Monday, March 8, 2010

Arise ye workers from your slumber - The Internationale

It is Labour Day today in Melbourne and, while it is nothing short of an outrage that I have so little proletarian music in my collection, at least there are 32 different versions of The Internationale floating around in my iPod – and what better way to mark today than to listen to that great battle hymn of the working classes in languages ranging from Arabic to Zulu?

The words of The Internationale were originally written in 1871, in French, by Paris revolutionary, Eugène Pottier, its music written in 1888 by Pierre De Geyter, a Belgian-French socialist composer.

Since then, it has been translated into the languages of pretty well every country where working people struggle against exploitation and oppression. It’s something of a testimony to the universality of music, as much as of the proletarian cause, that this fairly straightforward march-like song, rallying the masses to join its ranks and fight the last decisive battle, has been able to blend into so many different cultures, taking on something of their flavour while holding to its own instantly recognisable core.

Anyone can, and does, sing The Internationale. Folk singers can sing it with an acoustic guitar; a bunch of workers can sing it, marching along the street; a mass choir can sing it with a huge orchestra pulling out all stops. It’s interesting to see how the different versions take on these different characters. My French rendition, from Rosalie Dubois, is as gutsy and guttural as a cabaret song; Cuban workers sing it as if it’s a victory dance being played on the streets; the Russians sing it like a holy hymn, choir and orchestra massed together like only the Soviets could do it; Billy Bragg turns it into a 60s protest song, even though he actually sang it in the 90s; the Germans sing it, more than anyone else, like a march; there’s a smoothness to the Hebrew version; an avant-garde sort of jauntiness in the Japanese version; the Welsh saturate it in harmonies; the Hindi version is almost gentle, a song of passive resistance more than of revolutionary battle. The Tuvan throat singers change it completely into a sort of primal chant; there’s a cool, dance-like flow to the Greek version, while in Arabic it has a kind of exotic tint to it, in a version that you could almost see Sheherezade dancing to. The Koreans and Romanians sing it like an anthem and the Kurdish version, with its hand drum beat, really does sound like it has come from the hills; the Yiddish version is bare and unadorned, while there’s an Estonian version that is almost like symphonic metal; the Zulu version is sung a Capella, still somehow embedded with African rhythms; the Swedish version is surprisingly grand, with bass drums and brass pounding away beneath a massive choir, while the Thai version sounds like it’s coming from a lonely hill in the mist. There are others there too, of course – Turkish, Catalan, Hungarian, Danish, Norwegian, Dutch, Italian, Finnish, Vietnamese – but you get the drift.

Of course, some would say that The Internationale was never meant to be listened to just as music – that it’s an injunction to arise from apathy and fight for justice and equality. But then music is never really “just music”. It always inspires something in you, if it’s half decent. It might inspire emotions, thoughts, memories, hopes, ideas or, of course, action. But there’s always something in you that is somehow just a little bit different after you have listened to good music.

When you listen to all these different versions of this simple, marching anthem, and reflect on how it has found its way not only into so many nations but into the very heart of their working class cultures, stirring them to make the music their own, and respond to its call to raise the clenched fist in the name of universal humanity, then you begin to see that The Internationale really is very, very good music indeed.

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