Louder than bombs: my journey in war and music

In this extract from his new book, Ed Vulliamy reflects on his life as a war correspondent and how music from Sarajevo to the Paris attacks can reveal truths when words fail

Sarajevo, August 1993

The day before my 39th birthday, I was reporting on what came to be called the Dobrinja water-queue massacre in the besieged city of Sarajevo people killed while waiting in line for drinking water from an outdoor tap. I had arrived on the scene just as bodies were being removed, leaving a trail of plastic water containers neatly curved in a row, surrounded by pools of blood that men were hosing away, occasionally scurrying from the sniper fire coming at them.

On my birthday itself I felt like doing something else, in counterpoint to the killings: listening to a performance of Joseph Haydns String Trio Op 8 No 6 in the citys blacked-out National Theatre. This was part of a Summer in the Chamber series of lunchtime concerts the kind of thing the citizens organised and attended not so as to belittle what was happening but to remind themselves they were still alive. The programme that day had been intended for the Sarajevo String Quartet, but they had been reduced to a trio after the second violinist, Momir Vlai, was killed by a mortar shell that hit a flight of steps behind the Conservatoire as he arrived for rehearsal.

The two movements in the key of C Minor which Mozart and Beethoven would later associate with struggle and intensity were written as a piano trio, transposed this afternoon for violin, viola and cello. Outside the theatre, another brutal day: five civilians, one of them a child, were killed as mortars, one aimed at the main hospital, pounded the city. But here behind the blackened windows, a mesmerised audience gathered around some residual hearth of defiant civilisation.

During the three-year siege and torture of Sarajevo capital of the stillborn republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina the second-bestselling black market commodities after cigarettes were cosmetics; the women liked to look their best when, risking death by a snipers bullet, they queued for bread or water, and today they wore careful makeup and best dresses. Like the music, it was a way of living, rather than just remaining alive.

The men were wearing linen suits, though soldiers and their commanders, back from the defensive trenches, wore combat fatigues and heavy eyebrows.

The trio began to play: every minor fall of the opening movement stirred some engraved though recent memory of blood and loss; while every major lift lit some glimmer of love or cautious hope, if only because it was so beautiful in contrast to the madness without. But as the music played, the shelling continued ever nearer the theatre. Until at one point during the lilting andante, one mortar crashed so close it caused a shudder that made the walls shake sufficiently to knock the viola players music stand over, felling his score. An awkward silence descended over the 150 listeners. The trio stopped, unsure how to proceed how to answer this outrageous interruption? Then the first violinist, Dzevad Sabanagi, made a simple split-second but in its way momentous decision: he waited for the stand and score to be picked up and reconstituted, raised his bow, then called the number of the rudely interrupted bar.

The trio played on.

The
The siege of Sarajevo, April 1992 Photograph: Mike Persson/AFP/Getty Images

Anyone who tries to write seriously will at some point become impaled on what the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky called the nail of words. And I think I promised myself that afternoon in Sarajevo that I would one day attempt to explain with words the mtier to which writers, but not musicians, are confined why that moment and gesture said more about what was happening under siege than anything I could write. But what?

There is something about us the best in us, hopefully but not necessarily that converses with and interprets, expresses and intervenes in the world through music, as interlocutor, mystery, medium, language without and beyond words. That is how I have tried to listen to music all my life, and to those who make music in wartime and in peace, in times of trouble and tribulation, mirth and occasionally exhilaration.

Every writer reaches that moment when they know the thesaurus and lexicon will fail them. The moment of haunting by Samuel Becketts question: What would I do without them, when words fail, spoken by his character Winnie, buried to the neck, in his play Happy Days. Among other things, we turn to music, its muse and alchemy. The reason for this is as primal as it is mysterious: the functions, meanings and non-meanings of music have baffled philosophers since the beginning of thought.

Music is part of who we are, and we know its impact when we hear it: in the sublimity of Monteverdis Vespers of the Blessed Virgin, throughout which tapestries of notes feel even more divine than the texts they proclaim. Or like a jagged, serrate viola through Shostakovichs last, 15th, String Quartet its abrasive intorsion like a barbed needle that speaks of desolation, exclusion from closure or repose.

We know it most familiarly with regard to love: words are all I have, according to a cheesy song by the Bee Gees whereby words are all you have to steal a heart. This is nonsense; they may help, but no words can speak the pulsating virility of a sinewy, sweaty and salacious James Brown song, or match the silken lure in a promise sung by Diana Ross. No words can speak the aqueous purity of love, resolved into sublime transcendence during a progression played by Gonzalo Rubalcaba on the piano.

No words can pump loves adolescent pulse like Cherubinos aria Non so pi cosa son, cosa faccio in Mozarts Marriage of Figaro, or convey the cruelty of lost love like the Countesss lament soon afterwards, Dove sono i beimomenti.

Conversely, when it comes to loves antithesis, no pacifist pamphlet or speech could match the onslaught of brass behind Edwin Starrs outrage at how war is good for absolutely NOTHING! Music is not necessarily neutral, and much of the music in my life has been an intervention in the world I grew up in, a period in the late 1950s, 60s and early 70s of tumultuous creativity in rock, blues, folk and jazz during which a generation was forged on the anvil of an idea that music can change the real world. So there was the tangibility of what music does in the empowering glow of the organ, the unbowed pounding of the bass and the entry on guitar that opens Long Time Gone by Crosby, Stills and Nash the impatient beckoning of a better world.

It would appear an insane idea: if music could change it, the world would not be the worsening nightmare it is after so much great protest song and music for peace. The Haydn trio in Sarajevo did nothing to abate the slaughter. I see no impact by Woody Guthries union songs on todays sweatshop labour. Even less for John Lennons Give Peace a Chance on Iraq, Gaza, Mexico or Syria. I see no vindication of gospel song We Shall Overcome on a servile populace voting for Brexit and Donald Trump. Can a drop of water punch a hole in a rock? No. But can the Colorado River gouge out the Grand Canyon? It already did.

Even if music cannot change the world, might not enough good music be able to change the landscape? That was the question our music and most musicians asked when I was young, and in the main the answer wasyes.

New York City, September 2001

After the 9/11 attacks, 160 songs were put on an advisory list on the radio because they were deemed lyrically inappropriate. Some were not without a macabre logic: What a Wonderful World by Louis Armstrong, War Pigs by Black Sabbath, Knockin on Heavens Door by Bob Dylan, Its the End of the World As We Know It by REM. Also, morbidly, Bits and Pieces by the Dave Clark Five. Others were downright weird, including Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da by the Beatles.

More ominously, radio stations were told that the entire oeuvre of the radical band Rage Against the Machine was considered questionable a diktat so outrageous that guitarist Tom Morello was obliged to put out a statement saying that the band was diametrically opposed to the kind of horrible violence committed against innocent people If our songs are questionable in any way, it is that they encourage people to question the kind of ignorance that breeds intolerance intolerance which leads to censorship and the extinguishing of our civil liberties, or at its extremes can lead to the kind of violence we witnessed last week.

At home I was living and working in New York at the time we made a point of playing Morellos music at high volume, windows wide open, especially a song called War Within a Breath and how bitterly ironic, because in the end thats exactly what happened.

The musical backdrop to my years in New York was jazz at the Sweet Basil, Lenox Lounge and Village Vanguard clubs some of the happiest and most instructive evenings of my life. I was there for the last night all night of Sweet Basils long history, for which a galaxy of its veteran guests gathered to play (now the Lenox has closed too). But the soundtrack to the upheavals that followed 9/11 was played not so much by the John Hicks Trio, Houston Person or Gonzalo Rubalcaba, as by Patti Smith. Patti had developed a tradition of giving two intimate concerts at the Bowery Ballroom in New York on her birthday, 30 December, and another on New Years Eve. Smiths concerts are always surprises in the moment, but the one she gave as 2001 came to a close, 15 weeks after the attacks, had a singularity of its own. There was a beautiful version of Frederick, for her late husband, but it felt as if it was for everyones lost love; Ask the Angels spoke for itself.

The concert on the cusp of 20023 could not have been more different. By then, mourning for 9/11 had morphed through war in Afghanistan to the eve of the invasion of Iraq.

Smiths Bowery concerts feel like private parties, almost. Many people there do know Patti personally, and those who dont feel as though they do. Her 20023 concert opened with my favourite song in her repertoire, Waiting Underground, which described how we felt on the eve of the catastrophe to come, followed by When Doves Cry, with all its poignancy. On the dot of midnight, to ring in a tumultuous new year, she drove into People Have the Power and then, when I heard guitarists Lenny Kaye and Oliver Ray crash the chords to the next song, my heart missed a beat: there it was, a reminder of what America had been through in Vietnam, and of what it now feared was to come: Jimi Hendrixs Machine Gun. Within a few weeks, Id be in Iraq.

There was a third Patti Smith performance in what I think of as this 9/11 trilogy of concerts: in August 2003, by which time I had returned from two assignments into the Iraq nightmare. It was my elder daughter Elsas ninth birthday outing, her first ever rock concert. Patti hair tied back, black T-shirt began reading the Declaration of Independence, which turned into an indictment of President George Bush! applause for abuses and usurpations absolute despotism against the American people. It is their duty, she thundered, to throw off such government for its history of injuries and usurpations. Then, fist clenched: Truth is just, and truth is here, we indict him, we indict George Bush just as the revolutionaries indicted King George the audience clapped time, Patti raised her voice for killing innocent Iraqi citizens Rise! Rise!

The other music blasting from the rooftops over the invasion of Iraq was Crosby, Stills, Nash and Youngs performance, on tour, of Neil Youngs enraged album Living With War. Young explained that if no one else is going to do this, well have to, and a DVD of the 2006 tour shows its impact on audiences: in Atlanta, half the audience booed a song called Lets Impeach the President, and many walked out, spitting fury at CSNYs political bullshit.

In conversation Graham Nash ponders, looking back: This was the situation as I saw it: George Herbert Bush, the father, realised that if this world was going to be the way he wanted it, then he needed to install as vice president, next to his son, a man who understood what we want: war, with all the power and money it brings. That man was Dick Cheney. So Neil, Stephen, David and I set out to impart our view on that. And these people came to listen. Now, why would you buy a ticket to see us four, playing from an album called Living With War, and be upset? Because we are talking about the situation? What did they expect? They were the people voting for Bush then, and for Trump now, and I dont understand why they like our music!

People
People hug on the street near the Bataclan concert hall after the attacks on 14 November 2015. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Paris, November 2016

There was something creepily untrodden about the floorboards. The red velveteen seats showed no sign of wear, the same mint material as the curtains that framed the stage and skirted the parapet at the front of the balcony. The wood along the bar had been hewn uncomfortably recently, the metalwork factory-fresh. Even the pastel paint in which the Alphonse Mucha reproductions had been executed was pristine. But this is not a new theatre this is the Bataclan in Paris, entirely refurbished, defiantly reopened. A year and a few days after Islamic State gunmen burst in and opened fire on a crowd of young people, killing 89 and wounding many more. There exists a picture of the audience, taken from the stage two minutes before the attack: poised but not posed, to watch a band. Daesh described them in its claim of responsibility as hundreds of idolatrous sinners at a festival of perversion; as their faces show, they are my children and anyones.

Stphane and his girlfriend Corinne were holding hands, when this incredible noise filled our ears and made everything else silent. Neither of us were hit, but we fell to the floor out of instinct. We meet, the three of us, at a cafe by the St Martin Canal, not far from the Bataclan and even nearer to restaurants and bars also victim to that nights murderous rampage 130 were killed in all, and hundreds wounded, 100 seriously. We lay, continues Corinne, and the gunmen started shouting. In French, though I cannot recall what they said. It was panicky, screaming, insults, shouting about Allah. There was an awful smell I cant place it, gunpowder maybe, a deadly smell. And there was moaning, sobbing, cries of pain.

Stphane remembers: We were like a blanket of people, on the floor. It was wet, from spilled drinks. If anyone screamed or panicked or pleaded for mercy, the reply was a gunshot. I whispered to Corinne: Play dead. If we are going to live, we have to play dead.

I tried to lie as still as possible, with my eyes open, staring, says Corinne. I imagined those people who sit or stand completely still outside the Beaubourg, wearing masks or painted gold. I tried to be one of them.

Sandra, whose parents are from Latin America but who lives in Paris, found herself able to run up a stairwell, towards the balcony, and to text her father Mauricio. Papa, Im at a concert. They are killing people. My treasure, stay still. Oh God, you are alive. Papa, Im alive. Im scared. Now, she says: I find it hard to remember the sounds in there. The shouting of the men. The screaming of the people. The guns, they were so, so loud.

When the police came in, continues Stphane, the noise was deafening. Guns firing everywhere. I thought: thats it were all dead. But no. One of the men, dressed like a Ninja warrior, grabbed Corinne and shouted at me to follow him into a corridor. We passed dead people, lifeless on the floor. I saw them only for a moment, like in a nightmare. Then we were safe, and Corinne began sobbing out of gratitude I think, that we were alive and disbelief.

The theatre had reopened with a concert by Sting, to which survivors of the attack were invited, and those with connections obtained tickets. A second concert was given, poignantly, by Tinariwen, from the mainly Muslim country of Mali, itself assailed by Islamist violence. The band played wall-of-sound guitar music, combining major chord lifts with chromatics from their native land. And at a certain point, the wave of sound across the crowd invoked a howl, and seemed like an exorcism, a purging, a reclaiming.

Two nights later Marianne Faithfull took the stage, a survivor of a different kind muse to the Rolling Stones, she had rebelled against her role as an adjunct to that mans world and turned instead towards an odyssey through heroin, rage, Kurt Weill and a new role in Paris as Grande Dame. She remains the great beauty, but now needs a cane to reach the front of the stage.

Marianne reclined into an armchair, lit a cigarette and poured a whiskey. Oh, I know, I know, she said sardonically, in her plummy, gleefully debauched Catholic girls school voice. Then she addressed a spellbound audience: Its impossible for us to imagine what happened here a year ago, or to find the right words to say. So well try and say it with music, listen to these lovely, talented young men play for you; I dont know why music manages that, but it just does, somehow.

This is an edited extract from When Words Fail: A Life with Music, War and Peace by Ed Vulliamy, to be published on 13 September (Granta, 25). To order a copy for 21.25 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846

Patti
Patti Smith, April 2002 Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2018/aug/26/louder-than-bombs-my-journey-in-war-and-music-ed-vulliamy

Hi my name is Kareem Maize and welcome to my personal blog. I am 26 year old musician and information technology professional with a passion for learning new aspects of life everyday. On my journey to express myself I began blogging to share my ideas with others. Now I intend to write fun, interesting, and engaging content for my viewers to help them grow spiritually, physically, and mentally . The concept of belief systems and the law of attraction peak my interest!!! I believe blogging about my personal experiences, beliefs, and ideas is the best way to achieve these goals!!!

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