I’m not one for writing songs based on current events in general. All the great protest songs have already been written: you could apply any of Dylan’s early classics, or those of his contemporaries, and they’d be just as relevant to today’s events as they were in the Sixties.
Besides, protest, or message songs as I think of the wider class of songs that comment on current affairs, can come across as, well, a bit preachy. And, in general, you’re preaching to the converted: it’s not as if I’m going to come up with a combination of words and melody next week that’s going to stop Donald Trump in his tracks and have him say (or, indeed, tweet) ‘y’know, all this right wing looney tunes stuff I’ve been coming out with all these years? Maybe I was just plain wrong about it,’ and go all Mahatma Ghandi on our collective asses.
All the same, though, sometimes a melody comes along that I feel merits some serious words. Take, for example, the tune I’d woken up with last September, according to the file date, and stumbled through to the keyboard to record. I’d saved the file as ‘semi-operatic’: goodness knows why, given that a) I can’t stand opera and b) anyway, it didn’t really sound even semi-operatic. What I think I had in mind was that it was, well, dramatic in its scope: it wasn’t one of those tunes close to the rock/blues/country tropes I generally fall into. The lyrics, I felt, had to be about something – generally a dangerous feeling in my experience.
It took months for me to come up with even an idea for the lyric, even though I remembered the subject matter well: the story had touched me at the time, when it came on Channel 4 News. I can forgive Channel 4 all the other stupid nonsense it has on its schedules these days because of its news programme: hosted by John Snow, Cathy Newman and Krishnan Guru-Murthy, it consistently knocks the ball out of the park for insightful, heart-on-its-sleeve journalism, in my humble opinion.
The two pieces about the Gardener of Aleppo were a case in point. In the midst of the siege of Aleppo, Guru-Murthy presented a film by Waad Al-Khateab about a man, known as Abu Waad, who stubbornly continued to maintain his garden centre as the hell of the Civil War went on all around him. The film quoted him saying some wise, and wonderful things – I didn’t have to travel far for my lyrics – but there was a cruel twist to the tale.
By the end of the first film Abu Waad was dead, killed by a barrel bomb. The second film, a year later, followed the fate of his son, Ibrahim, evacuated from Aleppo. Living in another city, his family fractured by the tragedy, he went to school to honour his father’s wishes – and yet still found time to work at another garden centre, keeping his father’s memory alive in a different way.
Do I still feel conflicted about ‘using’ this tragic story as the subject matter of a song? Of course – but this Sunday, I was reading an article about another heroic man connected to the Syrian crisis, a surgeon, David Nott. Volunteering to work in various war zones across the world, he ended up in Syria, desperately trying to save lives against overwhelming odds. It was inspiring, and depressing, in equal measure. Yet even if we’re preaching to the converted, we need to keep talking – and singing – about issues like these.
Below the link to the song, there are the two Youtube videos about the Gardener of Aleppo; I recommend you watch them, as well as reading the article about Nott. Because if we are to build another Eden ever, then we should never turn away from such stories.
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