ella Deloria's silences

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable 


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan

Enlightening geometries

Let's meet at 'The Commons'

It all begins with a dot

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone

On sweeping close to one's feet

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts...

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart