Many will be familiar with Russian feminist collective Pussy Riot, but perhaps few will be familiar with the music that had them trialled and imprisoned in 2012. Norwegian singer/songwriter Moddi today unveils the first English translation of their infamous satirical hymn ‘Punk Prayer’, breaking down the barriers – political, cultural or otherwise – that led to its systematic suppression.
“It’s one of the smartest lyrics that I have ever read,” Moddi says. “Pussy Riot were imprisoned for religious hatred, but their performance of ‘Punk Prayer’ never sought to criticise religion. Rather, it speaks about corruption at the very top of the Russian Orthodox church, and about its close ties to Vladimir Putin. It is telling about the power of the Russian propaganda apparatus when a chorus that goes ‘Holy Mary, drive Putin away!’ can be presented – and even convicted – as blasphemy,” he says.
Moddi’s reinterpretation of ‘Punk Prayer’ is stripped of noise and returned to its melodic roots in Rachmaninoff’s ‘Ave Maria’, but the lyrics are no less subversive. “I was afraid that my interpretation would take it too far into the acceptable form of a psalm,” Moddi says. However, when he tried to film the video in Norway’s most northern King Oscar II Chapel – just 500m from the Russian border – he was told the lyrics were “unfit for the Lord’s house”. He proceeded to perform the song on the church steps in minus five degrees. “It was freezing, but reassuring. It proved that I still had the forbidden core of the song intact. It is still bannable.”
It’s a concept that forms the basis of Moddi’s upcoming album, Unsongs – a collection of songs that have, at one stage or another, been banned or suppressed. With a list of more than 400 songs, spanning multiple continents and centuries, Moddi arrived at a final selection of 12 tracks for the album – the attempts to make sure they could not be heard were as mild as an airplay ban and as brutal as murder. Unsongs simultaneously celebrates the censored and exposes the censors.
Pål Moddi Knutsen, a 29-year-old from northern Norway, was an activist before he was a songwriter – most notably, rejecting a €100,000 grant from Norwegian oil company Statoil on environmental grounds (2010) and cancelling a concert in Tel Aviv in protest of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories (2014). With three acclaimed LPs in his stride (including Norwegian Grammy Award-winning Kæm va du?) and tours spanning the globe, Moddi’s impetus has never been clearer: “The most important thing about Unsongs is not the songs themselves, but the stories they contain. I have chosen twelve stories that I believe deserve to be heard.”
“Informed by a political entanglement of his own, Norwegian artist Moddi is releasing a concept album of songs that have fallen foul of the censor.” – Q Magazine
Watch the video here:
Artist’s website: http://www.moddi.no/
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