|Bruce Cockburn in front of a bombed campus theatre in Baghdad.|
Photo: Linda Panetta - Optical Realities Photography -www.opticalrealities.org
The easy explanation is that Bruce Cockburn is a singer-songwriter from Canada, but that's a serious oversimplification. He is also a poet-reporter shining a light on the dark corners of the world, an activist-humanitarian fighting for human rights and against the cruelty of war, and on top of that, he's a damn good guitar player.
Cockburn is on the road right now; when I spoke with him he was in Princeton, New Jersey, about to play another concert, another stop on a musical journey that began at the end of the '60s, one that has taken him to the every continent, sometimes to play music, sometimes just to see what's going on.
When he traveled to Baghdad in January, he went with a group that included an activist bishop, a nurse and a photographer — he had a guitar with him, but his mission was to observe, in part so that he can bear witness in song. He says he's still processing what he saw there.
"I got back just in time to leave for this leg of the tour, so there wasn't any time to sit around and process Iraq, but it's taking shape in my mind as we go and I look over my notes. Linda Panetta, the photojournalist who went with us was showing me some photos of the trip, that brought things back." [Optical Realities Photography]
Bop Doran: What were things like in Baghdad?
Bruce Cockburn: "What I found in Baghdad was a place that showed all the traces of having been a full-developed, thriving First World city, one that, after 13 years of sanctions and a war, was looking pretty battered. A lot of the city is still standing because of what they call "smart bombs" — I'm not comfortable with the term, they're not very smart and the people who use them aren't either — but they were selective about what they bombed, so there's a lot that wasn’t conspicuously damaged by the war itself. But if you look a little closer you see obvious signs of fighting in the streets, bullet holes in the walls, stuff like that."
So-called collateral damage?
"Government buildings were deliberate targets. The collateral damage was the result of Saddam’s policy of putting military and otherwise sensitive institutions next to hospitals and schools. For example you have a military institution that was bombed that happened to be next to the art college in Baghdad, so the college lost its cinema school — their theater was destroyed. There are still shards of movie film flying around on the ground.".
What did the people tell you? How do they feel about what’s going on there?
"The people, everyone almost without exception, said to us that they were glad that Saddam was gone. And generally people were grateful to the U.S. for that, but the good will that that might have brought towards the U.S. is draining away really fast — it's virtually gone because people are confronted with such difficulties in their daily lives, and they blame the U.S.'s policies for that.
"For instance in the city of Baghdad, electrical power is a part-time thing. You've got electricity in the daytime and it goes off at night, because there's not enough to go around. People who can afford them have generators, but people made comparisons to the aftermath of the first Gulf War when Saddam had the power up and running in a week. Here it is, almost a year later and the Americans can't get it together.
"This is what the Iraqis are seeing for their point of view, and it's just one small example of how they see the priority of the occupying forces being about anything other than the welfare of the Iraqi people. The people sometimes used strong language to express their feelings about the American occupation, but there wasn't a lot of animosity; there was frustration and resentment, but not outright hatred."
They weren’t angry?
"Well, there was a kind of anger, and obviously the people who are doing the car bombing, that's real anger, that's something else. And a lot of Iraqis feel that those things aren't being done by Iraqis, that there are people coming in from the outside. One of their other beefs with the U.S. occupation is that it hasn't guarded the borders at all, which is the case. We flew from Amman [Jordan] to Baghdad on a U.N. flight, but most people, reporters and so on, drive in, and it's a hazardous drive across the desert because of carjackings and the possibility of roadside bombs, but there's nobody at the border. You don't go through a border checkpoint to cross into Iraq, so anyone who wants to go into the country, carrying anything they want, can do so."
So the fear is that other people who are angry with America are coming in to vent their anger on that stage?
"That's right, that everybody with an ax to grind with the U.S. is coming in there. That's how the Iraqis feel. Now I don't doubt that there are some Iraqis involved in that kind of expression of distaste as well, and I don't suppose anyone we talked to had actually known anyone who had blown themselves up in a suicide bombing, but that's their opinion."
I think it's hard for people in America to understand the level of anger it takes to blow yourself up for a cause.
"We have a different version of it in North America: We have schoolyard massacres and people going into their workplace and shooting their coworkers when they're frustrated like that; because we're not trained to see who the bad guy is. When you're sitting in a place with an occupying army in it, it's easier to find a focus for your anger."
Cockburn and company did not talk much with the troops who were occupying Baghdad, in part because that would have made them targets.
"We went there to talk with Iraqis and we hoped to accomplish that by being low-profile and fitting in rather than stepping in right off the mothership and expecting people to open up to us. With the help of this couple from the American Friends Service Committee who have been operating out of Baghdad for some time, we were able to arrange meetings with a lot of interesting people. We met with women's groups, with religious leaders; we met with human rights groups, went to a couple of hospitals: a kid's cancer ward and a maternity ward, which were polar opposites as you might imagine. We went to a squatter camp where 500 families are living in this bombed out building."
I read somewhere that there are 55,000 homeless people in Baghdad.
"That’s considered to be a low estimate. The people told us they felt the actual number is much higher."
Are they homeless because of the war, or because of the long-term effects of living under a despot?
"I think it has less to do with the despot factor than it does with the sanctions and the war. There were homeless people before the war; but especially after the war, everybody is unemployed. Iraqis can't get work in Iraq there days."
Even those who are educated; those used to run the country?
"Especially them. The policy seems to be to get rid of everybody who was a member of the Baath Party, but as with Stalinist Russia and with other dictatorships like that, if you wanted a job, you had to belong to the party, so a lot of people in administrative positions were members in name only, and all of their expertise and skills are being wasted at this point, simply because they were members of the Baath Party. And there seems to be a failure on the part of the provisional authority to take note of this fact, that people were not necessarily Saddam fans just because they were in the party. And there's a lot of resentment among the Iraqis that this has happened, that the so-called rebuilding of Iraq is not being done by Iraqis at all; they’re not getting the gigs. Bechtel gets a contract to rehabilitate the schools; they farm it out to a Saudi company who goes in and repaints the walls and pockets millions of dollars of American taxpayer's money. The Iraqis get nothing out of it and Bush crows about how he's rehabilitating the school system, but thats not what it amounts to.
"The Iraqis see this stuff happening and my sense was that in the main, they are a very well-educated and sophisticated people, fully aware about how things operate in the world. They're as tuned into the Internet and other news sources as anyone else, so they know what's going on. On the one hand they read the policy statements from Washington saying, this is all about freedom for the Iraqi people and that we're all concerned about how well they're doing, but when they look at each other, they're confronted with the exact opposite. Their lives have been made extremely difficult and nobody's doing a damn thing about it."
You brought your guitar along.
Did you play music at the various places you visited? Did you play with Iraqi musicians?
"On one occasion I got to play with an oud player; the oud is the Arabic lute, it's a beautiful, beautiful instrument. There was this young guy, in his 20s who was a very accomplished lute player and a good singer. We had been invited to the same lunch at a gallery operated by a visual artist; while he was cooking lunch the oud player played and sang. After lunch I pulled out my guitar and the guy immediately grabbed his oud and we started jamming, just improvised for a while. It was amazing actually; we really connected. I got to play in other circumstances too, just because I had the guitar along. We went to a shelter for disabled women for example, and I pulled the guitar out there and played. It gave people a chance to think about something other than their plight — there was a lot of joy that came out of it."
What do you see as the musician's role in the world? Sometimes it can be just as you said, a soothing thing, a distraction from the day-to-day trouble of life. But obviously work like yours does a lot more than that. You also act as a poet, a reporter, and a lot of your songs are not soothing.
"No, they're not all supposed to be soothing. I don't think there are any rules about what music is supposed to be; I think the one rule that I choose to be guided by is the notion that it's my job to try to be truthful about whatever it is that I'm confronted with, about whatever inspires me to write a song. So if I'm going to take on an issue, I want to understand it, and I want to have a personal relationship to it. I'm not good at writing theoretical songs."
You've written a lot of first person observations about places you've been, and you choose to go places where many of us would never go: Central American countries in turmoil, Mozambique, the killing fields of Cambodia, the heart of Baghdad.
"Well, the opportunities come up and it's good to be able to say yes."
You sound casual about it, but you must be choosing to go to these places to explore some deep issues, deep emotions.
"And because I want to try to help if I can. The first time I did it was in the early '80s when I went to Central America, 1983. There it was a case where I had an abiding curiosity; I wanted to see what the Nicaraguan revolution looked like up close. That's as far as I had taken my thoughts. When the opportunity came it was in the form of an invitation from Oxfam to go on their behalf, to be a witness. All of a sudden I was involved in a cause bigger then just my own curiosity. It was about helping people. Once I started down that road it became clear that that was the right place to be. Other invitations followed because the world is full of people who need help — the only help I can bring is to be visible and to get information out to a broader cross section of the public than the aid agencies are able to do. That's my way of being useful and there are a lot of people who can use that help."
In the course of your work, more than once you have touched on the anger people can feel, like in your Central American song, "Rocket Launcher"...
"I'd probably say outrage rather than anger in that case..."
On your last album [You’ve Never Seen Everything] you speak of going to Cambodia where the problem is "too big for anger." [Postcards From Cambodia]
"There is was an insight into the fact that there is something in human nature that makes us do these things. The form it takes varies, sometimes it's about the hunger for power or greed from some individual, sometimes it's more about social or historical currents that you can't dodge. But the scale of what happened in Cambodia was so great, it's not the only time in history things have happened on that scale, but it struck me with great force that that sort of tragedy is part of human nature, that it isn't just about the particular geographic location where it occurred. You could wonder, how could a society have produced that monster? But it's all about choices and context. You make a few wrong choices and .. well none of us are more than an inch away from being a serial killer."
Which seems to be what you're talking about in the title track [You’ve Never Seen Everything], but by the end of the record you come around to lighting the way with hope. How does hope come out of this anger?
"For me, hope is a recognition of the reality of things. I don't really think much about hope or its absence. I use the word because it's convenient, because others understand the idea. Without trying to get to cosmic, it's really because everything in the universe is connected to everything else – and that includes us. We're connected to everything; we're mutually interdependent – and if we recognize that, somehow the concept of hope and worrying about the future just pales and falls into the background, because reality is big and vital and ongoing, no matter what happens.
"You can express it in terms of the divine or in terms of physics or whatever, but everything overlaps and ends up being I refer to as one big soup — or Big One Soup. Everything is part of everything else, so the evil [in the world] is part of the good and the good is part of the evil, and they're all different facets of the same gem that is life.
"That doesn't make the evil less deplorable or the good less enjoyable, but it makes it possible to keep going – on the assumption that everything else is going to keep going too, which is kind of like hope. In order to move forward with your life you have to think it’s about something, that it's worth doing, otherwise, why bother? Why not just sit there and die?
"People who face extreme difficulties develop an attitude that says, 'if I do things right and don't screw up too much and I'm lucky, I'll make it through this day OK.' I think there are people in Baghdad who feel pretty helpless, who realize that they may never get out of their circumstance and their kids might not either. Even those people are willing to look for bright spots and take advantage of whatever possibilities come up."
Did you get a sense talking to people in Baghdad that they look forward to a time in the near future when things will get better?
"No, I didn't. I think people are really worried about how things are going to be. They'd like to envision a time when things improve, but it's hard. The next year or so is going to be crucial and if the right things don't fall into place, who knows what the future will bring?"
A lot of people are thinking the same thing — about the election coming up here.[Humboldt County in northern California]
"That's right. You have to hope. And no matter how helpless you feel, get the hell out there and vote, because if you don't, then the result will be guaranteed."
-- interview by Bob Doran