The Language of Truth

With more than two dozen records and numerous international awards to his credit, Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has earned a reputation as a globe-trotting troubadour who protests social injustice along with probing the spiritual realm. Cockburn traveled to Iraq in January as part of a religious delegation to assess the humanitarian situation there. Sojourners editorial assistant Jesse Holcomb spoke with Cockburn about his experiences.

Sojourners: Did you find time to make music while you were in Iraq?

Cockburn: The most interesting point came when we were invited for lunch by a visual artist who was fond of cooking a particular kind of fish, according to a Sumerian recipe. It was amazing to be in a place where the people are using recipes that go back 2,500 years or more. He said he was going to invite a young ud player. Ud is the Arabic lute that's characteristic of Middle Eastern music, and the precursor to the European lute and modern guitar. I got to play with this young guy who was quite good and had a lovely singing voice - I didn't know what the songs were about because, obviously, he was singing in Arabic.

But he played, then we had lunch, and then I played and he started jamming with me, so we ended up in this kind of improvised jam that really worked. It was exciting to play with somebody whose background was so different but whose ears were really tuned. We were both careful to not get in each other's way and to try to complement what each other was doing. It worked really well.

Sojourners: Not everything works really well in Iraq these days....

Cockburn: The thing that struck me about Baghdad right away is that it doesn't immediately look like a war zone - it doesn't look like a city that's been under attack as much as it has. There are plenty of bombed-out buildings, but they're interspersed. You'll be driving through a neighborhood that looks like a pretty functional neighborhood, though terribly run down after all the years of sanctions, and then you'll come upon a large building that's been blown to smithereens, and then you turn past that and you're back into something like a normal city again.

There's an air of surrealism about the place. You have what half the time looks like a functional city, but it doesn't have reliable electrical power. No traffic lights work in the whole city - 5 million people in a city with no traffic lights and lots of cars. The streets aren't in good shape, the buildings aren't in good shape, the cars aren't in good shape. That was before the war, and the war has added to this scenes of bombed-out buildings.

Sojourners: How are people affected by the ongoing violence?

Cockburn: The first morning after a period of relative calm, I happened to be standing there looking out my window. The hotel room had French doors opening onto a little balcony that overlooked a regular street. It was a Sunday morning, which is not a holiday there - their holy day is Friday, so Sunday's a regular workday. People were going about their business, 8 o'clock in the morning, walking up and down, whatever. And there was this big boom in the distance. Nobody registered it at all. Nobody moved, nobody turned their heads to see. There was no sense that they'd even heard the sound. I found that really telling. I assume it's because they're so used to things like that happening that they're immune unless it's happening right next to them. There was this moment of stillness after the initial sound and then you hear sirens start up.

That struck me with great force. That whole moment is etched [in my mind], because there was the sound of the bomb, and it was a clear sky, a nice sunny morning. I'd like to be able to get that into a song somehow.

Sojourners: What was the mood in the places you visited?

Cockburn: The big thing on everybody's mind and the thing that you really notice is fear. Not so much of the Americans, though that's an issue, but of crime, because there is no law and order. The existing law enforcement systems were shut down and the country doesn't have a functioning government.

Sojourners: Were the Iraqi people receptive toward your group?

Cockburn: Very much so, even when there wasn't [common] language. As soon as you said hello, they'd break out into these great big smiles and say, "You're welcome!" It was this beautiful sense of hospitality right away, as soon as you indicated any friendliness at all. I think they become used to seeing foreigners as intruders, obviously, and occupiers. When you see the media people, the military, and so on, and the CIA are in plain clothes with guns and going around in armed convoys of matching white Suburbans, it's really conspicuous, and an unmistakable statement is being made: "We're running this place."

Sojourners: How do you, as a songwriter and a musician, tell the truth, as opposed to simply reporting the facts?

Cockburn: I can do two things. I can give my own impressions, and I can quote the people I talked to. What I bring back that people don't already get from watching CNN are the feelings of those people that we met, and the ideas that they have about their situation. That's the reason I wanted to go in the first place, to see what it felt like for the people who live there.

Sojourners: Did you get a sense of the religious climate among Iraqis?

Cockburn: We met everybody, from inhabitants of a squatter camp to women's groups and human rights groups - a fair number of religious people. It was really interesting. I had no idea, for instance, that there was a Christian population in Baghdad or in Iraq. They go back to the earliest days of Christianity. They're referred to as Chaldean Christians, and they speak Aramaic. You know, I thought that was dead!

These are things I never see anywhere in the media. The mainstream media - as is not unusual - are oversimplifying the situation in Iraq. I think a lot of Iraqis feel that the media are creating some of the divisiveness we're hearing about between the Shiites and other folks, that the media are creating this atmosphere of tension and insecurity - particularly around the Shiite majority's desire to establish an Islamic state.

Sojourners: How do you see the conflict in Iraq, and other global power plays, registering with North American youth?

Cockburn: A lot of young people are responding to what they see as the phoniness of the world, what they see as encroachments on their own future - by business, for instance. That's who's driving the world trade protests and all that. Yet, they're not showing up to vote, which suggests that there's a cynicism about the voting process or a lack of faith in it. It would be really helpful if that energy and willingness to move forward could be channeled into the electoral process.

Sojourners: Do you think music plays a role in giving a language to these feelings?

Cockburn: Certainly it can. It has to be the right music, though, because kids aren't listening to everything. Kids will see through phoniness right away. If somebody stands up and says "get involved in this or that" and they don't look like they know what they're talking about, they're not going have an influence of any valuable kind.

Sojourners: What is your role as an artist, in terms of speaking truth to power?

Cockburn: Speaking the truth is it, exactly. That's my role. My job is to take what I understand to be true and try to put it into a communicable form. That's what I do as an artist.

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