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Music is one of the few tools at our disposal that has the ability to unite as it does dismember with equal force. For pieces designed as a means of pure entertainment, some welcome them as a much needed respite from the pains of life’s demands, while others consider them a parasite that threatens the general logical and moral intelligence. The line between curative and pestilent is anything but defined, but what happens when a song merges a message with entertainment, and becomes so threatening to a certain faction that they will do whatever is necessary to silence it?
For Pål Knutsen, the Norwegian singer-songwriter who professionally goes by the name Moddi, it all began in January 2014, when he pulled out of a concert in Tel Aviv in protest of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Shortly after, fellow Norwegian musician Birgitte Grimstad passed along her song “Eli Geva,” which recounts the tale of the Israeli brigade commander by the same name who deserted his forces in the midst of the 1982 Lebanon War because he disagreed with the tactics employed. Thanks to pressure from Israel, Grimstad’s “Eli Geva” remained unheard for 30 years.
Crafting and performing his own version of the song, Moddi became obsessed with music that has been banned, censored, or silenced, ultimately resulting in his upcoming album Unsongs, which features 12 songs from 12 countries and releases on Sept. 16. The Culture Trip is honored to premiere Moddi’s new single, “A Matter Of Habit.” Penned by Alona Kimhi and performed by renowned Israeli singer Izhar Ashdot, the track details the first-person accounts of West Bank IDF soldiers.
Cocking his weapon with shaking fingers,
grits his teeth as he’s hugging the trigger.
Young blood rushes, his heart pounds.
He knows it gets easier the next time around.
They’re just objects and shadows, not women and men.
Learning to kill is a natural thing.
However, in 2012, Ashdot was not permitted to perform the song on the army radio station Galatz, stating, “we should avoid celebrating a song that demonizes our soldiers.” The International Jerusalem Post defended the song’s ban: “We need not sing as one voice, but Army Radio has a duty to fight back when its own listeners come under fire.”
Moddi’s rendition of “A Matter Of A Habit” begins as a gentle lullaby of acoustic strums and piano plucks, steadily climbing until it summits in a vortex of strings and reverb-drenched harmonies, the intensity of his voice matching each step. It’s as dazzling as it is heartbreaking, and it’s a narrative that reaches far beyond its context.
But Moddi didn’t stop with his album; he also filmed a documentary series — seven in total — that pair with various tracks and will launch with the project’s website on Sept. 9. In this first installment, a former Israeli soldier details his experiences in the occupied territories and the Breaking the Silence initiative. You can watch it below.
The Culture Trip spoke with Moddi to learn more about the artist and how Unsongs came together.
You were an activist before you started writing music. How did you get involved with the Socialist Youth and Young Friends of the Earth?
I don’t really consider myself to be an activist, or as a musician. Activism is something you do, not something you are. During my time in high school, there were loud debates about the expansion of the Norwegian oil companies into the Arctic Sea. The first songs I wrote were about the conflict between the capital forces and the local communities. They sort of went hand in hand, music and activism. Music needs an element of social relevance. Politics desperately needs an aesthetic dimension. Whenever I write a song, I try to merge those two domains. They need each other. And I think they both need people who do, rather than people who just are.
You canceled a concert in Tel Aviv in January 2014, citing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Could you speak further about your opinions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I cancelled the Tel Aviv concert because I felt completely powerless in the face of the black-and-white discourse that is the Middle East conflict. To begin with, I had little interest in the situation; I was going to play a completely normal concert and tried to steer shy of any involvement in the political situation. But after I was drawn into the boycott debate, and people were starting to use me to legitimize their own agenda, I decided to pull out. Singing love songs and songs about the sea, after two months of talking about how to deal with the occupation, seemed completely out of place. There and then I lost a little faith in music as a bridge builder, I have to admit that.
You state that this all started with the story of Eli Geva, but how did this snowball into a full album and documentary series about banned songs?
I think curiosity is the reason why Unsongs grew into something more than just an album. After having mapped out more than 400 songs that I thought were relevant for the album, I then whittled it down to 12 that were to be recorded. I felt that I was left with hundreds of half-told stories that needed a finish, so I started to contact the people behind them to see how and where they were today, what the song had led to. One thing led to another, and, in the end, I decided that these stories were too important to just leave it at that. After all, they had given me back some faith in the power of music, and I wanted other people to feel that too.
You wrote in your explanation for “A Matter Of Habit” that it is one of the tracks you “feel the strongest for, yet at the same time am uncertain about.” Can you explain exactly what this means?
“A Matter of Habit” may be written about a specific situation, but has a universal message: that anyone can become an oppressor. I was uncertain about whether to include it on the album because I already had a song that originated in Israel, and didn’t want any country to be “overrepresented” on the album. Censorship happens everywhere.
However, in the end, I decided to go with it because the song, in addition to being beautifully written and incredibly timely for its intended audience, says something bigger about not just Israel, but the entire Western World. We have gotten so used to our role as world police that we barely notice how much suffering and pain we inflict on other people, through bombs, through drones, through economic warfare. We, too, see ourselves as the main victims, and legitimize our actions with fear, with necessity. Doing so has become a matter of habit not only for soldiers in the West Bank, but for you and me. I think Alona Kimhi and Izhar Ashdot have written a song that, despite the harsh treatment it got, will survive for centuries to come. At least it deserves to.
You also wrote that “A Matter Of Habit” was the song that received the most sympathy for its censorship. Why do you think this is?
“A Matter of Habit” was directly based on the testimonies of real soldiers. Real, first-hand, verified and cross-checked evidence of what occupation does to people — both the oppressor and the suppressed. So the song doesn’t only challenge our moral perspectives, like so many other songs; it claims to provide a true account of the real world. People recognize themselves in it, they recognize parts that they know are true and other parts which they don’t want to deal with. I think that is what scares people and what makes the song so controversial.
There are a variety of responses just to these 12 songs — market resistance, imprisonment, forced silence, murder. What do you think it is about music that makes it so threatening to the powers that are in place?
To answer that question, I’ll paraphrase one of the original singers on the album, Marcel Khalife, who was persecuted for blasphemy in Lebanon. He said that it is the beauty of his message that scared the authorities. We live in times when politics of fear trump most other driving forces in society. Most of the songs on the album represent the opposite: something beautiful, an account of the world that is appealing. Therefore, they challenge the people in power in a way that they cannot deal with other than banning it, censoring it, suppressing it. And that is also why I wanted to make the album, because I think all the songs contribute with something important in the public discourse — a perspective that is difficult to get elsewhere.
With tracks like “From The Shattered Pieces Of A Stone It Begins,” “A Matter Of Habit,” and “Parrot, Goat And Rooster” there’s a certain level of disagreement between the song’s message or creator and your personal opinion. How important was objectivity when creating this project?
In my translations, I have done my best not to distort the original message of the original artist, which is of course nearly impossible to do. The important thing for me has been to preserve the part of the song that got it banned in the first place — the forbidden core, in a way. By that I am saying that I do not, in any way, represent the songwriters behind this project, or even necessarily agree with them, but I think their voices deserve to be heard.
How did you balance delivering the message of each song with crafting an appealing album? Are there some tracks where you never heard the original and only had the words to work from?
Many of them, in fact! The most extreme case is probably “The Shaman and the Thief,” written on fragments of a Sami text that has been distorted and adapted through centuries. In these cases, I have worked closely with people from academia and native speakers of the language to try and understand the depth of the texts and the societal context they were written in. Remaking these as modern pop songs is by no means unproblematic, but if I can use the songs as a doorway to a broader audience, then I have at least partly succeeded.
How do you hope this album affects pop music in terms of the content the majority of artists deliver?
Personally, I have learnt more from making this one album than from any other music I have every played or listened to. The 12 songs on the album have given me a glimpse of how powerful music can be. In times when musicians are taught to entertain and keep away from politics, I hope this album can contribute to the opposite. Politics can be beautiful and art can be purposeful. That might be the most important thing I have learnt from making Unsongs.