Ben Lunn

Ben Lunn

Ben Lunn is a composer, music critic, trade union activist, and helped found the Disabled Artist Network, an organisation which is bridging the gap between the professional world and disabled artists. He also has a monthly column in The Morning Star.

Saturday, 20 November 2021 11:25

La Musica Sandinista

Published in Music

On the 7th November, the Nicaraguan people went to the polls. Though met by the outcry of ‘sham’ and other nonsensical accusations, the Nicaraguan people returned Daniel Ortega to office, continuing the renewed Sandinista Government’s rule. Since then, Britain, Canada, and other lackeys of the US have stamped up their sanctions, in yet another attempt to cripple anything progressive or pro-human to develop in the Central American nation.

As artists, we can often feel powerless in such situations. However with the likelihood of more mud being slung at the Nicaraguan people, I would like to introduce you to some wonderful Nicaraguan artists who use their art either in support of the Sandinistas.

La Misa Campesina, by Carlos Mejia Godoy and Oscar Gomez, was completed in 1979. As the title suggests, the piece is a Mass for the peasants of Nicaragua. The work is a wonderful marriage of traditional Catholic liturgy, Nicaraguan folk music, and Marxism. Over the multiple songs/movements, the music alternates between revolutionary new texts reaching out to the morals of the peasants to rise up, returning to traditional mass elements like a Sanctus or Angus Dei.

The very first performance in 1979 was broken up by the National Guard of the Somoza government, followed by prohibition of performance by the Archbishop of Managua. This may in part have helped the work gain its cult status, although it has never been accepted by the official Catholic hierarchy of Nicaragua.

I believe in you, comrade,
Christ human, Christ worker,
victor over death.
With your great sacrifice
you made new people
for liberation.
You are risen
in every arm outstretched
to defend the people
against the exploiters;
you are alive and present in the hut,
in the factory, in the school.
I believe in your ceaseless struggle,
I believe in your resurrection

– Excerpt of La Misa Campesina, Carlos Mejia Godoy



Grupo Pancasan formed in 1975, and play Nicaraguan folk music as a cultural accompaniment to the Sandinista revolution. At first, they were a modest, ramshackle group of guitars and drums. Then in 1977 one of the original members Agustin Sequeira went to join the guerrilla FSLN, and their music became more pointed and political. Their first album, ‘Pancasan’, was recorded in slightly frantic fashion, however it was politically driven throughout, including a song La Hora Cero based on the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal. After the album was released, and their first payments came through, the group did not accept the money stating 'We did not touch one peso. The money went directly to the help the fight against Somoza'.

The second album, ‘We Are Making History’, was once again pointed directly at the Somoza government, including songs like Notes on Uncle Sam. Throughout their work the sounds and politics of Nicaragua have been in a close and intricate marriage, and many Nicaraguans have described them as the ‘sound of the revolution’.

Grupo Libertad were formed in 1982, equally driven by the revolution as their colleagues in Pancasan, add a slightly funkier edge to it. Though the Nicaraguan folk element is present, the rhythmic drive is of a different flavour, full of satire and musical skill:

 

The neoliberal government of the early 90s forced the a backward turn in music and culture generally, especially in pro-Sandinista varieties like Pancasan and Libertad. Privatisation forced music to effectively disappear from ordinary people in Nicaragua, and it became a treat for the wealthy and the tourists. However, since Ortega and the Sandinistas returned, support for the arts has been very strong, and it is only a matter of time before a brand-new generation of artists begin to take the region, and hopefully the world, by storm.

At the beginning of this year I talked to artists in Nicaragua, thanks to the Friends of ATC, see here. Juan, Isaura, and Marvin showed me some of the initiatives that are taking place including the Fundacion INCANTO which aims to bring more classical music to the people of Nicaragua. As long as Nicaragua stays on a politically progressive path, the musical future is very bright indeed. 

The dedicated life and music of Mikis Theodorakis
Wednesday, 15 September 2021 08:54

The dedicated life and music of Mikis Theodorakis

Published in Music

Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) has left the mortal plane, and one can only imagine he is flying the red flag in the heavenly realm – agitating alongside the great working-class heroes of history. He has been remembered warmly by the socialist world, by his own Greek party (KKE) and almost every other socialist party, while having little or no discussion from the classical music world, with the exception of a dedicated obituary in the Guardian, an honorary mention from Andre Rieu, and some nice anecdotes from composers who knew him personally.

For those who do not know the work of Mikis Theodorakis, his legacy and impact are hard to describe succinctly. However the simplest comparison artistically would be with composers Hanns Eisler and Alan Bush, as well as the writers Vladimir Mayakovsky and Christopher Caudwell. Like them, he was a composer whose output fitted the needs of the particular struggle or circumstance.

Like Hanns Eisler, Theodorakis made huge contributions to film, classical concert music, and agit-prop works. Theodorakis’ music for Zorba the Greek is what made him famous:


Canto General arguably stands as his most impactful piece of political music. Based on the texts of Pablo Neruda, the cantata was completed two years after the infamous coup d’état in September 1973, which the US carried out against the democratic government of Salvador Allende. The events sparked a large response from artists globally, and Theodorakis’ bold cantata is potentially one of the most renowned examples, receiving numerous global performances including an electric performance in Santiago in 1993.

As with many other of his works, the real strength in Canto General is the ability to incorporate Chilean traditional idioms (namely through the choices of percussion and instruments) to not only give an illuminating vision of Chile, but also to make the Chilean elements feel universal.

He produced numerous works for orchestra including seven symphonies, five operas, multiple concerti, ballets, and other works for musical theatre. Within the symphonies we see a skilful composer who was no stranger to modernism, giving the impression that if he wished to solely be a ‘serious’ composer he would have had every ability to engage with the idiom like his more ‘serious’ contemporaries like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the like. His second symphony Songs of the Earth is incredibly evocative and the orchestral colours it produces are wild and raw.

His life was surrounded by controversy, struggle, and politics. Despite being imprisoned and having his music banned by the ruling Greek junta, he never shied away from speaking his mind and doing what he believed was right and necessary, a resolute activist and campaigner until his final breath.

 The controversy surrounding him was not always simply for being a militant communist challenging a bourgeois world. His denunciation of the riots in Greece and his views on Macedonia were mistaken, but his political failings – like his short stint with the New Democracy party – are part of his journey as an individual and in no way negate the important humanism of his works. He fought against NATO’s attacks on Yugoslavia, he continued to protest against the invasion of Iraq, and he tried to mobilise artists against the IMF grant awarded to Greece.

He won many accolades, including the Lenin Peace Prize, as well as winning notable friends including Salvador Allende, Yasser Arafat, Pablo Neruda, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Tito, and François Mitterrand.

For many, Theodorakis will eternally stand as Greece’s champion against dictatorship and imperialism, and an example to live by – an example of how an artist can spend their life fighting for the good of humanity.

Like all great individuals, he was a complicated figure, but he leaves behind a legacy which hopefully will continue to stand as a testament of what music written with a vision of the advancement of the working class can look like.