Sound and Revolution


From Vol. 2, No. 4

An interesting side-note to rapid commercialization of the early record industry in the West is the often vastly different reaction to new mass-media experienced in other societies.

In India, the record industry had been controlled from its infancy by the major British companies, Decca and EMI (which, aside from totally dominating Britain’s market, dominated those of all of the former colonies, with perhaps Canada being a minor exception because of its domination by also the big American companies. Other former colonial empires had similar situations, with France’s Pathe-Marconi dominating the former French.
For many years, the Indian record market was lackluster, with many blaming this on the insistence of the foreign record companies there on pushing Western pop music (or similar local equivalents) in a country that was always so culturally diverse. What’s more, the money from record sales there mostly was funneled back to company headquarters in Britain, instead of remaining in India to be reinvested there, thus depriving the Indian record industry of capital with which it could have built on. But when cassettes and cassette players first became widespread there in the early 80s, the main British outpost company, the Gramophone Company of India (a near-monopoly there for more than 70 years) was overwhelmed by hundreds and hundreds of tiny and medium-sized companies which churned out cassettes in accordance to what each region or area wanted to hear.
By the late 80s, though, cassettes were also being used by fanatics and religious groups for recruiting and stoking the age-old rivalry between the dominant Hindu and minority Muslim populations of India.

At the beginning of the 1900s, when phonographs began penetrating more cultures around the world, there was a rigorous debate in the Muslim world about them. Some mosques immediately began using phonographs to issue the daily calls for prayer, if not the prayers themselves. The main question, it seemed, was “Does the Muslim who hears the Koran reproduced in this way deserve heavenly reward?” Some Imams answered that “the answer is: No, for the thing heard is not the voice of man that recites the Koran, the hearing of which is commanded to us by God. The sounds have come away from the reciter and are separated from him, and they arise anew from (continued) this instrument.” Other Imams, however, concluded that “the hearing of Koran recitations carries with it religious merit, whether we hear the actual voice of the one who first spoke the words or the echo of the sounds.” In the end, the latter opinion won out, partly because some of these Imams realized they could use recordings to add to their powers of influence, as well as facilitate worship or proselytizing in places where no mosques were around. (Fundamentalist Christian bible-thumpers also quickly used the phonograph to record sermons and “spread the good word.”)

An extreme example of the power recording afforded to religious fundamentalists occurred in the 1970s. At the time, Iran was one of the most Westernized predominantly Muslim countries in the world, mainly because its ruler, the Shah, had been installed by the U.S. in the 50s. (The Shah always made sure that American corporations had free rein to sell all their products there.) This resulted by the mid-70s in an unusually high concentration of one of the latest Western technological marvels, cassettes and cassette players. By the late 70s, this new mass medium played a major role in spreading the good word of Ayatollah Khomeini, an influential cleric despised by both the U.S. and its puppet, the Shah. Based on the fervor stoked by his taped sermons, which quickly spread as people made bootlegs of them, Khomeini managed to overthrow the Shah in 1979. This quickly led to the U.S. hostage crisis; Jimmy Carter’s downfall (after Reagan’s advisers managed to secretly prolong the hostage-taking until after the U.S. election); the Iran-Iraq war (whereby the U.S. got even with Khomeini by providing massive support to Saddam); the ongoing problem of supremely powerful Ayatollahs in Iran, and of course, the fallout of having helped Hussein become an egotistical, iron-fisted dictator. It’s no exaggeration to say that the unintended consequences of cassettes, as by-products of forced westernization in Iran, were ultimately to blame for all this. It can perhaps be said that you can lead a horse to water, and make him drink too, but you can never know if he’ll spit that water back in your face….